Monthly Archives: November 2016

North and South Korea: ‘No Longer the Same People’

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 3255-3272, 3308-3316:

My nightmares had stopped, but curiously, it was here, in this haven, that many defectors’ ordeals caught up with them, and tormented them in dreams. Some suffered breakdowns, or panic attacks at the thought of the super-competitive job market they were about to enter. Psychologists were on hand to talk to them, and medics too, to tend to chronic, long-neglected ailments.

Many arrivals found it hard to shake off old mentalities. Paranoia, a vital survival tool when neighbours and co-workers were informing on them, prevented them from trusting anyone. Constructive criticism, which everyone needs when learning a new skill, was hard for them to take without feeling accused.

I attended classes on democracy, our rights, the law and the media. We were taught how to open bank accounts, and how to navigate the subway. We were warned to be careful of conmen. Guest lecturers visited. One was a North Korean woman who’d set up a successful bakery in the South. Her self-belief inspired me. Another was a priest who introduced us to the Catholic faith (many defectors embrace Christianity in the South), but his justification for the celibacy of priests and nuns caused much mirth among the women. Another speaker was a kindly policeman called Mr Park who told us what to do in case of emergencies, such as needing an ambulance or reporting a crime.

We also attended some extraordinary history classes – for many at Hanawon, their first dogma-free window onto the world. Most defectors’ knowledge of history consisted of little more than shining legends from the lives of the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. This was when they were told that it was an unprovoked attack from the North, not from the South, that began the Korean War on 25 June 1950. Many rejected this loudly, and outright. They could not accept that our country’s main article of faith – believed by most North Koreans – was a deliberate lie. Even those who knew that North Korea was rotten to the core found the truth about the war very hard to accept. It meant that everything else they had learned was a lie. It meant that the tears they’d cried every 25 June, their decade of military service, all the ‘high-speed battles’ for production they had fought, had no meaning. They had been made part of the lie. It was the undoing of their lives.

Ok-hee was very relieved to see me. After we’d embraced and congratulated ourselves on achieving our dream, we sat on the floor and ate instant noodles. Her own experiences since arriving in Seoul made a sobering story. Despite living for years in Shanghai, as I had, Ok-hee was not finding life here easy. She told me of an experience she’d just had after a job interview. The interviewer told her that he would call her to let her know the company’s decision. After days without hearing, she phoned the company and was told that they hadn’t called because it was impolite to reject someone directly.

North Koreans pride themselves on their directness of speech, an attitude that had been encouraged by Kim Jong-il himself. Foreigners are often taken aback by the bluntness of North Korean diplomats. Ok-hee’s experience was the first hint I got that the two Koreas had diverged into quite separate cultures. Worse was to come. After more than sixty years of division, and near-zero exchange, I would find that the language and values I thought North and South shared had evolved in very different directions. We were no longer the same people.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, education, Korea, language, migration, nationalism, religion

Surviving Defector Interrogation in South Korea

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 3202-3227:

Early the next morning, [my interrogator] opened the door and put his head in.

‘It’s snowing. Would you like to see?’

He led me to the bathroom, opened the window, and left me there. It was just before dawn. A bar of gold along the horizon illuminated the underside of the clouds. Snowflakes were floating like goose down, such as I hadn’t seen since I was a young girl. It was far below freezing. Lights burned in every building I could see, and dotted all across the city were glowing red crosses. There are so many hospitals, I thought. (Later I learned that the crosses marked churches, not hospitals. I’d never seen such signs in North Korea or China.) It was magical….

The next day, the interrogator smiled for the first time. The questioning was over, he said. ‘I believe you’re North Korean.’

‘How did you know?’ An enormous grin spread across my face. By now I felt as if I’d known him for months. ‘The women think I’m Chinese.’

He made a modest gesture with his palms. ‘I’ve been vetting people for fourteen years,’ he said. ‘After a while you get a feel for the psychology. I can usually tell when people are lying.’

‘How?’

‘From their eyes.’

I felt my face redden. That explained the lingering eye contact. He hadn’t been flirting at all.

‘Still, you were a curious case,’ he said. ‘You’re in the one per cent that I’ve seen in fourteen years.’

