GoodFriends: Research Institute For North Korean Society


North Korea Today No. 443 February 22, 2012

[“Good Friends” aims to help the North Korean people from a humanistic point of view and publishes “North Korea Today” describing the way the North Korean people live as accurately as possible. We at Good Friends also hope to be a bridge between the North Korean people and the world.]
[Intro] They Say ‘China is the Only Path of Hope’
Amnesty Announced for the Day of the Sun
Issuing a Border Crossing Pass Cost a Loan and a Wild Pig
Bribe Is Imperative Even After Returning From China
Dunned for Debt Payment, Woman Crosses the River by Risking Life
Reason to Fix Breakfast Three Times
[Intro] They Say ‘China is the Only Path of Hope’
North Korean people who obtained passes to China said they felt like heroes. Hope for a new life is now visible for them. For the North Korean people, the focus is now on China as their only path of hope. In light of this, we welcome the South Korean government’s proposal to schedule a meeting between North and South Korea’s Red Cross organizations and a meeting to discuss the ways to help North Korea with a pest problem around ancient Koguryo’s tomb mound sites. Even if North Korea does not readily respond to this proposal, the two countries must be patient and build trust in each other. Instead of facing one another with hostility, the two countries must work together to bring hope to the people. I hope that this year will bring great opportunities for the North Korean people, and divert them from thinking that China is the only option and recognize collaboration with South Korea as the better direction for them.

Amnesty Announced for the Day of the Sun
The Central Party placed orders to grant amnesty to well-behaved prisoners on April 15th, the Day of the Sun (birthday of Kim Il-sung). This was following the amnesty granted on February 16th (birthday of Kim Jong-il), which simmered down people’s complaints about the strict restrictions enforced upon them. On February 1st at Hoeryong City in North Hamgyong Province, prisoners at the Jeongurrie Re-education Center were discharged. Many of them were female prisoners charged three-year sentences for crossing the border to China. The prisoners could not contain their surprise at being released before their sentences were over. Even the citizens unrelated to the prisoners were overjoyed by Kim Jung Un’s granting of amnesty in commemoration of the Day of the Sun. In addition to the Jeongurrie Re-education Center, labor training centers nationwide also discharged prisoners on a broad scale, including economic offenders.

Issuing a Border Crossing Pass Cost a Loan and a Wild Pig
Mr. Lim Il said he was thrilled to receive a border crossing pass recently. His relatives on mother’s side all live in China but he hasn’t seen them for a while. After a long time apart from each other, he wouldn’t even recognize them. They all became like Han ethnic Chinese without knowledge of Korean. Nontheless, Mr. Lim still was able to contact his aunt in Ryongjung (Longjin), Samhap. Since she had been registered as his relative, Mr. Lim applied for a pass for border crossing for family visit three years ago. However, he has not heard from the government yet. People say that it is because he did not pay a bribe. They say he needs to spend at least 2,000 yuan to obtain the pass, equivalent to 1 million won. Mr. Lim rejected that idea and said, “If you have that much money, you don’t even have to think about visiting your relatives in China. I’m trying to go there because I’m having a hard time making the ends meet.” People responded with sarcastic remarks that he is too naïve. Mr. Lim could do nothing but wait for the pass, since there was no way for him to even see that much of money.

Mr. Lim expressed his frustration saying, “Doesn’t it sound absurd? I want to see my aunt, and I’m doing it in a legal way. But why should you need that much money? I don’t understand what the world is coming to.” Some of his sympathetic colleagues advised him to borrow some money from hwagyo (Chinese Koreans) several times. He initially rejected that idea, but as he ran out of resources to survive on, he finally decided to use bribery to get the pass. He borrowed money from one hwagyo in the same neighborhood unit with 300 yuan of monthly interest hoping to pay it off with his aunt’s support. Loaning money was not an easy process. Several people had to stand surety for him. Mr. Lim managed to make 800,000 won with the help of collateral from several people, who appreciated his diligence and honesty. He had to spend 100,000 won to bribe the Ri Party secretary, 100,000 won for the directive officer and the chief in Foreign Affairs Section respectively, 100,000 won for the Anti-Espionage Section chief and 200,000 won for the deputy director of Anti-Espionage Department, and still another 200,000 won here and there. As he ran out of money, Mr. Lim offered a wild pig he caught from the mountain to the police officer and the security agent 20kgs each. 20kg of pork is worth at least 120,000 won.

