Daily Archives: 26 November 2016

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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