Street Beggar’s Ambition: Start a Business

Street Child (Kot-Jebi) Tells His Story  
Just as I was coming out of a North Korean restaurant, I noticed a small boy, who appeared to be a beggar, following me. I was in Yanbian on business, and it was May 15 of this year. The boy suddenly stepped in front of me and said, “I’m from North Korea. Please help me.”

“You say you’re from North Korea,” I responded. “Aren’t you worried about telling that to strangers on the street?”

“I can tell right away,” he smiled, “if someone is a good person or a bad person. I only approach South Korean tourists.”

Me: What makes you think I’m a tourist?

The Boy: As soon as you two came out the door of the restaurant I could tell you weren’t Chinese. Besides, most of the people who come to this restaurant are tourists. He grinned at me.

Me: So that’s how you knew, eh? What do you want me to do to help you?

The Boy: Please give me 300 RMB. If I have 400 RMB, I can go back to Chonjin and live with my grandfather and open a business. Yesterday a South Korean gave me 100 RMB, these clothes, and a watch. If I can get another 300 RMB, I’ll return to Chonjin tomorrow.

Me: Where are you staying now?

The Boy: I sleep by the riverside near a church.

Me: By yourself?

The Boy: Yes.

Me: Have you eaten today?

The Boy: No. I’ve only had one piece of bread.

Me: What do you want to eat?

The Boy: Kejang (dog meat).

I decided to take a little time to chat with the boy and see if his story held up. I took him along to a restaurant specializing in dog meat dishes and ordered a large kuppa, plus another meat dish he could take away after the meal.

The boy told me, “This is the first time I’ve ever eaten dog meat.” Sweat dripping from his face, he drained his bowl of soup. Then he added, “I never ate many hot meals when I was growing up, so I’m sensitive to hot foods.” As the food began to fill his stomach, his defenses dropped and he gradually answered all my questions.

Me: How old are you?

The Boy: Twenty-six.

Me: Where did you come from, and when?

The Boy: I came from Chonjin in North Korea three days ago.

Me: By yourself?

The Boy: Yes.

Me: What’s your name?

The Boy: Park Dong Ho.

Me: Why did you flee North Korea and come here?

The Boy: My parents died when I was little. I don’t remember my mother’s face at all. I lived for quite a while with my grandfather. He’s 87. We had no food in the house, so I decided to come here. If you can make it into China, at least you have plenty of food.

Me: Is it that easy to cross the river?

The Boy: No, it’s not! This time was my third try, so I knew the route across the river.

Me: How do you cross the river?

The Boy: First it took me about a week, walking from my home in Chonjin, to a village near the border. Of course you stand out too much during the day, so you travel at night. And at about 1:00 in the morning, the guards start going to bed. So this gives you a chance, and you cross the river at a point only you know about. As you backtrack into China, there is a village nearby, so you ask for help there. Up until two years ago, the church would hide people and help us out with things, but things are different now. Now, they fob us off with just bus fare to the main city.

Me: Can you get on the bus by yourself?

The Boy: The people at the church tell us where we can get on the bus.

Me: Why were you hanging around in front of a North Korean restaurant?

The Boy: The church people told us about that, too. They told us that there are a lot of South Korean tourists, so we can get lots of money.

Me: Aren’t you afraid?

The Boy: Of course I am. But I don’t have a choice, if I want to survive.

Me: Can you tell me what things are like in North Korea right now?

The Boy: There is almost no food distribution system. I have only received rations once in my life. I was just wandering around town that day when I just happened to see a big crowd of people carrying bags. They were gathered around the food distribution center. So I dashed home to get a bag and joined the queue to get some food.

Me: How much did you get?

The Boy: A bit of corn and some rice.

Me: And when was that?

The Boy: I can’t remember exactly, but I guess it was maybe two, three years ago.

Me: Did everyone get food at that time?

The Boy: No, it was just whoever was there. The people after me didn’t get anything. I was just lucky.

Me: How do you normally make a living?

The Boy: This is the third time I’ve left North Korea to come to China. I was able to buy corn and eat it with the money I made in China. And since corn on its own isn’t enough, we go into the mountains and collect vegetables, which we boil with the corn and eat.

Me: Is that enough?

The Boy: No.

Me: If you get 300 RMB to take back with you, what kind of a business do you want to start?

The Boy: I haven’t thought about it, but I ought to be able to manage something with 400 RMB.

Me: So if you get 400 RMB together, you’ll go back home tomorrow?

The Boy: Yes.

Me: I’m going to give you 300 RMB now, so make sure you go home tomorrow. I’ll go with you until we’re close to the border, so can we meet somewhere tomorrow?

The Boy: OK. Let’s meet tomorrow then.

The next day, I went to the appointed place at the time we’d agreed, and he was already waiting. When he saw me in the crowd of people, his face registered surprise and joy.

Soon afterwards we boarded the bus together and rode together toward the China-North Korea border.

Report submitted by Shuichi Hayashi