Category Archives: China

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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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

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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Massacres at Jiading, 1645 & 1937

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 849-863:

Towns and cities west of Shanghai fell in rapid succession, and everywhere the same pattern repeated itself: quick conquest was followed by comprehensive destruction. In some areas, it was a repetition of the most sinister parts of history. Jiading, a county seat with about 30,000 residents, was known to students of history for its refusal in 1645 to bow to China’s new rulers, Manchu armies from beyond the empire’s northeastern borders. The invaders had imposed a lengthy siege, and once the city fell, they massacred all the defenders. A centuries-old pagoda had been looking down on the carnage then, and in 1937 it was still standing as new blood was being spilled.

This time the conquerors were from the 101st Japanese Infantry Division. They were reservists, several years older than the average soldier in divisions such as the 3rd or the nth [sic; 9th?]. Just months earlier they had been farmers and accountants, and many were fathers of small children. When they took Jiading on November 13, after shelling had leveled one third of the city, they set about killing almost everyone in sight, be they man, woman or child. During the battle and in the weeks afterwards, they were responsible for the deaths of more than 8,000 residents in the city and in the surrounding countryside.

“A city of death,” was how a Japanese visitor described Jiading shortly after the battle, as he encountered “a mysteriously silent world in which the only sound was the tap of our own footsteps.” War had wiped the city clean of most traces of humanity, reducing the few remaining residents to shadowy ghost-like creatures. “All we saw,” the Japanese visitor said, “was the occasional doddering elder crawling out from one of the collapsed hovels and going back in again.”

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Foreign Safety Zone, Nanjing, 1937

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2591-2628:

The safety zone, the brainchild of Rabe and a few other foreigners who had stayed behind in Nanjing, started to take form in the first week of December, when it was officially publicized and four committees were set up to take care of food, housing, finance and sanitation. Once the plans for the zone were detailed in the local press, scared Chinese civilians started moving in by the hundreds, convinced that it was only a matter of time until the Japanese took over. A small newspaper’s repeated claim that it was the “duty” of all patriotic Chinese to stay outside the zone and face the Japanese bombs was largely ignored.

The zone was beset with problems from the start, both practical and bureaucratic. Thousands of bags of rice and flour meant for the zone’s future residents were left unguarded and quickly disappeared. Many assumed that they had been stolen by the military. Potentially much more serious problems arose when Chinese military units started digging trenches and setting up field telephones inside the safety zone, which automatically put it at risk of Japanese attack. Chinese officers promised that they would leave, but the situation dragged out, causing impatience among the organizers of the zone. Until the last Chinese soldier had left, they could not put up flags around it, designating it as a truly demilitarized area.

The Japanese refused to officially acknowledge the safety zone, but vowed to respect it. A lukewarm attitude on their part could hardly be considered surprising, but intriguingly some Chinese officers also exhibited direct hostility against the zone. “Every inch of soil that the Japanese conquer should be fertilized with our blood,” an angry officer told Rabe. “Nanjing must be defended to the last man. If you had not established your Safety Zone, people now fleeing into the Zone could have helped our soldiers.” They wanted to leave nothing of use to the Japanese. This included complete destruction of the area inside the safety zone as well. Some nationalistic Chinese officers were also opposed, on principle, as they saw an essentially foreign-administered region in the middle of their capital as an intolerable violation of Chinese sovereignty.

The zone was not the only effort to help alleviate the pain and suffering caused by war. After the outbreak of the battle over Shanghai, the Chinese Red Cross had stepped in where military medicine had failed and set up a number of first-aid teams and emergency hospitals, while also ensuring that wounded soldiers were put up in existing medical facilities. In October, it established a 3,000-bed hospital on the campus of the National Central University, with a staff of 300 doctors and nurses and 400 orderlies. By the end of October, the hospital had 1,200 patients, and carried out more than 50 operations a day, mostly amputations.

However, as the Japanese approached Nanjing, doctors and nurses were transported west up the Yangtze. The entire Red Cross hospital was evacuated, and at the American Mission Hospital, an initial staff of nearly 200 doctors, nurses and trained workers had been reduced to just 11 by the onset of winter. Some were ordered out of Nanjing, while others left on their own initiative, without warning. Wilson, the Harvard-trained surgeon, described in a letter how he had carried out a complicated operation on a bombing victim with the help of an experienced Chinese nurse who doubled as an x-ray technician. “Incidentally that nurse left this afternoon,” he added, “and now we have no one in the operating room.”

With medical facilities close to collapse, a group of foreigners took the initiative to try to improve conditions, and there were small victories. A committee headed by Rev. John Magee, an American-born Episcopal missionary, secured a sizable amount from Chiang Kai-shek and set up a temporary dressing station in the school buildings of the American Church Mission. Overall, it was slow, unrewarding work in a field that many Chinese officials considered redundant. In an attempt to help the injured soldiers who were still piling up on the platforms, a group of foreign volunteers asked the Chinese authorities for ambulances. They were told that ambulances were indeed available, but there was no gasoline and no money to buy it.

