North Korea is a peculiar country. While the oft-repeated description of the DPRK as the “last surviving Stalinist state” is misleading, the real-life country presents us with a seemingly improbable, and sometimes an even comical combination of features, some of which would indeed be common in communist states while other are capitalist to the extreme.
The involvement of state institutions in the market commercial activities is one such feature of North Korean life.
The experience of my contact Ms. Roh (not her real name) is a great example of how the commercial spirit infiltrates even institutions which are decisively anti-commercial in nature.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, she, then a young woman and a daughter of a naval officer, was involved with the commercial fishing activities of the North Korean navy.
At first glance, this does not sound too unusual. It is widely known that from the late 1970s (and especially since the late 1990s), the North Korean military began to establish foreign trade companies whose official goal was to earn foreign currency income for their units, while in practice such companies often enriched commanding officers and their families.
Many of such companies indeed deal with fishing, since seafood is one of few North Korean exports which sells well. Many North Korean military units have a fishing boat, often bought by private entrepreneurs, but are registered with foreign trade companies owned by the military.
Instead of chasing Chinese intruders, the boat crew was busily catching and processing seafood
However, the case of Ms. Roh was different. Neither her father nor his superiors established a separate foreign trade company – even though he thought about it in the later stages of his military career, once he had enough capital to buy a fishing boat or two. For most of the time, he used the naval ships under his command for commercial shipping.
The relatively large seagoing patrol boats whose official task was to protect the North Korean waters and, especially, prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing illegally there, began being used as part-time fishing boats by entrepreneurial commanders.
Every patrol boat, apart from cannons and machine-guns, carried large nets and other fishing equipment. When on patrol, instead of chasing Chinese intruders, the boat crew was busily catching and processing seafood.
The crew was unusual in its composition as well. Each boat had a standard crew of seven sailors and one or two commissioned officers. However, in most cases, a patrol boat also carried five to ten non-military passengers: wives and older children of the naval officers who boarded the ship to conduct fishing and trade.
In the naval base on the coast of the Yellow Sea, where Ms. Roh’s father served, most of the officers’ wives went to sea regularly, acting as a sort of supplementary crew. The patrol boats left the base to spend a few days at sea, and those days were filled with frantic activity.
The women fished and processed the catch, assisted by the sailors when the situation permitted (they were rewarded for their assistance). Being a naval ship, designed and built in the Soviet Union, the patrol boat had no refrigeration equipment, so the only way to preserve the catch was to apply salt. This seafood was to be sold at the coast upon arrival to the base and was less valuable as a result of its storage.
But the really valuable and delicious items were not normally transported to the port. While at sea, the North Korean naval boat approached the boats of Chinese fishermen, and then sold them the best part of their catch.
Wireless communication with the Chinese, while possible, was discouraged. In most cases, the commander told his Chinese partner where and when they should meet, and which items the Chinese ought to bring to pay for the catch.
There were a few cases when the patrol boat traded with Russians, but Russian fishing boats are rare in the Yellow Sea, so such encounters were rare and largely incidental.
The Chinese fishermen did not usually pay currency to their North Korean suppliers – it made more sense for both sides to pay in kind, with items which could be smuggled to land and then profitably resold at North Korean markets.
Every patrol boat, apart from cannons and machine-guns, carried large nets and other fishing equipment
Technically, the Koreans could accept currency – Chinese yuan widely circulated at the markets around the naval base where the patrol boats were stationed. However, officers’ families made more money by selling consumer goods and food.
Chinese tobacco and strong liquor were potentially the most profitable merchandise, but pretty much everything, from socks to rice cookers, would be welcomed by the entrepreneurial naval wives.
Re-sale allowed them to make good money, so most were rich by the standards of North Korea in the early 2000s.
As Ms. Roh said: “we heard about the ‘Arduous March’, but felt little of hardship. The world changed after Kim Il Sung’s death, to be sure, and everybody began to trade, but our lives hardly became more difficult.”
Sailors who were quite ready to assist the fishermen (or rather fisherwomen) with handling heavy nets and other duties were rewarded for this assistance. Sometimes a boat would stop near a remote island, and the entire crew – sailors and officers’ families together – would use low tide as an opportunity to collect shellfish, much prized by the Chinese customers.
However, women seldom if ever paid the sailors: their reward was delivered as Chinese tobacco or good food. Whenever possible, women cooked not only for themselves but for the sailors as well.
Nonetheless, the sailors, who were overwhelmingly draftees, got little monetary income from the unorthodox use of their ships. Out of the official crew, only two officers made money from the operations, while the rank-and-file had to be content with a good diet (far better than in other units) and easy access to Chinese tobacco and other manly luxuries.
On the other hand, after each trip the commander had to handle a certain amount of money to his superior, just to ensure that they would turn a blind eye to the unusual use of naval force.
And what about the main job of the patrol, catching the foreign ships which would enter the waters of the DPRK? This job was done, from time to time, and occasionally could be quite profitable: to ensure prompt release, the crews of intercepted Chinese boats were willing to pay hefty bribes, often not in money, but in consumption items.
Most were rich by the standards of North Korea in the early 2000s
Nonetheless, it was a sideshow: as most officers were concerned, the main task of their ships, with all guns and other naval equipment, was not to catch border intruders but to catch fish.
However, it was an isolating life. Ms. Roh said, for example, that none of her friends, then girls in their early 20s, watched South Korean movies, even though the DVD players were increasingly common.
South Korean movies and dramas were seen as prohibitively risky by the inhabitants of the naval base, and thus were seldom if ever brought in. As a result, she believed the official story of the impoverished South Korea, whose people dreamt about living under the benevolent rule of the Kim family.
Only a few years later, when she, due to a sudden twist of fate, found herself living illegally in China, she began to encounter South Korean goods and realized that the official story was completely wrong. At the same time, the affluence of reforming China was an open knowledge even within the walls of the naval base.
Given the situation of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the behavior of the naval personnel made perfect sense. However, one cannot help but feel a bit shocked by the idea of an armed naval ship mainly being used to drag nets and look for banks with good shellfish.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: by nknews_hq on 2015-09-08 17:58:40