‘The other side of North Korea’: A defected smuggler’s extraordinary story

December 5, 2013

The North Korean border town of Namyang, viewed from the Chinese side of the Tumen River. (PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)

Seongmin was 12 years old when he started smuggling goods in from China. It was the late 1990s, a time when North Korean border communities like his were beginning to change rapidly and in ways we are still trying to understand. The famine that had killed hundreds of thousands of Seongmin's countrymen was finally winding down, thanks in part to new black markets that provided food where the state could not. The government had either become too weak to stop the smugglers or, perhaps fearing more starvation if they re-sealed the border, simply turned a blind eye.

The first time Seongmin crossed over into China, he says it was simply "out of curiosity." He lived all of 500 feet from the Tumen River, which separates China from North Korea's northernmost province, and it was easy enough to cross. He met another child there, who gave him his first piece of chocolate. When he got home, he decided to find something he could bring back to China the next day to trade for more chocolate. So he took the badge of national founder and Eternal President Kim Il Sung that his mother wore on her coat, as all North Koreans were required to do. He'd been told all his life that the badge was any family's most valuable possession.

Seongmin's first crossing into China had been as a tourist, but his second would be as a businessman, as would each of countless subsequent trips until his last one, some 10 years later, when he crossed as a defector. He now lives in South Korea and traveled recently to the United States, where he is applying to several colleges. We met during that trip to discuss his life in North Korea and why he left, an interview facilitated by an organization that works with defectors called Liberty in North Korea. He asked me to omit certain identifying details, for fear that his family members still in the country would be punished if the government discovered who he was.

Though he never escaped from a gulag or survived a political purge, Seongmin's story is an important one, the leading edge of a new generation of post-famine North Koreans who are less ideological, more capitalistic and more engaged with the outside world than any before them. Sometimes called the "jangmadang generation," from the Korean word for open-air market, they're slowly changing the hermit kingdom from within. While no one is sure what people like him will mean for the country's future, Seongmin's tale shows that life inside North Korea today is not always what we think.

The Kim Il Sung badge that 12-year-old Seongmin had stolen off his mother's coat turned out to be worthless when he got it to China, much to his bafflement. It was his first hint that the state ideology that permeates everything in North Korea, where it is widely accepted as unchallenged fact, might not be true. But at that moment he was focused on finding a way to make money. Seongmin didn't know that his country was one of the poorest in the world, but he knew that essentials were scarce. The life he saw across the border in China, though deeply poor by global standards, looked impossibly wealthy to a young North Korean.

The first thing Seongmin smuggled in from China was a puppy, which he traded for boots and cigarettes at his town's illegal but quietly tolerated open-air market. He made regular trips, first earning money to help his family scrape by but eventually enough to set aside as savings – a luxury of the middle class, and thus unknown to most North Koreans.

Like most smugglers in North Korea's provinces along the Chinese border, Seongmin sold his goods locally. From there, other merchants might have picked them up and moved them to other, interior parts of the country. But that could be onerous and risky, making the goods more expensive as they moved south. Quality of life improved more substantially in the border towns than it did elsewhere; goods were cheaper and more plentiful there. So was access to the outside world, as some North Koreans began sneaking across to work as day laborers. Slowly, ever so slightly, some border communities began liberalizing from the bottom up – a change that people like Seongmin helped to drive and that may still be happening today.

Sometime during that first year, border security officials learned of Seongmin's smuggling – he thinks someone tipped them off – and raided his family's home one night a little after midnight. When the police charged into his room and pull off his blanket, they were so surprised at his youth that they left without arresting him, Seongmin's parents later told him.

As Seongmin got older and continued smuggling, the authorities became less patient. Police who caught him at the border would sometimes beat him or sometimes send him to jail, for sentences that might be a few days or a few months. The money was too good to stop, and other opportunities too scarce, but Seongmin worried the punishments would get much worse once he turned 17 and became a legal adult. So he started bribing border guards, first to look the other way and, later, to help him. The authorities who'd beaten him became his employees. Business boomed.

He even enlisted childhood friends who had become officers in the military to help haul the illegal Chinese imports across. North Korea has universal conscription and little real industry, making service one of the most common jobs. But as Seongmin was discovering, even officers in the military, which is supposed to embody North Korea's national greatness and ideological fealty, were willing to undercut the system they'd been enlisted to serve.

