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Born In A Family of Returnees to North Korea from Japan
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2016-01-20 14:34:44
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Born In A Family of Returnees to North Korea from Japan 


Seo-jung SIM 
(KIM Hee-keun's wife)
Both parents are returnees

I was born in 1972 in Shinujoo. Parents were returned to North Korea from Japan. I heard that mother was from Hiroshima and father from Tokyo. Many people like my parents lived in Shinujoo and near there. They were usually married each other like my parents. I was also concerned most about so-called 'background' when I met my husband and got to marry. 

The families of my mother were returnees, and relatives of my husband lived in the United States. Thus we had in common in terms of bad 'background.' In North Korea, everything was related to one's past. So, Those who had politically-bad birth did not have any dream like marriage with the people who were born in communist leaders' families. Everybody regard it natural to marry to those who held same background. 

People thought family of the returnees as rich people. However, it was only proper to a few people who got helps from relatives in Japan. In cases of losing contact or having poor relatives, returnees' family became the lowest classes. 

Fortunately, the family of my mother managed to get along with relatives' helps from Japan. When I was single, I could make myself fashionable. Although a suit was cheap enough to buy with half of daily wages in Japan, the fashionable Japanese suit was my treasure. 

Mother's Memory 

Moreover, since I grew up hearing mother and grandmother's recollection, I longed for Japan. 

Mother grumbled out, especially when she had a hard day, "Did I come here from Japan to be treated in this way?" And making a deep sigh, she lamented, 

"If father had not taken me here…Why these happened only to me?" 

Sometimes she mumbled with dreamy eyes, "I wish to go Japan just once again… with you…" 

Remembering it now, mother beautified Japan, I guess, in reacting against tough life in North Korea. But, when she said that, I took her grumbling as it is, and had a question why she left such a great place, even in a child's view. One day, I asked to mother, " Mom, Why didn't you stay in Japan and does suffer trouble here?" 

Mother's face turned red with anger. 

"That was when I was young. I had no choice but to follow my father. Who would have come here if the hardship in North Korea is known. If my father were not tricked by the propaganda like 'let's build paradise on earth.' I or my mother would have stayed in Japan." 

I had a chance to know why grandmother, in my mother's side, had returned to North Korea. She told that she ran away to 북해도 to avoid to take the ship to North Korea. 

"Then, your grandfather ran after me and said, "Well. If you hate it so much, I would not take sons with me. But I have to take our daughter by any means. If you didn't go, she would become a troublesome kid. Does it make any difference at all?' So, I had to take the ship." 

When she told the story, she was making a face with ire. I thought it was natural as she was lugged along. 

Mother had same emotion about it. "I just hope to eat what I want to , to the fool. Curry, hot noodles… I could eat in Japan…" Mother said in retrospection. 

So, I comforted mother. "If you had stayed in Japan, you would have had comfortable living. Not calling in your family's aid." 
Then, mother nodded in against. "Sure. In Japan, People can earn as much as what they work." 

"Do they have much distribution if worked much?" asked my younger sister, mother and grandmother burst into laughter. "They don't have the distribution system like here. They have plentiful snow-white rice." my younger brother broke into a question. "Banana, too?" He seemed not to forget the taste of bananas that the relatives in Japan brought once. "You may buy it anywhere. Even when I was young, it was sold in greengrocer's shops. As goods go into Japan from all places of the world, bananas have become the cheapest fruit, I heard." He nodded being struck with admiration. 

We, three children got to have good feeling to Japan unwittingly, as we heard about the country from our childhood like this and had managed to live. Sometimes, I seriously thought going to Japan

Meanwhile, in school I often got disadvantages by my bad background. Being affected by the discrimination. I found myself feeling shameful being born in North Korea and felt Japan more friendly. The feeling have not changed yet. 

My father was an official of a university and mother also worked. After graduating from a high school, I applied to the Shinujoo art school and majored paintings. A kindergarten teacher was my aim. Finishing two years' study in the school, I was positioned at a propaganda team.(선전대) Then, for the sake of father, I could get a position as a clerk in a state-owned traditional art and craft shop. 
Customers were usually Chinese, and paintings, pottery and arts of scholars(문인화) were major goods. 

Expensive antiques were not provided, and even high-priced goods cost about 300 North Korea won. 

