Hello NK News readers, and welcome back to Ask a North Korean, the feature where NK News readers can send in their questions and have them answered by our North Korean defector writers.
This is Tae-il Shim’s second piece for NK News. You can read the story of how he went from being a taekwondo instructor to the “smuggler kingpin” of Hyesan here.
Today Mr. Shim goes into more detail on his life as a smuggler, and how he was not only involved in the transfer of goods but also of people across the border.
But unlike the majority of smugglers who help people across the border, Tae-il did not ask for anything in return for his services — he helped people simply because he thought it was the right thing to do.
NOTE: Some translations of places, terminology, etc. in this article are unofficial translations — we’ve included the original Korean in parentheses.
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North Korea’s serious food shortages began soon after Kim Il Sung’s death, following U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s visit to the country and the dissolution of socialist Eastern Europe.
Back then I was working as the Party secretary at Hyesan Steel Factory (혜산강철공장) and saw over ten people dying of hunger every day. I feared that I might meet the same fate after a few months or days, so I asked my friend if I could join his smuggling group.
To get some startup money, I sold off my wedding gifts and purchased 1.8kg of this wild ginger plant medical herb. The thought of crossing a border and setting foot on foreign soil frightened me but also piqued my curiosity.
Luckily, I made a profit my first time smuggling. People usually smuggled across bulky items like televisions, recording devices, or foodstuff, but I started with small inexpensive items in large volume.
I returned home with high-demand leather belts, and with this profit I bought 15kg of the ginger plant. The average profit margin back then was one-to-twofold, but mine was almost fifteen-fold.
I was the newest among the 7-8 members of the team, but over the course of two months I was able to command an independent smuggling clique of 20 members. The key to my success was a smart selection of items and trust I earned from Chinese business partners and frontier guards.
People in this business risk their lives, and so the blood-soaked money they earn is especially precious
My items were in high demand in big cities like Pyongyang and Hamhung as well as in Hyesan and China.
If you sell a television worth 10,000 won for 20,000 won, you make a one-time high profit of 10,000 won. But my strategy was to take on light and small items such as VCDs and USB memory drives.
The profit per unit for such goods amounted to only 500~1,000 won, but I could sell them in their hundreds or thousands, making overall profit margins of hundreds of thousands won.
The relationships I cultivated with border guards and state security personnel, as well as my Chinese counterparts, were also crucial.
People in this business risk their lives, and so the blood-soaked money they earn is especially precious. Even so, I invested a lot in the so-called ‘cover fee’ (a bribe you pay to the border guards who, in return, secure your smuggling passage) and rewarding people who were involved in my operation.
Once, I was arrested, interrogated, and tortured, but even then I didn’t say any of the names of my group members or the border garrison who assisted me. Many of the guards were like my sons, and I was well aware that giving their names would condemn them to a military trial, which is even harsher.
More Chinese dealers wanted to work with me than others since I had more workers on my team. This is because a bigger group meant more in quantity and thus more in profit.
There were even times I transferred my goods on credit. This added to the trust-building with my business partners.
A BRUSH WITH DEATH
During the day I did my non-paying, compulsory job and at night I worked for a profit in a somewhat fun, capitalist world.
However, it was never easy going. I had an incident during August’s rainy season where one of my colleagues was carried away by the river before my very eyes. There was also the time I lost 5 tons of scrap metal and 600g of gold to the water, rendering my painstaking efforts worthless.
One day, I had to cross the river, which had risen up to two and a half times my height, back home. I tied a 12kg box of beer to each side of my ankle in case the water carried me away.
“God, please help me live. Help me not get washed away by the force of the current. I have prepared myself with these heavy beer bottles on my feet. Though I might end up crawling across the riverbed, please help get me over safely.”
Although I stepped onto the shore with this prayer, I was terrified when the water on the river edge, which had been ankle-high, was now splashing on my chest.
I tried to climb back up, but I quickly lost my balance and swirled into water deeper than my height. The beer bottles attached to my feet were soon nowhere to be found, and my pants and shirt were torn into pieces, stripping me bare.
I ran under the torrential stream toward the North Korean side, coming up for air and then being tossed away by a huge wave. I crossed the river by repeating this process several times, struggling in the pitch-black darkness of the night.