One per cent?

‘First, you’re the only person I’ve met who arrived here easily, by direct flight from where you were living. Second, it took you no time to get here – just a two-hour journey – and, third, you didn’t have to pay any brokers. That’s what I mean. You just jumped on a plane. Was it your idea?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then you’re a genius.’ He was quite different now, talkative and friendly. ‘I knew things would go smoothly with you, because you didn’t lie about your age. Most North Koreans do. The old ones claim to be older than they are in order to claim benefits. Young people make themselves younger so that they’re eligible to study for free. But you said you were in your late twenties. When I came to question you, I expected to meet someone in her mid-thirties, but you looked about twenty-one. I thought I had come to the wrong cell so I went back to check. Why would a North Korean who looks twenty-one admit she’s in her late twenties? Because she’s honest, I thought.’

I smiled, but a part of me thought I’d missed a trick here.

The next morning I awoke refreshed. It was the first sleep I’d had without nightmares since I’d arrived at my uncle and aunt’s in Shenyang more than eleven years before.

Leave a comment

Filed under education, Korea, migration

Ice as Alternative Currency in North Korea

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2689-2705:

On one occasion, my mother called me with an alarming question. Normally we spoke on the weekends, but this time her call came during the day while I was at work. She sounded excited.

‘I’ve got a few kilos of ice.’

‘What?’ I sank down in my seat, out of sight of my colleagues.

She wanted to know if I had connections in China who could sell it.

Ice, or crystal methamphetamine, had long replaced heroin in North Korea as the foreign-currency earner of choice for the state. It’s a synthetic drug that is not dependent on crops, as heroin is, and can be manufactured to a high purity in state labs. Most of the addicts in China were getting high on crystal meth made in North Korea. Like the opium of the past, crystal meth, though just as illegal, had become an alternative currency in North Korea, and given as gifts and bribes.

‘Omma.’ My voice was a furious whisper. ‘Do you know what that is? It’s highly illegal.’

‘Well, lots of things are illegal.’

In her world, the law was upside down. People had to break the law to live. The prohibition on drug-dealing, a serious crime in most countries, is not viewed in the same way – as protective of society – by North Koreans. It is viewed as a risk, like unauthorized parking. If you can get away with it, where’s the harm? In North Korea the only laws that truly matter, and for which extreme penalties are imposed if they are broken, touch on loyalty to the Kim dynasty. This is well understood by all North Koreans. To my mother, the legality of the ice was a trifling matter. It was just another product to trade.

She said one of the big local traders brought it to the house because he knew I was in China and wondered if I could sell it there.

‘Give it back to him. Never get involved. There are bad people in that trade, and they won’t care if you’re caught.’

She never asked me again.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, drugs, economics, Korea

Chinese Attitudes to North and South Koreans

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2520-2531:

About a week after receiving my [illegally purchased] ID, I found a job that paid almost four times what I earned as a waitress. I became an interpreter and secretary at a South Korean tech company that made compact discs and LED lights. Its office was in Koreatown. My boss was one of the South Korean directors, and part of my role was to accompany him on visits to clients and manufacturing plants. I noticed that the Chinese looked up to South Koreans and addressed them respectfully. I had usually known them to scowl down their noses at North Koreans.

Everything had happened so fast. Overnight I had gone from waiting tables to sitting in boardrooms, interpreting in negotiations, learning how a modern company operated, and the culture in which business was conducted. I was meeting clients and buyers from Taiwan and Malaysia, and mingling socially with South Korean co-workers. The friends I’d made while waitressing knew me as In-hee. In my new job I used the name on my ID card and documentation, Sun-ja. I would have to take care that these two worlds never collided.

