In February of this year, I passed through the Chinese customs
office at Kosong and headed for North Korean customs. Passing
through Chinese customs took a mere 30 minutes, but on the North
Korean side it took over three hours. The reason for this is
the North Korean customs inspection process, which begins with
a verification of relatives living in North Korea, and involves
a full-body search in addition to an inspection of the goods
being brought into the country.
When that is completed, the North
Korean customs officers demand anything else they feel they need.
If that “inspection” is not completed, you cannot
pass through customs. In order to “smooth” the customs
inspection, it is necessary to bring along sufficient quantities
of Chinese fruit such as apples, oranges, and bananas, as well
as cigarettes and children’s candy.
By noon I still hadn’t finished moving through customs,
and the truck headed for Yonsa left without me. With no other
means of transportation and nowhere to stay, I had no choice
but to go to the town of Yanshe, in the mountains. However, in
Yanshe there is nowhere to stay, meaning that I had to ask for
accommodation at a private home. The family was very poor, so
I gave them 10 kilograms of rice as payment for my accommodation.
The next day, I got a ride with a car coming from Yonsa, but
on the way we ran out of gas and had to burn wood to keep going,
turning what is usually a two-and-a-half hour trip into a five-hour
The market in Yonsa is quiet due to the drop in people’s
purchasing power. According to people who had brought goods from
China to sell, it takes two to three times longer to sell anything
in the market than it did last year.
prices in Yonsa are as follows:
won / kg
won / kg
won / kg
won / kg
won / kg
won / block
won / kg
won / load
These prices are quite high for the area. Most families subsist
on potatoes they grow themselves or buy locally. Somewhat better-off
families eat corn and potatoes, or rice.
There were a number of vagrants in the area, even with the cold
weather. They live in shelters provided by the government, but
are responsible for feeding themselves, and resort to begging
to do so. I also saw one who was bloodied, more dead than alive,
returning from an unsuccessful thieving expedition.
In order to help those in desperate need, I arrange a time and
place to meet and distribute food. They must make sure that no
one follows them afterwards. So as not to be found out, once
they have received the food they melt away. It occurred to me
that if I weren’t helping these people who need it, no
one else would be. People sometimes tell me I must be crazy to
North Koreans today cannot survive without doing some kind of
business, whether large or small. Used clothes from China apparently
are a popular item for sale; there are also stalls selling tofu,
candy, alcohol, and Chinese and South Korean rice. Alcohol is
made from potatoes; candy from sugar. Miso (fermented soybean
paste) is made from potatoes and chestnuts. Soap is made from
Kindergarteners bring lunch to school. In order to pay their
school fees, students at state schools gather rabbit pelts, and
dung for fertilizer during the winter vacation; they also go
into the mountains every day in order to find grasses. Girls
are often seen coming down the mountain with bundles of firewood
strapped to their backs.
Adults are required to report to their workplaces every day,
but they do not receive a single won for their efforts. Thus
they are in fact poorer than those without employment, who can
use the time to obtain food. On top of this, the workers must
attend twice-weekly study meetings. It is difficult to imagine
what they could possibly be studying under these conditions.
On February 16, Kim Jong Il’s birthday, families with
children receive one bag of candy and one bag of sweets per child.
Children festoon Kim Jong Il’s statue with flowers in the
middle of the night for the occasion.
Day after day I quietly distributed to the truly needy the two
tonnes of rice I had brought. The External Affairs branch of
the county office has, it seems, no budget whatsoever; workers
have to cover all expenses by themselves. On this trip, I was
asked by the head of the External Affairs branch to bring wallpaper
and fabric. I have no doubt that if I fail to bring wallpaper
and fabric on my next trip, things will be made much more difficult
Letter of Gratitude
Recently, while I was in North Korea distributing
rice and other goods, I met an old
and her grandchild. I bought a meal for the two and gave
them a bit of money.
On my next distribution trip, a letter
was waiting for me. It had been quietly handed to someone
the request to pass it along if I ever came that way again.
February 10, 2007
I came to Yonsa with my grandchild to get some food from
our relatives. There, in the market, I met a Chinese man
must have felt sorry for us, sickly and wretched-looking
as we were. He took us to a café in the market and bought
us lunch. And when we parted, he gave us some money as well.
agape. I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming, or if
it had really happened. Were there really people like that
in this world? I had never seen him before in my life. Neither
he a relative, but he helped us.
him from the bottom of my heart. I will never forget his
kindness as long as
I live. Wherever he may be, I pray for his health and long
Cho Sun Bok