Sunday, December 2, 2012

Meeting a North Korean

Good morning comrades,

My friend Miles was also on the CLS program in Vladimir, Russia this past summer, and is now spending the year in Vladivostok. Miles is one of the friendliest people I know and a true public diplomat. He also maintains a travel blog and his most recent post details an encounter with a North Korean slave. While this post does not relate to Central Asia, I found it to be so intriguing and insightful that I could not help but share it with you.

Modern Day Slavery

I met a slave yesterday. I guess I always thought that institutional slavery had been abolished worldwide in the late 19th century, but I stand corrected. I met this modern day slave, a North Korean who goes by Shin, one cold day on the ferry coming back from Russki Island, close to Vladivostok. I was on deck with my video camera, bundled up for the below freezing weather and sea spray and wind. It was only me and a handful of other people on the exterior deck and I noticed this older Asian guy watching me film. When I came close he commented on the scenery in heavily accented Russian. I sat down with him on the splintery bench while he smoked a cigarette and we started talking. He told me he was from Pyongyang, North Korea. When I said I was from America he sparked up a little bit. He talked about his job, wife, son. He pulled out a beat up cell phone and showed me a grainy picture of his wife; he had obviously taken a picture of a picture, and this was all he had. He had not been home in five years. My Korean Samsung video-camera fascinated him. Turning it over in his hands he asked me “are they rich in the South?” The ship docked at the small passenger terminal and lots of passengers emerged from below deck where they had sacrificed the panoramic views of the city for warmth and walls. I hopped down the narrow gangplank and saw Shin walking up ahead, so I ran to catch up with him. It is the first time I have ever talked to a North Korean— first I’ve known of anyone save the few people I know who’ve been to the country itself. It is incredibly uncommon to meet a North Korean abroad, as in, North Koreans outside of the country that are not slave laborers probably number in the hundreds worldwide. I had heard that there were labor camps in Russia where Koreans work, usually deep in the taiga on lumber sites. Shin and I walked to the central square and I asked him if he would be interested in meeting with one of my friends from South Korea. We exchanged numbers and agreed to meet in two weeks. Two weeks passed and Shin called me. I couldn’t meet up that weekend so we moved our get together until the next one. Saturday came and I gave Shin a call. We set the meeting for 5 o’clock in the main square and I made it there a minute or two late. Shin was waiting for me. We stood around for a half hour waiting for my friends Micah and Sewon to come. Another friend of mine, a Spanish guy named Victor, also came and met up with us. He had told me about a Spanish guy who is the only Westerner who works in North Korea. This guy is an official in the North Korean government and conducts all of the cultural relations between North Korea and Europe. He tows the official North Korean line, but is free to travel in between the countries and surely is not subject to the rations, intimidation, etc. Micah and Sewon came and we walked to a nearby restaurant. Sewon and Shin broke off into Korean and hung back from us chatting away. We stood in the line at the buffet style restaurant and I encouraged Shin to get whatever he wanted, it was on us of course. He loaded up his plate and we went to sit. With Sewon there, it was much easier to speak with Shin, as his Russian is pretty limited (though surprisingly good, since I’m sure he has had no formal education). We asked him about life in North Korea and were shocked to hear what he had to say. Of course, everyone knows that the North Korean regime is evil, but it is much different to see the face of oppression. Shin’s story: Shin was born in North Korea and lived in Pyongyang. He was forced to join the army when he was 17 and served the mandatory 10 years, building bombs as part of his service. He told us that there was not enough food. After leaving the army at age 27, he had to find some kind of work before being allowed to marry. He married his wife at age 30 and they have two boys. One of the boys serves in the army and the other is still in school. His wife works in a window factory. He had been picked in some kind of raffle to work abroad. It is apparently a highly sought after opportunity to work outside of the country, even though the conditions are truly terrible. He showed us his passport: full of communist insignia with a notice on the last page saying exactly how many pages were in the passport and special anti-counterfeit numbers on each page so that there was no way to leave. Shin told us that their