Smuggling and black markets are highly illegal in North Korea, where they're seen as direct threats to the government's control of not just all facets of economic life but of information. North Korea has for decades commanded its citizens' loyalty in part by telling them that they live in the richest, most advanced society on earth. Maintaining that illusion has required an absolute information cordon. Perhaps inevitably, once the border opened to outside trade even a crack, the cordon was doomed.

The smugglers that first sneaked in food to feed starving North Koreans before long were also bringing in foreign movies and TV shows. When I asked Seongmin what his most popular item was, he answered "DVD players" without hesitation. Also popular were video CD players, for lower-quality pirated movies, and later stand-alone DVD players that could be easily hidden from the authorities. Demand for Chinese and especially South Korean media was high simply because it was so much more entertaining than what state media produced. But it also had a real effect on North Koreans, particularly young people not ideologically hardened by years of propaganda and perceived conflict with the outside world.

Those South Korean DVDs "were very effective at changing North Koreans' minds," Seongmin said, explaining that the movies and TV shows, no matter how frivolous, were so at odds with everything they'd ever been told about the world that many people at first didn't know what to believe. "I was really shocked," Seongmin said of the first dramas he saw, which portrayed a South Korean middle-class existence so luxurious compared to his own, and a society so much wealthier and more advanced, that he assumed the movies were South Korean propaganda.

He first suspected the movies might be accurate representations of life in South Korea when he noticed that they rarely criticized North Korea, or even mentioned it at all. North Korea's state media was constantly harping on the crimes of the South and its imperialist American masters. Yet these South Korean shows were "just about regular life," he recalled. "It wasn't propaganda." But that made smuggling the movies something more than just smuggling. Though Seongmin only wanted to make money, he understood that selling the DVDs could also be treated as a political crime. "I knew it was dangerous," he said.

In 2007, North Korea starting cracking down on black markets. This was around the time that Seongmin, now a young man, grew disillusioned by what he saw as rampant "hypocrisy" in a country that was supposed to be built on ideological purity. He described rampant corruption, government officials exploiting people and looking for bribes rather than helping their communities. When I pointed out the irony that he would decry the immorality of official corruption and bribe-taking he himself had exacerbated as part of his smuggling business, Seongmin nodded. He would say only that he was "tortured very badly," badly enough to make him conclude there was something more rotten than officials asking for hand-outs. "The system made people bad."

"I decided to leave North Korea because I couldn't see any future in the system," he said of the moment he decided, in the late 2000s and when he was in his early 20s, to break the law forbidding North Koreans from leaving the country. "I was not happy," he explained. "I could compare my life to life in China." Though the part of China along the North Korean border is not rich, and has seen very little of the breakneck development transforming cities like Beijing and Shanghai, what Seongmin had seen on his trips across the border were far beyond anything in his own country, and not just by standards of material wealth. "I thought China was a paradise, also in terms of freedom," he said.

Like most defectors, Seongmin wouldn't say how he slipped out of the country and eventually made his way to South Korea, for fear of betraying routes or allies in ways that could complicate future defections. But the journeys typically require arduous and dangerous travel across China, where police have orders to arrest and repatriate defectors, who may face years of hard labor on their return. Even successful defectors might have months of travel and will almost certainly never see their friends or families again.

Though Seongmin had been badly mistreated by authorities, he was not fleeing because his family had been thrown in the gulag, because he was starving or because he had grand ideological aspirations, the defector narratives that Americans typically hear. His concerns were more pedestrian. He was a small businessmen – yes, running an illegal business, but that is the only sort there is in North Korea – who wanted to trade his wares in peace and build a comfortable middle-class life. He fled because he knew that wasn't possible in North Korea and because, owing to foreign DVDs, that elsewhere it was commonplace.

The narrative of how and why Seongmin decided to defect is not particularly exciting, but that is exactly what makes it so important, and perhaps so dangerous to a North Korean government that has ruled against all odds for 60-some years. Young adults like Seongmin are getting enough of a taste of middle-class life that they'd give up everything to pursue it.

Seongmin says he wants to enroll in an American college to learn more about the United States, but also to help Americans better understand the country he left. He knows Americans are fascinated with North Korea, and says he's often peppered with questions when people learn who he is. "People take North Korean stories very seriously," he says. But the American image is just "a half-picture of North Korea." The "other half," he says, is "the change" – the quiet, almost subterranean shifts he saw in the border provinces in how people think, what they want, how they relate to the state. After decades of Americans' predictions that North Koreans would demand democracy and crave freedom, Seongmin says they're doing something a bit different. More and more, he says, "People are relying on themselves."

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