The company’s products were manufactured in a plant that was modern even by Shanghai standards. The process was kept entirely dust-free. To enter we passed through a special machine that blew contaminates from our clothing. The South Koreans treated me well. I could not bear to imagine their reaction if they’d known I’d grown up in the bosom of their archenemy. At times this felt surreal. We were all Koreans, sharing the same language and culture, yet we were technically at war.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, economics, education, Korea, labor, migration, nationalism

North Korean Career Hopes

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1455-1466:

You would expect between school friends a more honest conversation about our hopes for the future, and what we wanted to do with our lives, and that did happen, to an extent. But by the time we were ready to graduate, we had learned to trim our expectations in line with our songbun. Our choices fell within a certain range. In my class, the few of us with good songbun either took the university entrance exam or, if they were boys, went straight to military service. A few were able, through family connections, to land good jobs with the police or the Bowibu. More than half the students in my class were in the songbun ‘hostile’ category. A list of their names was sent to a government office in Hyesan, where officials assigned them to mines and farms. One girl from this group took the test to enter university, and passed, but was not permitted to go.

My good songbun meant I could plan. My dreams were private and modest. I wanted to be an accordionist. It’s a popular instrument in North Korea and a woman who could play it well had no difficulty making a living. That would be my official career, but, like my mother, I also wanted to trade, start an illicit business, and make money. I thought this would be exciting. I also knew that it would be the only way to ensure that my own family, when one day I had children of my own, would have enough to eat.

My mother fully supported the accordion career choice, and found a musician from the theatre in Hyesan to give me tuition. She said my father would have been pleased, as he’d always enjoyed accordion music. This made me cry.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, education, Korea, military, music, nationalism

A Child’s First Execution

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 1216-1239:

‘Look.’ In a voice full of wonder the teacher said: ‘Even the dragonflies are sad at the Great Leader’s death.’

She was being serious, and we took the comment uncritically.

After the mourning period, as I’d feared might happen, punishment awaited those who had shed too few tears. On the day classes resumed the entire student body gathered in front of the school to hurl criticism and abuse at a girl accused of faking her tears. The girl was terrified, and this time really crying. I felt sorry for her, but my main emotion was relief. As a fake crier myself, I was just glad no one had seen through my performance.

Many adults across the city were similarly accused and the Bowibu made a spate of arrests. It wasn’t long before notices began appearing, giving the time and place for clusters of public executions.

It is mandatory from elementary school to attend public executions. Often classes would be cancelled so students could go. Factories would send their workers, to ensure a large crowd. I always tried to avoid attending, but on one occasion that summer I made an exception, because I knew one of the men being killed. Many people in Hyesan knew him. You might think the execution of an acquaintance is the last thing you’d want to see. In fact, people made excuses not to go if they didn’t know the victim. But if they knew the victim, they felt obliged to go, as they would to a funeral.

He was in his twenties and always seemed to have money. He was popular with the girls, and had followers among the city’s hoodlums. His crime was helping people to escape to China and selling banned goods. But his real offence was to continue his illegal activity during the mourning period following Kim Il-sung’s death.

He was to be shot along with three others at Hyesan Airport, a common site for executions. The three men were brought out of a van before a large crowd waiting in the glaring heat. Immediately, people around me began to whisper. The popular guy had to be lifted up and dragged to the post by a group of police, with the tips of his feet scraping along in the dust. He seemed half dead already.

Each of the three had his head, chest and waist tied to a stake. His hands and feet were tied together behind the stake. A perfunctory people’s trial opened, in which the judge announced that the criminals had confessed their crimes. He asked if they had any last words. He wasn’t expecting a response, since all three had been gagged and had stones pushed into their mouths to stop them cursing the regime with their final breath.

Three uniformed marksmen then lined up opposite each of them, and took aim. The marksmen’s faces were flushed, I noticed. Executioners were known to drink alcohol beforehand. The noise of the reports ricocheted in the dry air – three shots, the first in the head; the second in the chest; the third in the stomach. When the shot hit the popular guy’s head, it exploded, leaving a fine pink mist. His family had been forced to watch from the front row.

