‘Annyeonghaseyo,’ NK News readers — thank you for clicking on our latest addition to Ask a North Korean! This is the feature where NK News readers can send in their questions and have them answered by our North Korean defector writers.
Today’s question is from a reader who wants to ask about In-hua’s “perceptions of the summits.” In-hua was living in North Korea when South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited in September 2018, and has shared her memories and experiences of that time with us.
Got a question for In-hua? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
The buses at Hyesan station can take you anywhere you want, provided you have the right ID card. In terms of traveling, nowadays it feels similar to Kim Il Sung’s time, when it was easier to move around the country than in the Kim Jong Il era.
When I was little, my sister traveled on a bus to Dokchon by herself at the age of 12. Beginning in the 1990s, however, it became more difficult to move around, both domestically and across the border, even if you had relatives in China.
People these days once again travel more extensively within the country, in part thanks to the more advanced bus system and the shift in the socio-economic structure — many people own and run private businesses which means they often have to travel.
Another positive change in the Kim Jong Un era is in the mandatory community obligations. Back in 2000, we felt like we were suffocating under the strong regulations. It was as if we were tied by our hands and feet to the organization to which we were assigned.
Despite being in their 70s and 80s, elderly Party members had to attend self-criticism sessions once a week — female members in their 60s and 70s had to do this as well.
Today though, both elderly male and female members are given an honorary membership card at 60 and 55 respectively and exempted from organizational activities.
In a sense, there were some positive changes. But then harsher laws were implemented, causing anxiety and confusion
However, certain crimes are punished more harshly these days. Although border control was reinforced under Kim Jong Il to deter the increasing number of defectors, those caught were often only subject to edification.
The border is more closely watched nowadays, and breaches are dealt with very severely. Illegal cell phone usage, too, used to be overlooked, but would definitely result in a prison sentence today.
Unlike in the past, having made it up to Hyesan no longer means that you can also make it out of the country.
When Kim Jong Un first came to power, everyone had high expectations for the young leader. We hoped that he would transform society and take it into an era where everyone would do well.
And in a sense, there were some positive changes. But then harsher laws were implemented, causing anxiety and confusion.
Up until the 2000s, people would diligently follow the words of the Party, which were seen as tantamount to public law and our guiding principles. But the voice of the Party no longer wields the same authority over the people. People no longer follow the Party’s instructions, at least not the lower classes.
People’s confidence in the Party has long been betrayed since the Arduous March of the 1990s. Compulsory labor is not compensated with wages or rations, so even the threat of being sent to a disciplinary center no longer has much effect.
I would say that 70-80% of ordinary people just pay a fine instead of showing up for their mandatory government-issued jobs these days. For example, you can save yourself the trouble and maintain your nominal employee status at a machine factory by paying 50 Chinese Yuan (roughly $7) a month.
There are hardly any factories in operation at the moment anyway, so even if you did go to work you’d just be sweeping the floor.
POLITICS IS ONLY FOR POLITICIANS
My husband and I went to Hyesan station to take a bus to my sister’s house in Samjiyon on September 17, 2018. For some reason, the crowd that usually filled the parking lot was nowhere to be seen. It was strangely quiet.
Some neatly dressed men (who turned out to be part of Kim Jong Un’s personal guard unit) captured my attention. Perplexed by the situation, my husband and I asked a conductor-like man, “Is there no bus to Samjiyon?”
“Don’t you know?” he replied. “President Moon from South Korea is coming to Samjiyon, so all roads and borders have been closed.” Only then did everything make sense and we headed back home.
I had some strange feelings when I thought about President Moon visiting Baekdusan. “Are we going to be reunified soon? How amazing would it be to see my daughters in South Korea and live with them again!”
But most people didn’t think like that.
“We’ve had enough of this,” I heard people saying. “There won’t be any reunification. They’re just putting on a show for some international status.”
Skepticism was more prevalent than optimism
All North Koreans were ecstatic at the prospect of impending unification when President Kim Dae-jung visited in 2000, and when President Roh Moo-hyun visited in 2007. But did it ever happen?
The lower classes no longer believe what state media says, no matter how they word their rhetoric. During the Moon-Kim summits, people said, “Well, our government must be running out of money,” or “they are trying to calm the people’s anger.”
For ordinary people, politics is only the domain of politicians. The average person’s only concern is avoiding hunger and leading a comfortable life while they’re alive.
The reality of life in North Korea is far more dismal than South Koreans are aware. Most people struggle to believe that a genuine improvement in the relations with the South or the U.S. is achievable.
There were still people praying for a breakthrough at the September 2018 inter-Korean summit, praying for the unification of the two Koreas and for the prosperity of the nation. Amongst them were those who had been separated from their families.
However, skepticism was more prevalent than optimism.
People have lost faith because they have already often seen their government switch its position. Whether it’s a summit with the U.S. or South Korea, people just dismiss it as political theater.
The North Korean government keeps test-firing missiles, telling us that nuclear weapons are what is keeping the imperialists at bay and that without them North Koreans will fall into slavery.
In preparation for President Moon’s visit in 2018, troops from different parts of the country were mobilized to construct the railroad that links Pyongyang, Hyesan, and Samjiyon.
Those from other regions were also skeptical about the prospect for Korean unification — I thought it was just people from my hometown who felt that way and turned our backs on the government, but it seems that wasn’t the case.
“What’s the point of meeting President Trump and President Moon? The government has no regard for people’s lives, they only shoot missiles. It’s not our business whatever summit they have.”
Of course, people only ever say such things in hushed voices. The grip of organizational life was somewhat loosened when Kim Jong Un came to power, but the ministry of state security keeps people on edge by making arrests for some complaint someone said.
Anyway, before I defected the reality was that only around four in ten people were following the summits — the rest were just striving to make ends meet as usual, there was no respite for them to turn their attention to politics.
STILL WAITING FOR UNIFICATION
How amazing would it be if unification happened? I was once determined to stay in my hometown, where the spirits of my parents dwell, rejecting my daughter’s advice to defect.
However, I eventually left crying bitter tears because I could not stand a nation that deceives its people, impoverishes them, and makes nuclear weapons.
North Korea is not to be trusted. North Koreans do no believe that unification can occur.
And in my opinion, I don’t think we can believe that summits will achieve anything before the Kim family relinquishes power.
Translated by Jihye Park
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Adam Westerman