Also very active in Shanghai, Nanjing, and elsewhere in East Asia at the time was the Red Swastika Society (世界红卍字会, shìjiè hóngwànzìhuì), a Buddhist/Daoist equivalent of the Red Cross or Red Crescent.

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Sino-Soviet Pact, 1937

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 546-565:

The Soviets had good reason to be circumspect. The alliance with Chiang was not based on ideology but was born out of a convergence of strategic interests. China was looking for a new source of overseas assistance, as Germany, its main foreign backer up until then, had shown itself to be an unreliable partner, gradually moving closer to Japan. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, saw a cynical benefit in supporting China’s war, as it would keep Japan too preoccupied to threaten its eastern borders.

This marriage of convenience had manifested itself in a Sino-Soviet non-aggression pact, signed in August 1937. The Chinese had wasted no time, and had sent a wish list of 350 planes—and pilots—to Moscow even before the agreement was inked. At the end of the day, the Soviet leaders opted for less ambitious aid, agreeing to 200 planes, in return for Chinese delivery of minerals essential for war production, such as wolfram and tungsten.

The Sino-Soviet friendship received support from a very unlikely source—British politician Winston S. Churchill. The Soviet envoy to the United Kingdom described how in a meeting Churchill “greatly praised our tactics in the Far East: maintenance of neutrality and simultaneous aid to China in weaponry.” This was for the best, he thought, since a more open backing of China would raise the specter of an expansionist Soviet Union, a lingering fear among many powers, thus making the situation easier for Japan and complicating the establishment of “a grand alliance” directed against Germany, Japan and other regimes. Intriguingly, even at this early stage, Churchill saw such an alliance as “the only means of saving mankind.”

Indirect aid didn’t mean an absence of risk. Russians would still be put in harm’s way and Rytov knew that. Later on the same day that he was told he would be going to China, he met up with another member of the coming mission, Pavel Vasilievich Rychagov, who had recently returned from a successful tour as a fighter pilot in the Spanish Civil War and had been awarded the Lenin Order twice for his service there. Together, they were briefed by Yakov Vladimirovich Smushkevich, the deputy commander of the Soviet Air Force. “The Japanese armed forces are technically superior to the Chinese,” said Smushkevich, who was also a veteran of the Spanish conflict. “The Chinese Air Force is a particular concern. Soviet pilots who have rushed to China’s aid are currently in Nanjing. They are fighting valiantly.”

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Nanjing Capital Boomtown, 1930s

From Nanjing 1937: Battle for a Doomed City, by Peter Harmsen (Casemate, 2015), Kindle Loc. 304-328:

It had been the decision of the Chinese Nationalists, ten years earlier, to move the capital from Beijing to Nanjing. Governing the vast country would be easier that way, or so the policy makers hoped. Nanjing was centrally located, with roughly equal distances to the north and south borders, and it was well served by three railroads and a network of highways. It was in close proximity to the economically vibrant eastern seaboard—China’s link to the outside world—with only 200 miles between it and the nation’s primary commercial center, Shanghai. The trip could be done within a day by car, train or, more often, by boat down the mighty Yangtze.

To be sure, picking Nanjing as the new capital was more than a matter of practical convenience. The founder of the republic, the late Sun Yatsen, had argued that it was essential to move the seat of government away from Beijing, because “the light of the 20th century” would never be able to penetrate the Forbidden City where generations of Qing Dynasty rulers had contented themselves with being caretakers of a stagnant society, seemingly unable to cope with the requirements of the modern world.

It had been a society still stuck in medieval ways, turning unfortunate boys destined for court duty into eunuchs and binding the feet of its upper-class girls, while allowing the vast majority of its people to live in abject poverty and executing its criminals in spectacularly cruel fashions, using methods such as the ancient technique of death by a thousand cuts. The Nationalist revolutionaries who had overthrown the last emperor a quarter century earlier had wanted to cut the links to this ugly past and begin all over again in Nanjing.

Nanjing, the largest city in Jiangsu province, had spent the past decade in a frenzy of construction in a bid to catapult itself into the modern age, and by 1937 it was beginning to look like a genuine capital. Landmarks that would have attracted attention in any city in the world emerged in rapid succession. The Foreign Ministry, completed in 1934 with the help of New York architect Henry K. Murphy, was more modernistic than Washington’s State Department, wrote American journalist Julius Eigner, who visited the city on behalf of National Geographic.

The Ministry of Communications, erected a year later from drawings prepared by a Russian architect, was Nanjing’s most impressive construction, combining a roof suggestive of imperial palaces with an unmistakably western design. The Ministry of Railways, “perhaps the best laid out and the most attractive of all of the government quarters erected so far,” according to Eigner, was frequently used for high-level government meetings. Commercial interests had followed in the government agencies’ footsteps. By 1937, most Chinese banks had set up local branches in the city, and over the course of a decade real estate prices in the business district had grown by 700 percent.

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