Leave a comment

Filed under education, Korea, military, nationalism

Life in a North Korean Border City, 1990s

From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 296-306:

When I was growing up Hyesan was an exciting place to be. Not because it was lively – nowhere in the country was noted for its theatre scene, restaurants or fashionable subcultures. The city’s appeal lay in its proximity to the narrow Yalu River, Korea’s ancient border with China. In a closed country like North Korea, Hyesan seemed like a city at the edge of the world. To the citizens who lived there it was a portal through which all manner of marvellous foreign-made goods – legal, illegal and highly illegal – entered the country. This made it a thriving hub of trade and smuggling, which brought many benefits and advantages to the locals, not least of which were opportunities to form lucrative partnerships with Chinese merchants on the other side of the river, and make hard currency. At times it could seem like a semi-lawless place where the government’s iron rule was not so strong. This was because almost everyone, from the municipal Party chief to the lowliest border guard, wanted a share of the riches. Occasionally, however, there were crackdowns ordered by Pyongyang, and they could be brutal.

People from Hyesan were therefore more business-minded and often better off than people elsewhere in North Korea. The grown-ups would tell me that we were fortunate to live there. It was the best place in the whole country after Pyongyang, they said.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, economics, Korea

‘It was exploitation, but it worked’

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2690-2710:

Ethel Mannin, the daughter of a postal sorter in Clapham, was a socialist, a feminist, a pacifist, and a leading supporter of progressive theories of education, family and sexuality. In 1920 she was just setting out in life, aged nineteen and married to John Porteous, an advertising copywriter. The couple had set up home in a small semi-detached house in the London suburb of Strawberry Hill. Ethel had a new baby and was a busy writer, at large in the first years of Modernism: ‘Living My Life’, was how she described it in her energetic capitals. A steady stream of romantic novelettes, churned out at a guinea per thousand words, provided Ethel’s income. The household kept a cook-general at thirty shillings a week, a sum Ethel considered generous (the going rate being twenty-five shillings). ‘Cap and apron, of course; blue cotton dress in the mornings; black cloth in the afternoons – and coffee-coloured caps and aprons were just that much smarter than plain white ones.’ Her socialist principles were apparently untroubled by the maid, who called her ‘Madam’ and who referred to her husband as ‘the Master’. As Mannin saw it, domestic help was a necessary component of her freedom. ‘It was snobbish; it was class distinction; it was exploitation but it worked,’ she wrote fifty years later. Educated, perceptive, imaginative, free-thinking, questioning, below the frenetic glitter of ‘the amoral decade, the Sweet and Twenties, the Bitter-Sweet Twenties, the gay Twenties, the Bright Twenties, the Roaring Twenties’, Ethel was more conventional than she had imagined herself at the time: ‘I probably gave [the maid] ten bob at Christmas and the occasional dress I was tired of. Quite intensely I dislike the memory of myself when young; but it’s the way I was. I was of my times; quintessentially.’

Though Ethel Mannin was later to write that ‘the war dealt a great blow to snobbishness’, the old awkwardness, the looming divide between women living under the same roof continued to be considered not just normal but necessary. When Rose Harrison first went to work as a lady’s-maid in the mid-twenties, her charge was Patricia Tufton, who was eighteen, the same age as Rose. ‘My relationship with Miss Patricia isn’t easy for me to describe. We weren’t friends, though if she were asked today she might deny this. We weren’t even acquaintances. We never exchanged confidences, never discussed people, nothing we said brought us closer; my advice might be asked about clothes or bits of shopping, but my opinions were never sought or given on her music, or the people we met or on anything that was personal to either of us, nor did I expect it or miss it at the time.’

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, democracy, economics, education, labor

The Psychology of the Servant Problem

From Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013), Kindle Loc. 2733-2769:

The author Ronald Blythe has suggested that in the years after the end of the First World War, a terrible shame and guilt crept over people at the sight of ‘unemployed ex-servicemen and their families, these hordes of shabby young men and women made spiritless, drab and ugly by broken promises, malnutrition and loss of hope’. It produced, Blythe went on, in the middle classes, a ‘contempt for working-class people of a kind quite unknown before the war began’….

