Welcome to our second installment of Ask a North Korean, where NK News readers can send in their questions and have them answered by our North Korean writers.
Today we’re introducing the second of our two new North Korean writers: Shim Tae-il (writing under a pseudonym). You can read our other North Korean writer’s first piece here.
Like In-hua, Tae-il lived through the famine in the 1990s – known as the “Arduous March” – and so can compare what North Korea was like before, during, and after this watershed period.
NOTE: All translations of North Korean factory names in this article are unofficial translations — we’ve included the original Korean in parentheses.
Got a question for Tae-il? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
My name is Shim Tae-il. I’m from Hyesan, Ryanggang Province, and I’m the sixth child of seven.
My hometown is located in the highlands near Paektusan (Mt. Paektu) in the north of the country, overlooking Changbai Korean Autonomous County in China on the opposite side of the river. Where I lived was known as the ‘Flowery Neighborhood,’ as its gentle slopes were flooded with azalea.
One of my long-lasting memories of Hyesan is of Baekdusan blueberries. The Hyesan Blueberry Processing Factory (혜산 들쭉 가공 공장), where my mother and oldest brother worked, is one of Hyesan’s most prominent features.
‘Brandi’ (브란디), a 40% alcoholic drink made of fermented mountain blueberries, is exported to China and Europe. 40 to 50-year-old high-quality alcohol is stored in an underground tunnel here, and it’s famous because it is sent to and consumed by the Kim family in Pyongyang as ‘products number 8 and 9.’
Hyesan is also known for its shoe factory and beer factory. Hyesan Shoe Factory (혜산신발공장) played a big part in the development of North Korea’s light industry between the late 1990s and early 2000s, but gradually sank into stagnation.
However, a large number of shoes made their way to South Korea through China, revealing the backwardness of North Korea’s shoe-making industry. The factory’s party secretary and 12 others were subsequently executed.
Since then, production has slowed down but it’s still chugging along.
Where I lived was known as the ‘Flowery Neighborhood,’ as its gentle slopes were flooded with azalea
Using hops as its main ingredient, Byong On Beer Factory (병언맥주공장) is also renowned in North Korea. Though its beer may be second to expensive Japanese beers like Asahi, Sapporo, or Kirin, it competes with North Korea’s Taedonggang.
Its factory opened thanks to the facilities and funds donated by a North Korean expatriate in Japan. It maintained decent quality and quantity for a while, but only the cadets have it now, due to the lack of ingredients caused by food shortage and breakdowns of the decrepit facilities.
There are two colleges in Hyesan that come to mind: Kim Jong Suk Teachers Training College and Hyesan Agricultural College. The former, the only central college, is named after Kim Jong Il’s mother, Kim Jong Suk, and the latter is where they teach about agriculture and forestry.
At these schools, students selected from each city partake in five to six-year-long academic courses. Upon graduation, offspring of the affluent and powerful are employed by the Ministry of State Security or the public security station (보안서), regardless of their major.
THE FIGHT FOR SURVIVAL
I still can’t forget my mother hobbling around with her injured legs, going as far as farming villages 20km away in order to obtain foodstuff, such as potatoes, wheat, and barley, for 9 family members.
When I contracted acute hepatitis as a five-year-old, my father carried me on his back to a hospital tens of li(리)s away and labored for seven months in the hepatitis ward without compensation. Moved by his zeal, the medical staff at the hospital eventually cured me of the ailment.
My parents struggled to raise seven children on a monthly stipend of 60 won. Their biggest challenge was making sure their children didn’t starve.
Only those who had a strong will to survive were able to make it
Graduating from primary school and middle school, I followed the same route as my siblings and started my 10-year-long military service.
I joined the security squad in Pyongyang while Kim Il Sung was still alive and then served as a company sergeant at training camp 91, which was part of the supreme command’s special reserve.
During my service, I had a chance at the army company sergeant meeting to take a picture with Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the so-called ‘photo number 1’ (pictures taken with the Kim family are called ‘photo number 1’ in North Korea).
After being discharged, I returned to my hometown and held the following posts at the Hyesan Steel Factory (혜산강철공장): head of security, party cell secretary for a rolling mill, workshop manager, and party secretary.