We stand out most as human beings… when we have overcome severe ordeals and tribulations
But when I had exhausted my last bit of strength, I felt something touching my hand. Even though I was unconscious, my survival instincts kicked in and I threw my arms around this object — it was a round rock on the protruding riverbank on the North Korean side.
I knew that the only way to survive was if I grasped at that rock, but my weak body did not move as I was willing it to. I managed to grab hold of the rock, but a fierce current loosened my grip. But I once again held on and finally climbed up on the shore.
My whole body relaxed in an instant — I was deafened, and I felt as if I was sinking into the earth. I saw stars, flickering peacefully, and then I blacked out.
The sun was rising as I woke up. I was totally naked but unashamed — the euphoria of having survived wrapped itself around my body.
However, I was unable to move even an inch. I yelled for a border guard with all the effort I could muster — I was probably thinking it was better to get caught than dying there on the riverside — but my voice only traveled a few meters.
After a roughly two-hour-long ordeal, I made it to the top of the riverbank, crawled through the cornfield furrows and arrived home.
But I was unable to stand and unlock the gate, due to a broken leg and severe back pain. I picked up a rock and banged the gate hard, and, aided by my wife and son, I finally made it inside.
I was totally naked but unashamed — the euphoria of having survived wrapped itself around my body
I was extremely disfigured. My face was as big as a water pot, torn and swollen by the drifting tree roots and rocks in the river. My body was covered in blood.
In the morning, a platoon sergeant of the border garrison, who I had on occasion paid off to secure my safe passage across the border, came round and was stunned when he saw my condition. He said that all the guards had left their posts in the evening and went for a drink in their housing quarters because the river had risen too high.
He thought that I was insane. He wondered when I crossed over to China in the first place and, if not his, on whose watch. I explained that I had gone by myself early in the morning, but that the water had risen twofold later in the night.
There was, in fact, a reason I had not involved a frontier guard in my crossing. I could have hired someone on guard as usual — I managed them almost like my sons or underlings.
But this time around, I had taken four women in their 20s and 40s who had no money for business but were too young to just starve to death. If their illegal border crossing somehow came to light in the future then the border guards could have been condemned to death row, so better not to let anyone know about this particular crossing.
Among those incarcerated in the 13 reformatories of North Korea, 40-50% of prisoners are charged with a border-related crime. Even in my own family, four have been to a reformatory on such a charge.
I served 10-years in prison for having assisted men and women of all ages cross, risking my life in the process. But this was an anti-Party, anti-revolution and anti-state hostile crime.
My wife was punished with a 2-year prison term for having called South Korea, and my son with a 1-year term for having telephoned his biological mother in China. He was asking her for some money to feed his emaciated father, who was released after 10 years at a reformatory.
My young daughter is now serving a 5.5-year term as a reprisal for her family’s defection. Everyone in my family has been a prisoner in North Korea.
REUNITED WITH ESCAPEES IN SOUTH KOREA
A life without food is unpleasant, but a life devoid of freedom is worse than death. I used to dream of having freedom. That I helped a number of people now fills me with the utmost pride.
There are a number of people whom I assisted with their border-crossing some 10-25 years ago, and I see most of them now in South Korea.
On one trip, I got caught and had to physically fight two border guards. Having eventually escaped, I crossed the border dragging my gun-shot wounded leg, made it to my Chinese acquaintance’s house, and transferred a family who traveled with me over to him, so that they could reunite with their relatives overseas.
Some may say that such deeds do not match well with a hard-edged capitalist lifestyle.
Regardless, I feel immensely rewarded when those now old companions, now South Koreans, come a long way to visit me from Seoul, Incheon, Cheonan, and Busan, in an effort to repay their old debt.
When do we stand out most as human beings? I think it is when we have overcome severe ordeals and tribulations.
Everyone in my family has been a prisoner in North Korea
My remaining family, people in my hometown, and the 25 million North Koreans continue to live a life of slavery.
If it will be of any help in ending this misery, I would like to proclaim with confidence that the illegal business I operated at the border was in fact a life-saving, sacred activity, not a hostile anti-state crime.
Even if my words hit them where it hurts, causing my imprisoned daughter to suffer from further reprisals in return, I would raise my voice to the world: “I am a man who crossed the river. I was a man of justice and conscience.”
Translated by Jihye Park
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Adam Westerman