Mr. Lim finally obtained the pass. He was filled with deep emotion after a long journey with the cost of 1 million won and one wild pig. The story spread quickly. All the neighbors were elated by the news. Even people who had not exchanged greetings extended their congratulations to him. Mr. Lim said he felt like as if he became a hero of the Republic. He also shared that he now realized that being able to visit a relative in China would haven’t have been something to boast of, but it means a lot these hard times.

Bribe Is Imperative Even After Returning From China
What Mr. Lim Il (from the previous story) took up first was a list of goods that he must buy in China. What took up the most were medicines for his parents to take, but there were also many things asked by a security agent. He asked for office supplies such as papers, pencils, notebooks, copying paper, photos and films as well as medicines for pneumonia and hepatitis. He said that his mother had problems in her lungs and liver. This security agent smiled as he said that it will be less than 500 yuan in Renminbi, even if he buys all. Mr. Lim was taken aback and expressed that the request of the security agent was a burden to him by saying, “What is 500 yuan in Renminbi? It is the amount which one may receive through cash distribution by attending the farm work all the time for ten years. I went to work so diligently last year, but I only received 18,000 won during the distribution at the end of the year. Even that amount was not given to me at once; I was told that it will be given to me through three payments, so I only received 6,000 won. Even if I receive 18,000 won in its entirety, it is less than 40 yuan in Renminbi according to the current market price.”

A police officer also asked him for nine goods. Mr. Lim could not even watch TV due to the lack of electricity, but the security agent asked for an electric blanket. Mr. Lim told him that according to what he had heard, electric goods cannot pass through customs, but he could not insist it anymore. The officer told him that he had an acquaintance in the customhouse and it will be taken care of once he mentions the name of the police officer. A few years ago, electric goods were overlooked at customs if possible, and the used clothes could be brought into if they were washed and trimmed, but it is difficult to bring them into these days even if one offers a few cigarettes to the customs officer. Mr. Lim also thought about bringing into some used clothes for trading, but he gave up his idea as the regulation was so strict these days.

After completing the fastidious political reviews and talks, he received the warnings so many times as to memorize them. He was told to be absolutely careful of his speech, keep himself from contacting South Koreans, and to come back within the specified time, i.e., one month. In order to offer bribes to the officers in the Foreign Affairs Section and Anti-Espionage Department, he had to receive at least more than 3,000 yuan of support from his aunt in China. His friends told him to find a place to work while he was out because he will not know when he can be issued of the border-crossing pass again after this occasion. Those who are savvy were said to stay for several months and earn money even after the length of stay was expired. Mr. Lim thought about his mother who was hemiplegic and was unable to move freely at home, and firmly determined to earn some money, but it was not that easy once he arrived at the aunt’s house. The house of his aunt did not worry about food, but they were not in a situation to provide generous support, either. Still, his aunt was well known to be generous and good-natured in her village, so he was able to assist a Korean-Chinese who raised cattle through his aunt’s introduction. As Mr. Lim was able to pay the money owed to the Chinese residents in North Korea, prepare bribes to be offered to the officers, and earn enough money to buy medicines for his parents, he says that he now knows why people are so eager to cross the border, even illegally. “I feel very sorry and frustrated that I had to just sit back for three years to wait for a border-crossing pass, but fortunately, now I can go there and come back,” he says, with a big smile for the first time in a long time.

Dunned for Debt Payment, Woman Crosses the River by Risking Life
Chong-ok, living in Chungjin, North Hamgyong Province, crossed the river to China on December 10 and returned a few days ago. She crossed the river to seek help from her husband’s uncle who lives in China. Though recently there was an order not “to shoot” in the border areas, the atmosphere then was brutal.

People said even frequent crossers should stay quiet. But Chong-ok was desperate because of her debt. Gangsters, sent by debt collectors beat up her husband, who was lying down because he had already hurt his back. She begged the guys, yelling and crying. They gave a final notice of one month. She had nothing left to sell, nor could she borrow money from anyone. Every day, she cried and thought about committing suicide, then, she remembered the Chinese relative who helped her 10 years ago. She thought it would be better to cross the river before she dies.

“I took a shabby bus from Soonam market in Chungjin,” said Chong-ok. “The bus fee rose to 10,000 won recently, but when I traveled it was 5,000 won. Cold wind came in through broken windows, but because the small bus was packed with people, I did not feel too cold. The bus crossed five checkpoints, as it passed Soosung, Sukmak, and Jang-heung to finally reach Hoeryong. My heart quivered when I had eye contact with the soldiers at the posts. Fortunately, with the resident permit, I could pass through the checkpoints.