I was appointed as the taekwondo instructor for the students’ hall by the party’s personnel department of Ryanggang Province right after the death of Kim Il Sung. The economy was a wreck as the ‘Arduous March’ had just started.
I too went to work starving during this time when even one meal a day was considered a luxury, commuting on foot to the student hall 5km away to foster the future taekwondo training reserves.
Deprived of any stipend or ration, you had to survive on tree bark or grassroots.
Only those who had a strong will to survive were able to make it — I too was flung by the whirlwind of the era into a fight for survival.
THE “SMUGGLER KINGPIN”
During the day, I trained kids on an empty stomach, as usual. The rest of the time, I was operating my smuggling business.
I started by selling what was left in the household and bought 1.8kg of the wild ginger plant (세신) in demand in China with that seed money.
Starting from this small bundle of goods, and over time I gained the trust of Han and Korean-Chinese counterparts on credit transactions as well as regular sales and purchases.
Laying a solid business foundation over months, something that could have taken a decade, I started to be called the “smuggler kingpin.”
My 10-years of smuggling was excruciatingly tiring and yet also good fun.
Over 2000 televisions crossed the border on my back, and if you put all the food, clothing, and necessities I took over in one place it would create a small mountain.
The business provided me means of survival at a time when three million perished. While running my business, I assisted — at no cost — tens of people in their crossing over to China, Japan, or South Korea. Some wished to go over the Yalu River themselves, others wanted to send their children or relatives.
I too was flung by the whirlwind of the era into a fight for survival
Having fled myself, I now live in South Korea, and many of the early defectors who I helped escape visit frequently and thank me. When I greet these people I feel proud of the hard work I did ten years ago.
There is someone, however, who has yet to come and meet me: Ms. Bang. I spent ten years in a reformatory (교화소) because of the statement she gave after she was repatriated from China.
She too ended up coming to South Korea, and I imagine she has transformed into a fancy South-Korean-styled lady in her thirties. I would really like to see her.
Another interesting reunion would be with the Hyesan public security station’s preliminary examination department’s secretary. Having fled North Korea, it’s said he’s living an hour away from where I am.
This heartless man who used to brutally beat me and carried me on a train to the reformatory has now become a citizen of the Republic of Korea.
I relayed through mutual acquaintances that I have now forgiven him, and that none of the past matters anymore, yet he has still not shown up.
The Korean peninsula was split due to hostile political powers and foreign influence. It is now time to build a nest of peaceful reunification. We can no longer afford the sorrow of division.
After my ten-year sentence, by which time the house I had bought with my hard-earned money had already been confiscated, I was released to a barn that was standing all on its own amid knee-deep snow.
In October 2018, I escaped North Korea with my current wife and son.
My current wife served a two-year sentence at the same prison where I was held, charged with telephoning her daughters in South Korea. My son was also in a reformatory for a year for having spoken to my first wife who had gone to China ten years ago.
The two-month-long journey to the Republic of Korea was rife with nightmares: crossing the Yalu River with my wife, who had osteoporosis and cardiac disease; a pursuit-battle with the armed border guards who chased after us up to the Chinese mountains; and being taken to Jangbak-hyun’s security police department at midnight.
After near-death experiences and passing through Laos and Thailand, I finally reached the embrace of the Republic of Korea.
My youngest daughter, who was 20 years old, was unable to join the fleeing family. Having been deprived of her father and mother for ten years, who were imprisoned and escaped to China respectively, she lived a lonesome life as a teenager.
I heard that she was arrested 15 days after my departure, due to her family’s defection, and is currently serving a five year and six-month imprisonment at a reformatory.
There’s no way I can fully share my heart-wrenching, blood-stained life-story, but I am living an ordinary life now and frequently speak to my former wife in China with the consent of my new wife.
A few years older than I am, my wife shows more concerns about my side of the family than I do. She reminds me of my mother and sister.
Soon, my former wife will also become a proud citizen of South Korea. When will my daughter return to the embrace of her family?
Translated by Jihye Park
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Adam Westerman