Interview 11: Kim Seon Hee
Age: Mid 50s
Area: Nampo, North Hwanghae Province
Job: Factory Supply Head
— What work did you do in North Korea?
I worked at a factory in Nampo, in Hwanghae Province. Everything going in passed through my hands.
– Why did you come to China?
I lost an awful lot in the currency redenomination, that’s why. I’d been coming and going to China for a long time. People are envious of people like me who can come and go easily, but I lost everything in the currency redenomination, so I came out to start again with some help from my family.
– Were things good for you in Kim Il Sung’s time?
We got good distribution during the Kim Il Sung era. Education was free, too, from elementary school to university; it was all free. Food distribution was reliable, and there was enough food. Everything got hard the very minute the Premier died and the Kim Jong Il era came. In the Kim Jong Il era they produced lots of nuclear weapons and strengthened our national defense capability off the backs of the people. They couldn’t provide distribution because they were putting everything into producing bombs to prepare for war. The people had previously depended on the state to live; with the coming of the Kim Jong Il era things got really hard.
– How did you manage to survive the March of Tribulation?
When the March of Tribulation time came, people had no way to survive. I had devoted myself to the state, so I had even become a Party member. However, the March of Tribulation came and overnight there was suddenly nowhere to go. So people like me left the factories. There was no work and they didn’t give any distribution, so we went and traded in the jangmadang every day instead. There were loads of people on the streets.
But then all our money flew off into the night during the currency redenomination. I figured that since I had no capital there was no way to live and I would have to go to China. So I borrowed 6000 in Chosun money and came out. When you say you are going to China, everyone lends you money. So I got a passport and came.
– You said that everyone is willing to lend money to someone going to China. Why is that?
People see China that way. They think China is doing well, so they may even lend it without interest. Some ask for 5% interest. If I go back to Chosun of course I will have to pay it back and their kindness too. Coming and going to China in the past I always paid my debts off, so people were happy to lend to me.
However, my finances are not good this time. So I figured I need to work here in a restaurant for a while to earn money. I used to take a TV from here and sell it in Chosun, but now color TVs have totally changed. They’re way too expensive here. I gave up since the price of Chinese goods is rising. It won’t be easy to earn money from trading in China any more.
– What’s the situation with the price of rice?
I hear it is trending upwards. It was 1,800 won, but that is rising monthly. It was about 1,900 won in April and 2,000 won by May.
– Have you ever heard anything about Kim Jong Eun’s private life?
I learned that his mother is Ko Young Hee when I got here. They say she was a dancer. But even if we do know about Kim Jong Il’s family, we don’t dare say we know.
– Are there any rumors about Kim Jong Eun going around in North Korea right now?
At first, we called Kim Jong Eun the ‘Youth Captain’. His portrait has yet to appear. It will probably appear at around the time of Kim Jong Il’s death, like his did when the Suryeong died.
– Are there any new idolization documents coming out about Kim Jong Eun?
Sure, they are doing the idolization work through the cadres; “Our General”, “our Youth Captain”, “The nation respects him”. There is also ‘Footsteps’, and they are always making new songs besides that.
– What thing are the people most interested in?
Survival. They say that the state is working on improving the people’s lives, but it doesn’t seem like it. Things are tough, so we only care about that. The purpose and meaning of reunification is exactly that. That we are hungry. We’re hungry, so there is nothing else.
– What is the state of public opinion?
Not good. That’s because there is no rice. People swear at each other and fight in the jangmadang. There are people selling things the upper tells us not to sell, so they get into quarrels and fight. Grasshopper traders also sell forbidden things; people are living through torment, and they do it for just one meal per day.
– Have there been any special orders received from the top leadership?
Was it April? Anyway, one about a special unit was handed down. It was about not selling drugs in the market. Stuff like bingdu (methamphetamines), I mean. Selling bingdu makes a lot of money, so now there are lots of people doing it. Things are hard, and those people who had been able to make money but now cannot start to sell it.
Selling it by yourself will never work, though, it has to be done in cahoots with the National Security Agency. They say that many people who got shaken down in the currency redenomination have started doing it. If an apartment building has 80 families, 20 will be smoking it, too.
– How do they crack down on it?
Because the state is the one making it over in Hamheung, Pyongyang and other such places, they cannot stop production. However, there are also people making it privately, and both state-produced stuff and private production go into the market together. The state has created a special armed unit to catch people selling bingdu in the jangmadang. According to my youngest daughter, they stand guard at the entrance to there, checking people’s products.
– Why did they set up that special unit?
Because bingdu results in people not wanting to work, not earning any money, just sitting around smoking it… the state wants to build many hydropower plants and needs to mobilize the young, but those young people are just smoking bingdu and getting sick, so they can’t do it. If you say you are sick, you don’t have to do those duties. The special unit has been around since March. Now they are everywhere.
– So what happens if you are caught selling bingdu?
They give you a beating and then interrogate you, of course. “Where did it come from?” “How and from whom did you get it?” That brings more people into the picture. But, then they discover that there are many cadres and rich people involved, so in many cases they don’t do anything else. It is only the poor who have no way out. The beating is pretty standard; they want you to get scared and talk.
– Does anyone in your family smoke bingdu?
Not just now, no. But I’m worried my son might get into it.
– Does this special armed unit only patrol Chongjin jangmadang?
No, it’s nationwide, from Pyongyang all the way out to rural areas. Bingdu is everywhere, so the crackdown is everywhere. But the effects of the crackdown are limited. What I mean is that even though they crack down on it, it is still being sold in the jangmadang. Everyone who is buying knows exactly who is selling.
– Have you ever heard a South Korean radio broadcast?
Yes, I’ve heard outside broadcasts sent into North Korea. I’ve heard Radio Free Asia. A person going back and forth to North Korea from home in China gave it to me. So yes, I’ve heard South Chosun broadcasts. The state investigates these things. They conduct surveillance of who is listening to what, and arrest violators. But people want to listen, so they can’t stop it. In particular, Pyongyang university students do it. They listen and watch those things a lot. Those kids, they listen to South Chosun songs and dance away to them, even around train stations while they wait.
– What do they dance to?
They listen to South Chosun music but without the lyrics, and dance to that. If there are lyrics, they get confiscated. But a song without lyrics is alright. They dance to up-tempo tunes. Student patrols used to stop them, but now they don’t bother.
My grandson dances pretty well, and always wants to do that kind of thing on his birthday. Most fathers who go abroad bring that kind of thing back for their children. Cadres always do. So, little by little, it spreads, and now it is spread pretty widely. Farewell parties to send kids off to the military always feature this kind of thing nowadays.
– I hear you also watch DVDs. So, how widespread are DVD players?
There are VCDs (the lower cost precursor to DVD, formerly very popular in East Asia) and DVDs. Cadres going back and forth bring them in a lot. Most of the children of cadres pass them around, and it appears that most Pyongyang students have watched them. So that is why most Pyongyang students prefer to dance and play in that way.
Poor kids cannot watch them; but if dad is a trader or other businessman then they can. They know about South Chosun dramas. In the past, it was only cadre’s kids, but now it is the common people too.
– What do you think of Kim Jong Eun?
We cannot say anything publicly, but behind the scenes we mostly say, “What does a young kid know?” How can he govern us? Many 2nd generation revolutionaries think negatively of him. People are of the opinion that he has grown up in luxury, so what is he going to be able to do for us?
– People must wonder why their country has ended up like this.
It was not like that in the era of the Suryeong. It is all Kim Jong Il’s fault, because he is no good at politics. In my view, it is because we don’t open up. Nothing looks likely to improve.