“The bus struggled to climb up the Musanryung Hill and sped up as it went downhill. I left home at nine in the morning, and reached Hoeryong after three in the afternoon. It took five hours to ride 150-Li (approx. 60 km). The shabby bus could not speed up. But it was also crossing checkpoints which delayed the journey. When I reached Hoeryong, I paid 500 won to ride on a servi-car. I wasted more time recalling my memories in search for the house of the lady who helped me cross the river 10 years ago. Since many people were expelled from border area, I could not be sure if the lady still lived there. With a glimpse of hope and help from heaven, I found the lady. She greeted me with a surprise. The furnace was lit for it was dinner time. I took out two rice balls, and we had them with hot water. Since she suspected what I was up to, I went straight into the subject.

“The lady said that the situation has completely changed compared to ten years ago. Ten years ago the security guards allowed passersby to cross the border in most cases. However, it is not the same anymore these days. Not to mention the money, they examine whether the person is reliable. The inspection process has become stricter. They examine why the person crosses the border; whether the person will come back; what kinds of items the person carries; and which contact information the person knows. People are not willing to help the people who cross the border, since border-crossers are generally treated as betrayers now. The helper might go to jail if he or she supported the border-crossers for small amount of money.”

Chong-ok explained her pitiful family circumstances as the old woman shook her head. When she visited the relatives in China ten years ago with the help of the old woman, she borrowed money amounting to 20,000 Chinese yuan because both the younger brother of her father and his wife were healthy and lived in affluence.

With the money, the family of six which included her parents-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, and husband, were able to live for three years without much worries. After both the brother-in-law and sister-in-law got married and moved out, her two children were born, thus keeping her family as having six members. Her mother-in-law passed away after a lingering illness. Her husband hurt his waist and the injury became chronic, making it difficult for him to do hard work.

Her household became poor. Her family used up all the borrowed money and they started to sell household items, appliances and clothing in the second-hand market. However, the family ran out of saleable items and started to borrow food. Her family could not afford to pay back the debt. Therefore, she had to sell her nice house and moved into a small one-room place to repay her family’s debt.

Her previous house was a very nice single house that had a 500 square meter vegetable garden. Everyone was envious of her house because the fenced garden was large enough to grow vegetables tha can feed almost ten families. She could have earned 4 million won if she sold it now. She did not receive proper price for her house since she had to sell her house in a hurry. The new house is Munhwa housing which is only 20 square meter large and whose vegetable garden takes up only 30 squre meter. Moreover, there are five units under one roof.

Her family’s debt has increased over time. She was originally supposed to pay back 200 kg of corn in the fall, while borrowing 100 kg corn in spring. However, she never paid back properly for the last three years. She has been feeling the temptation to commit a suicide. She stated that she came to thus far to try her last efforts for survival by obtaining some rice from her work place after obtaining a medical certificate via a doctor, who is also a long distance relative, in a public health center on a farm.

Telling the story, Chong-ok kept emphasizing to the elderly woman that she would do her best to repay her kind help. The woman began to find a way to help Chong-ok despite the high risk of getting killed. After staying one more week there, Chong-ok got a telephone number that she was supposed to call between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. A young man asked for 2,000 Chinese yuan and two cartons of Jangbeaksan (Cigarette brand) for the job; guiding Chong-ok’s round trip through the river. She agreed to his offer and followed him with three rice balls and a bowl of fried corn.

After one hour walking along the road upward Tumen River, they arrived somewhere near the river. The young man whistled three times with caution. Amazingly, he could recognize clearly where he was in the night’s darkness. Suddenly, two soldiers with guns on their shoulders came out of the woods and motioned her to come toward. The young man had already gone away and left her alone. She just followed the soldiers for about 10 minutes and finally ran into the hard-frozen Tumen River. She began to run and cross the river as fast as possible. The one thing she could think of while she was running was “survival”.

At last when she stepped on the soil of the other side of the river, she realized she had survived and felt relief. She was so lucky. Her uncle and his wife were so kind to welcome her sincerely. They gave her 10,000 yuan and felt sorry not to be able to support her with more money since they got older. Even after paying 2,000 yuan and cigarettes to the guide and reasonable brokerage to the woman who helped her in the first place, she still got 6,000 yuan. With the money, she paid back three years of debt, corn and money to neighbors and finally had 700 dollars in her pocket. Her risk taking action, crossing the river to get some help from her uncle opened the way for her to live. When she looks back upon those days, it all seems like a dream.

