|▲ Sunghoo-dong of Hyesan ⓒ DailyNK|
It is a common tradition all around the world to give presents to friends and neighbors on holidays and birthdays. In North Korea, family members also give each other gifts. However, unlike the rest of the world, in North Korea, such gifts can lead to big problems.
In North Korea, presents are considered a sign of love from Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Because of this, some people who have received high-class gifts from Korean-Chinese have gotten in trouble just for the act of accepting these gifts.
In late April 2003, several people went on trial in the so-called "New Years Gift Trial” that made the entire city of Hyesan in Yangkang Province take notice.
The trial commenced on the direct order of Kim Jong Il. The people of Hyesan gathered together in Hyesan Stadium where the crimes were enumerated and a summary trial was carried out.
During the trial, 48 residents, including 16 housewives from the "No. 34 People's Unit
" of Hyetan-dong, were sentenced to labor detention. Eighteen people were charged with more serious crimes and sent to reeducation facilities.
A defector from Yangkang Province stated, "It is unusual to put housewives on trial and there was a lot of concern about who would feed the families if they went to prison."
◆ Smuggling between Changbai and Hyesan =
On New Year’s Day 2003 some Korean-Chinese living in Changbai, China sent New Year’s gifts to the residents of Hyesan.
Residents in Yeonpoong-dong in Hyesan, a district that borders Malugou in Changbai and Hyetan-dong, Hyesan, a district that borders on Xiajianggou in Changbai primarily live by smuggling. These areas are far from the jangmadang and there are no other suitable means of earning a living, so residents procure food and daily necessities through illegal trading.
Usually during spring and fall, residents export frogs to China. In the summer, they export medicinal herbs, copper, and mineral resources. They import cooking oil, rice, alcohol, and cigarettes.
Korean-Chinese who get acquainted with North Korean residents through smuggling send gifts on holidays such as New Year’s Day. This is a phenomenon that's not unique to this region but in all areas where smuggling is commonplace.
Normally, residents spend 15-20 Yuan (approx. US$2.2-2.7) on gifts. Most of the gifts are sent in packages that contain 1kg of sticky rice, 2kg of uncooked rice, 1kg of flour, a bottle of oil, a bottle of alcohol, 3 apples, 3 pears, 3 tomatoes, 1 bag (about 200g) of garlic, and a bag of candy. Of course, depending on the relationship, they may also include bananas and cartons of cigarettes.
◆ How the authorities discovered the Gifts =
An inspection group was dispatched from Pyongyang to the region to investigate suspected anti-socialist activities, including the acts of giving and receiving gifts.
The inspection group arrived in Yeonpoong-dong during February 2003. A resident had confessed to receiving New Year’s gifts from Korean-Chinese traders. Inspection reports were sent to Pyongyang and Kim Jong Il issued the following order: "Measures must be taken to preserve order and a thorough inspection must be carried out". In accordance with this order, the size of the inspection group was expanded and an extensive investigation began.
As the inspection commenced, the investigating group went around to each People's Unit to explain their purpose, warning: "The Mother Party is warm and welcoming. The Party doesn't lie. The Party forgives the ones who confess but it severely punishes those who hide until the end.”
However, unbeknownst to the residents, Kim Jong Il had already decided not to extend forgiveness to those who had sinned.
Authorities arrested the involved individuals beginning in March 2003 and held them in the jails of the National Security Agency. The residents quickly found out that the Party’s offers of "Warmth” and “forgiveness” were nothing but lies. Unfortunately, this revelation came too late.
Thus, the residents of Hyetan-dong and Yeonpoon-dong of Hyesan were put on public trial
One of the main reasons the initial investigation focused on Hyetan-dong and Yeonpoon-dong was because of the perception that these regions were inhabited by the politically and economically weak.
In Sunghoo-dong of Hyesan, much illegal economic activity takes place, but the people in this district were mostly Party cadres and the rich and thus were exempt from punishment. Hyetan-dong and Yeonpoon-dong are located in the outskirts of town and are mostly filled with factory laborers.
◆ Why did the "New Year’s Gifts" become such a big problem? =
In North Korea, it is often emphasized that gifts are a symbol of the loving generosity of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Family members can give each other notebooks, gloves, and other worthless trinkets for birthday gifts but giving gifts to many people can become a problem.
Starting in the 1980s, on Kim Il Sung’s and Kim Jong Il's birthdays, a 1 kg bag of candy and cookies was given to elementary school students. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il viewed such actions as a compliment to their greatness.
Even after a large central meeting, they give gifts under the names of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. They instill the notion that they give grace through gifts. This style of governance has been termed "Gift Politics."
Regarding the case of the Hyesan New Year’s Gifts, people said that the gifts from the Korean-Chinese traders were better in quantity and quality than Kim Jong Il’s gifts and thus, Kim Jong Il became upset.
With the crime of receiving gifts from the Korean-Chinese, many housewives were punished but the people blamed inconsiderate Kim Jong Il and the Party.