Related Content

The Life of an Ethnic Japanese Residing in North Korea
Name :
Date :
2016-01-20 14:28:28
Hit :

The Life of an Ethnic Japanese Residing in North Korea


SEO Jeong-Shim


I was born in Shin-ey-ju, 1972. Both of my parents were ethnic Japanese residing in North Korea; my father from Hiroshima and my mother from Tokyo. In Shin-ey-ju, there were some Japanese who later marry each other. What I considered most among others was so called family tree when I first met my husband and then married. Both of my husband and I have common in that we have defects in social status what we call ‘Seong-bun’; my family came from Japan and my husband’s family live in America. In North Korea everything happened in the past used to tail us forever, and we should accept it as an unforgivable misdo. Those who came from a family situating at a lower level of social class, for example, cannot imagine marrying the other one whose parents are members of North Korean People’s party. 

Some mistakenly think that those who came from Japan are well heeled, which is the case of few who can get some aid from their relatives still living in Japan. They used to live below the living standard either when they were cut off from their relatives or their siblings were worse off. 

To my fortune, I could live well when I was young thanks to the help from the distant relatives in Japan. I used to walk around the street wearing a dress made in Japan. Even the cheap suit worth the cost of half-day labor in Japan was considered to be luxurious in North Korea. Nothing was dearer for me than those dresses of high fashion. 

I’ve long admired Japan since I had listened such memories as her childhood in Japan. She used to sigh in lament, saying ‘Why should I alone undergo these hardships? My father shouldn’t have brought me here.’ She sometimes talked under her breath, expressing her desire to visit Japan with us. Come to think of it, her being fed up with the life in North Korea prompted her to glorify Japan consequently. 

I used to take her complaint literally when young, questioning why she chose to come to North Korea and departed from Japan she was admiring. When asked why she was still suffering in North Korea, her face turned red with rage. ‘I was too young to think reasonably. I could do nothing but to follow your grandfather who urged me to accompany him. If I weren’t deceived by his sweet word to build ‘paradise on earth’, I would live in Japan with your grandmother, who, as I’ve heard before, even tried to run away to the far north of Hokaido in order to avoid boarding the ship headed to the North Korea, said my mother. 

‘My father insisted that he had to take me in the case when he couldn’t take my brothers to the North Korea. If my mother leave me behind I would undoubtedly become a gamine,’ said my mother. I could see the anger in my grandmother’s face distorted with agony, which was natural for her doomed to be dragged to the North Korea. So was my mother. She sighed, ‘only if I could eat what I want to my heart’s content! I could eat curry and rice, ra-myon…in Japan’, looking back upon those happy days passed. 

I tried to comport my mother, saying that I felt sorry for my mother who otherwise need not to become a burden to other relatives in Japan. She nodded and continued to say, ‘Of course, everyone in Japan can become rich if he works as hard as he does here.' 
I asked, ‘will he get more food allotment?' She replied with a smile, ‘there’s no distribution in Japan where rice is abundant.’ My brother, who seemed never to forget bananas sent from Japan, intervened to say, ‘Are there bananas, too?' 'Bananas, which I could buy at the store when young, are found everywhere. As I’ve heard before, banana became the cheapest one in Japan due to the import of lots of fruits produced abroad.' 

My brother nodded wrapped in awe. 

As we were grown up listening to the stories of Japan, we unconsciously came to become in favor of Japan. I even sincerely thought to visit Japan in the near future. 

We were discriminated from others in school mainly due to our lower social status. Whenever I should undergo such unfair treatment, a grudge surged up in my mind and gradually caused me to consider it unfortunate to be born in North Korea. I used to become depressed and humiliated when thinking of North Korea, which, on the other hand, prompted me all the more admire Japan. 

My father worked in a college as an officer and my mother also had a job. After finishing the high school, I majored in Art. Working in a kindergarten as a teacher has been a long desire throughout my life. After 2 years in college, I was positioned in press agency and later on I could work in a store run by the government with the help of my father. The store I worked for sold potteries, not worth than 300 won at most, to Chinese. I was the only one who was single among the 8 clerks. I worked for a pittance, 50 won a month, but North Korean government couldn’t afford to pay such a little amount money regularly. I was paid 20 won or 30 won every two months. The distribution tickets were issued regularly but we couldn’t exchange it with rice because the economy plunged into the lowest level where we couldn’t expect to have some corns. 

With the cut of distribution, we could not but personally exchange our belongings with foods in the market. There was nothing left in most houses who lived without distribution for more than three years, during which they sold everything they had to purchase their necessities. They made porridge by collecting weeds in the meadow. 

Last year the authority suggested us to gather grassroots in the field, which later we washed and ground after mixing it with flour. 

Digging the grassroots was not an easy task for us. We couldn’t find anything to eat around us. Under such circumstances, even those who are not beggars would come home with something eatable after hours of searching through garbage dump. We could not draw any distinction between beggars and other people in North Korea where ordinary person who hadn't imagined to be a beggar before would ultimately turn out to be the very one the next day. What about the homeless who couldn't find shelter to avoid harsh wind and eat well? They are running out of options but to die while lying on the cold street. 

Many beggars, however, struggle to survive by way of finding their own ways to sustain their lives. Most of them, who came from other areas, find it hard to secure shelter to lay their heads on. Shin-ey-ju, notorious for the coldness, has no other parallel in terms of low temperature, which hit the record low nationwide. In general the day temperature in January and February is 10 degrees below zero. To endure this cold, beggars should hide themselves in a station or a basement of a building. But the authority of Shin-ey-ju, following their principle, crack down on every illegal shelter-seeker and expelled every one of them outside of the city. The latest resort they found was sleeping in a hole, which was used to feed pigs. Those places, which have been abandoned since 1995 after the cut of food distribution, were deserted for a while. Beggars began to change the deep hole into a new home of their own by blocking the entrance with plastic bag caught from garbage heap. Among them were some youngsters who had emerged since the advent of famine in 1995. Most of the children were from outskirt, whose parents kicked them out on the grounds that they'd better beg for food than starve in the home. I once noticed one of them featuring dark skin burnt under the sunlight, and white teeth shining brightly. I stood still in wonder where they were going until I found that they were headed to a dumping ground where those used up were piled up. Besides those children were there some residents who rushed to it holding plastic bags. It has been three years since the garbage was transported from France and most of them were distributed to every parts of Shin-ey-ju. Homeless children were gathering cloth to be used to make a fire. Sometimes foods were found but people never pay attention to them, because those foods, due to their high quality in protein and calorie, were contaminated by various viruses, which were pernicious. 

Some foreigners who are not aware of the reality of North Korea might think why we don't gather branches or debris of charcoals. Unfortunately there's no tree for firing in North Korea. Even the average houses used dried weed to make fire in winter. The situation of the Homeless children was worse than that. They could not but find such combustible fabrics in the dumping ground. 

Farmers who raised pigs joined the group digging into the piles to find some firings to boil a feedstuff. Corn was used to feed pigs in the past but not these days. People eat corns and the remnants were cooked again to feed the pigs. The odd smell would spread out when using the fabrics gathered from the garbage to make a fire. Most of the garbage deported from France was chemical material, which emanates malodor when burnt. Once I imagined what the taste of pork, fed with those feedstuff boiled by using such fabrics would be like, which was quite useless because I barely had a chance to eat pork.