Reason to Fix Breakfast Three Times
Ji-eun prepares breakfast tree times every day. Considering there are only six people in the family; in-laws, the couple, and their two daughters, it is rather curious why she has to do so. With a hint of smile, she started to explain why.

“I wake up at 5 a.m. I enter the kitchen in the dark. I set fire on the hay and dry leaves that I have collected. The flare of the fire seems to bring some light and warmth into the house. This is my favorite moment of the day. I start preparing breakfast and lunch with 500 grams of corn. Normally, a family with six people needs at least one kilogram of it. However, if I went with such a measurement, the food would be gone in five days when it is supposed to last for ten days. So cutting down the amount of food per meal is the only way of preventing us from having nothing to eat. And the best way to do so is to eat less, keep your movement to the minimum throughout the day, and go to bed early. The good thing about winter time is that day time is short and night is long.

“We used to eat breakfast together but not anymore. When six of us had meals together, my husband would keep taking food from his bowl and putting it in his parents’. He would also push side dishes close to his parents. His parents had grown worried about their son’s not having enough food. They wanted him to eat well since he would be the one who had to go out and work. Finally, they decided not to have breakfast with him to stop him from giving his food to them. They believe that my husband, the breadwinner, needs to eat well and stay healthy to take care of the family.

“Before he goes to work, I prepare breakfast for him with a bowl of steamed corn, cabbage kimchi, mu-ogari-jang (pickled radish) salad, and miso soup. Hot pepper powder is very expensive these days and we cannot afford it to make cabbage kimchi. Even though our kimchi is seasoned only with salt, I think this is still quite a decent breakfast. I am a strong believer of having breakfast as the main meal of the day; one can have a light lunch or dinner but he or she should have good breakfast to start off the day well. So every morning I fix breakfast with freshly prepared steamed corn and potato or radish soup. If I am out of potato and radish, I serve him at least a bowl of hot water. With hot soup or water, he can warm himself and also prevent himself from getting thirsty at work. In the winter time, it is not easy to get even a glass of warm water outside so you’d better get hydrated enough at home before going to work.

“After my husband takes a bite, now it is the turn for my 7 year- and 5 year-old daughters. They come to the table not even having washed their face and wait eagerly for their father to finish his meal. Because they aren’t old enough to know better, they wait for their dad to finish eating and put rest of his rice to their bowl. When he leaves the table, they run to the table and grab the spoon. Then I serve them rice and fix the second round of breakfast. My older daughter, because she’s old enough to know a little better, starts from eating her own bowl of rice, but my younger one pulls her dad’s bowl with leftover rice in front of her and starts eating it first. They are kids, but they still eat a good deal, so kimchi and soup run out in no time. I can’t serve them more food when the food on the table runs out, and I even try to put dishes with leftover food under the table so that the kids wouldn’t have any more; my parents-in-law need to eat too. The kids finish their rice put in the bowl of potato soup after only a few spoonfuls. I never gave them a second helping, so they never ask. After they eat like that, they just go back under the blankets. The outside is horribly cold, so I can’t let them out. When they are under the blanket on the heated floor, they are not cold and they are less hungry, so a lot of times they spend the whole day there.

“My parents-in-law come to breakfast almost at 9 in the morning. They fall asleep late after a night of suffering from coughs these days, so they wake up late. I give them steamed corn meal, pickled dried radish, and potato soup in the same serving size for both, but their servings are smaller than my husband’s. A lot of time I can’t serve them dishes like kimchi if my husband and children finish them beforehand. I also have my breakfast with my parents-in-law, but I never put my bowl on the table. I am worried that they will notice that my bowl has more coarse grains and a lesser amount than theirs and then feel bad about it. My parents-in-law also go back to bed after breakfast like my kids.

“This is how we came to have three breakfasts. After I’m done with dishes, I put a bowl of meal preciously kept away from breakfast on the warm heated floor, so that my husband would have lunch after work. The rest of my family haven’t had lunch in four years. It’s good enough if we get breakfast and then dinner. It’s not just for my family. Most households only have two meals a day. I guess we all got used to it, and no one says they are hungry when lunchtime comes. Those who have lunch must be party officials or hwagyos (Chinese Koreans), or rich merchants. After I’m done with serving breakfast, doing dishes, and preparing my husband’s lunch, I go to the mountain at least to pick up some scrap wood. I don’t know whether the day will finally come when we all are seated together at the same table having a family meal, talking to each other.”
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