According to Kim (40), who runs one of our
organization's shelters on the Chinese-North Korean border, 118
North Korean defectors
November 18 and December 25, 2007. During the winter, food
and winter clothing are the biggest problems for North Korean
citizens. Most defectors are dressed lightly in summer wear
and without socks. This is unbearable in the Yanbian region,
when the Tumen River is already frozen and the temperature
falls to -20C at night.
The following is an exchange between Kim and Mr. Lee, a 37-year-old
defector from North Hamgyong Province:
Q: Don’t you have socks in North Korea?
A: There is a big market in Musan (a city along the Tumen
River, in North Hamgyong Province). You can get anything
you would find at a market in China. The only item made
in North Korea is salt; everything else is made in China. The
prices are too high for the average person to buy anything,
so there are more people selling than buying. With no rationing
system and no guarantees by the state of even a minimal
of living, everyone is just trying to make a living by
Q: Have you ever tried your hand at it?
A: Even if I wanted to, I can’t as I have no money. The
only thing you can do without any money is to grow something
and sell it in the market.
Q: Do you own any land?
A: I have only a small plot of land, but every year I grow
some corn [maize] and potatoes. The corn I eat myself and
the potatoes I use to trade at the market.
Q: Can anybody plant crops?
A: No. You have to go up in the mountains, miles away from
your house, and plant so that no one knows about it.
Another defector from Musan, 30-year-old Ms. Choi, told us
that in order to survive in North Korean society, you have
to swallow your pride and steal. It is impossible to survive
otherwise. This suffering has gone on for ten years; the
people who are left are breaking the law to survive. This
has gone on so long and we have suffered so much that we
are not just going to sit around. All that matters is having
enough to eat and being able to live in freedom.
The village in Musan where Ms. Choi lives has been thrown
into activity due to a command from above for production of
fertilizer. “At the start of the year we should be able
to produce what we like,” she says. “This is really
causing us hardship.” According to Ms. Choi, every day,
residents have to load fertilizer into wheelbarrows and take
it to the fields. Each person is responsible for moving two
tonnes of fertilizer, which is such an arduous task that those
with money simply buy the fertilizer to fill their quota. People
face many challenges in meeting their fertilizer production
quotas, but there is hell to pay if they do not. Ultimately,
if they cannot meet their quotas, they must pay 5,000 won,
a heavy penalty (5,000 North Korean won = 16.5 RMB).
Many North Koreans cross the border into China in January
because of the problems they have meeting their fertilizer
production quotas. No matter how hard they try to save enough
money to buy their share, they are rarely successful.
Kim says that in November 2007, a slightly overweight middle-aged
couple came to the shelter and claimed to be defectors from
North Korea; in a fluster, they begged for money to travel
to Beijing. Kim was used to seeing underweight North Koreans
asking for plain rice, but found it strange to see this overweight
couple asking for cash right at the outset.
The couple answered Kim’s questions, but did not talk
in detail about some points. The man said that he had been
stationed with the army in a certain county, and that they
had fled to China in order to be able to go to South Korea.
They kept insisting that they had to leave the area immediately,
and that they needed funds for travel. Clearly, they were different
from most North Korean defectors, but knowing what would happen
to them if they were sent back to North Korea, Kim scraped
together 150 RMB to give them, and told them how to leave the
According to a Mrs. Pak (53) who visited the shelter, it is
not easy to make a living selling goods in the Musan market.
She said that since January 2008, the price of manufactured
goods in Musan market has risen by 20 to 30 percent. As of
January, the price per kilogram of rice was 1,500 won, for
corn 500 won, for soybeans 1,000 won, and for wheat 1,300 won.
So although there are goods in the market, there are very few
people able to buy them.