Helen Campbell, American author of Household Economics, in 1907 defined one of the central paradoxes of the servant-master relationship, certainly as it was played out in the small home: ‘The condition of domestic servitude allows only the development of a certain degree of ability, not sufficient to perform our complex domestic industries. So there we are. When we find a person able to carry on modern household industries, that person will not be our servant. And when we find a person willing to be our servant, that person is unable to carry on modern household industries.’ Most people preferred not to look closely at the relationship, with its awkwardness and its responsibilities. One woman writer in the early twenties, however, was brave enough to address it full on, and with a refreshing determination to look its contradictions straight in the eye. Under the pseudonym Dion Fortune, Violet Firth went on to became a theosophist, occultist, psychic, a founder of the esoteric society, ‘The Fraternity of the Inner Light’, and the author of now long-forgotten works such as The Goat-Foot God and The Cosmic Doctrine. In the years immediately after the war, however, Firth was also a student of psychoanalysis, practising (under her own name) as a lay psychotherapist in London.

In 1925, she published a remarkable short polemic entitled The Psychology of the Servant Problem, which would be a work of radicalism in any age. Drawing on her years of war work as a gardener for a big country house, Firth examined what lay behind the intractable and inexplicable problem of what domestic service meant to those who had to perform it. She recognised, crucially, that what made service so difficult to define, and therefore to legislate for, was the hazy nature of the relationships in the home. ‘Because I was also a servant and had to come in at the back door, I got to know the minds and feelings of those girls I met during those three years,’ wrote Firth, pointing out that the disinclination of girls to become maids was not a matter only of wages but of something deeper: ‘being a servant is very painful to one’s self-respect and no amount of money will compensate that injury to anyone who has independence of spirit’.

Being a servant was an ‘identity’, not just a job. The Psychology of the Servant Problem was a call to the renewal of education for all women, of all classes, for domestic work to be regarded without sentimentality but with the same respect accorded to any other form of work. Firth actually looked forward to a time ‘when the home-help might freely be able to choose a husband from the family she serves’. The ‘servant problem’, as Firth saw it, was not one simply of demand outstripping supply, or of a failure in the ‘quality’ of the servants available, but of deeply held attitudes, of unexamined habits masquerading as unbreachable social certainties.

Violet Firth was far ahead of her time, grasping the knotty contradictions of domestic labour that were to characterise the theme during the rest of the century. How are women to enjoy the fruits of education and liberation if they are not relieved of the burden of domestic work in the person of another woman? When Frances Marshall, intellectual and Bloomsbury set member, set up home with Ralph Partridge in their first flat in Bloomsbury in the late 1920s, she employed a maid, a ‘frightened, middle-aged spinster’, who came to ‘do for us’: poor shadowy Mabel, one of the lonely civilian casualties of war. Frances took care not to tell her that she and Ralph were unmarried lest her respectable sensibilities be shocked. ‘Who bought the bacon, the butter, the fish? I suspect it was our faithful Mabel. I’ve no recollection of doing it myself.’

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, democracy, economics, labor

Wordcatcher Tales: lych gate, barley-sugar chimney, bloater

Here are some more English words new to me that I found in Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain from the Nineteenth Century to Modern Times, by Lucy Lethbridge (Norton, 2013).

Kindle Loc. 2975:

Designed by a happy lucky-dip [grab bag] of architectural elements taken from all periods – a bit of Queen Anne, some Tudor beams, a stained-glass window over the door, a lych-gate [originally the covered gate into a churchyard (litchfield, from Old English lic ‘corpse’)], a novelty turret or a barley-sugar [corkscrew-shaped (or Solomonic)] chimney – still represented the oldest English ideal of all: the image of the cottage, nestling secure within its own small piece of land.

Kindle Loc. 3019:

Other alternative residential setups included hostels, such as the one where young Bronwen Morris worked as a kitchen-maid, helping to produce three daily meals for ‘young businesswomen’, just off Sloane Square, London. Bronwen was kept busy cleaning the kitchen and peeling vegetables and was later upgraded to the post of cook, producing three large hot meals a day for seventy-two young women who came back for lunch: ‘bacon, bloaters [whole smoked herring] or kippers [split smoked herring] and boiled eggs for breakfast, rabbit stew or rabbit pie for lunch and dinner, or pork, beef with vegetables – also always steam or rice puddings and suet puds‘. By the 1920s there was a proliferation of these residences for girls working as stenographers, typists or clerks or generally what E. M. Forster’s anxious Mrs Honeychurch called ‘messing with typewriters and latchkeys’.

Leave a comment

Filed under anglosphere, Britain, food, language