Russian bosses will sometimes steal their passports and return them only if they are paid. Shin has been living in Vladivostok for 7 years and has not been home in 5. He is allowed one letter a week home and no phone calls. Needless to say, there is no skype or email. He said that people escape every once in a while, but that it is a death sentence to their families. Still, some cannot take it after seeing the outside world and being in a real position to flee. The North Koreans all live together in an apartment somewhere far outside of town. Sixteen people to one room and there is no kitchen. The “company,” which is state owned, collects 100% of the wages and then gives back just enough so that the men can buy a little bit of food. There are some meals provided by the company, but Shin said that they are terrible. We finished our dinner and Shin still had half a plate of food. Apparently he didn’t like the Russian food. I thought it was strange since he has been here for 7 years, but then I realized that he has probably not eaten Russian food at all. The Koreans stay among themselves and have no money to go anywhere or try anything new. Russians could care less about migrant laborers, especially ones from a poor and backwards country like North Korea. We went upstairs to the bar and ordered a round of beers. Shin was really excited for beer. Without any money to buy alcohol, the Korean laborers will sometimes purchase raw ethanol and mix it with water if they want to celebrate. Shin said that in North Korea only rich people (people in the government or high level military) can drink, everyone else makes homemade wine out of grapes. Shin reveled the beer; it was something completely out of the ordinary. He told us that he loved Vladivostok and said that he was most surprised by the way women here dress: scantily. While we waited for Sewon to translate we all joked that he was probably most surprised by the beautiful women here. Guys are the same everywhere I guess. He said that Vladivostok was much better than North Korea, though he missed his mother, wife, and children bitterly. We asked if he thought there was any hope for the country with the new leader, the son of Kim Jong Il. Shin shook his head. This is the son, nothing will change. He became depressed and he and Sewon broke off in Korean for a while. We are curious, but this is another person’s reality. This is the life of their family. Shin borrowed Sewon’s phone so that he could call his boss to tell him he would be home late. If he missed the role call, there would be punishment. Grown men with a curfew, and if they violate it they owe money. Of course, they don’t have any money, so it likely means that they will be put on a starvation diet for a few days as punishment. We ordered another round of beers and bought some dried fish to snack on. Shin said he was so happy to have found new friends and said that he would happily be my colleague. He told me that if I find a good girl I should love her with all my heart. We told him how glad we were to have met him. Shin was hoping to head home for the New Year, the first time he would hold his wife and sons for five years. But, he doesn’t know if he will have the money to go home. It maybe be another lonely New Years anonymously wandering the main square near the statues of partisans for Soviet power, attracting the suspicious stares of Russians who say that there are too many Asians here. We walked Shin to his bus. He was not sure if he had time catch the second bus that would take him 45 minutes into one of the neighborhoods to his Spartan barracks. Micah bought him a pack of cigarettes and we said goodbye, promising that next time we would take him for Korean food. After he left, Sewon mentioned that he had tried to get close to her. She wasn’t uncomfortable, just found it strange. Five years without female contact, I imagine that having a pretty young Korean girl take interest in his story must have been wrenching for him in a way that probably men can understand. A desperation for physical, emotional, sexual contact that overwhelms, depresses, excites. I cannot help but wonder whether we put Shin in danger. There is no doubt that talking to foreigners, especially Americans and South Koreans (with whom North Korea is still at war officially), is strictly forbidden. I know for a fact that speaking about the North Korean regime is a punishable offense. Friends I have who have been to North Korea were made to sign a contract saying that they would not speak about the trip afterwards. Of course, no one listens. But, for Shin, he has to go back someday. He is still subject to their laws, their crazy whims. What if someone were to find out? Was he endangering himself and his family for a few beers and a free dinner? Or, was it for a taste of freedom, of friendship? Breaking the bonds of slavery for a few short hours?

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