Most of the Chinese customers were Korean-Chinese, and they seemed to be purchasing presents for their relatives and friends. 
There were eight clerks in the store, among which only one turned out to be single. 

I earn 50 Won for a month. However, I am not getting paid on time though it is such a small amount of wage. I've got paid 20 to 30 Won once every 2 months. 

The ration tickets for rice were abundant, but the government is lacking food to distribute. The supply of corn rice was stopped since 3 years ago. Because the ration was not supplied properly, people had to find food at the black market or they had to visit the farms at the countryside for food tradeoff with their belongings. But people barely have money or belongings left for food trade because they lived without ration for past three years. For those families who do not have money or belongings for food trade, they end up with cooking wild grass soups for food. 

The North Korean government recommended using root of corn and rice for food. One has to wash the roots cleanly, then grind it, and mix it with wheat flour. But the processing procedure was rather hard, thus we gave up eating the corn and rice roots after a month or two. 

People rummaging through French garbage 

The unusual situation of eating rice or corn roots for survival is quite alarming. There is simply no food around us. Thus most of people are living as if they are beggars. People search garbage for food or things to be used as fuel to keep their home warm. 

There seems to be no clear-cut definition of beggars and normal people in this situation. However, the beggars do exist. But how would they survive the harsh world where ordinary people live like beggars. The beggars, who have illness, do not have anything to eat, fail to keep them warm from the skin- aching cold weather, they end up dead. These people often die on the streets. But many beggars flock together depending on each other for survival. 

These people usually come from other provinces and areas and thus have no proper shelters. Housing is another major challenge that the beggars face along with securing food in Shinujoo. 

Among many cities in North Korea, Shinujoo is the coldest of all in winter. The temperature in January and February maintain at an average of minus 10 C °. 

The beggars stay overnight at the main waiting hall of a train station or at the base of some buildings for them to survive such cruel cold weather. However, such places are not quite available to the beggars becauseShinujoo authority bans vagabonds from wondering around the downtown. 

So those people end up staying at the hollows nearby embankments used for pig breeding. People used to breed pigs in hollows, and the hollows were filled with unpleasant odors. 

The hollows were dug deep so that the pigs were not able to run away from the hollow. But as the governmental ration ceased and pig thieves were all around the country, most of the pig breeders gave up raising pigs. The hollows were deserted for sometime before the beggars occupied the place. 

One can keep from severe cold wind by covering the exit of the hollows. The beggars are using the pig hollows for their shelter by covering the exit of the hollow by plastic bags that they gathered from the French garbage. There were young boys among the beggars. These beggar children started to emerge since the 1995 famine. 

Most of them are from remote and secluded mountain villages. Their parents actually sent these children to the cities for them to live their lives as beggars, because they thought it is better to live as a beggar than dying from starvation as their family ran out food. 
These children were all dirty and skinny and their eyes and teeth were the only parts of body that brightly glowed. I once saw child beggars at the outskirt of a city. 

I wondered where they were going for a moment, but soon after I found out that they were heading the garbage disposal sites. There were wastes that were from France. Nearby local residents and farmers as well as beggars and vagabonds were searching for either food or things to be used as fuel carrying big plastic bags on one hand. 

The French wastes were conveyed to the place since three years ago, and they were dispersed to most farms and factories located around Shinujoo. The vagabonds were adroitly gathering cloths and rags to be used as fuel into their plastic bags. From time to time, they found things for food from the garbage, but they did not eat it. The French foodstuffs usually contain high protein and are highly nutritious so that the foods are swarmed with massive virus. Thus beggars use them as fuel instead of food for themselves. 

A foreigner might think that 'Why rummage through garbage for fuel? Can't they just look for coal scraps at the coal reservoir or factories or just break a branch from trees?' But this question is out of sense for the North Koreans. 

Sadly, there are no trees left to be used as fuel throughout North Korea. There are many mountains but all of them are bare mountains without any trees. 

Furthermore, there is no coal as well in North Korea. The ordinary North Korean families gather dried wild grasses for fuel to be used in winter. And the vagabonds look for textile cloths and rags among garbage. 

Farmers, who raise pigs who seem to be better off, were also rummaging through garbage along with beggars. They were looking for things to be used as fuel for boiling the ordure to feed their pigs for fodder. People used minor cereals such as corns in the past but people eat them as their food now, so they feed cooled ordure that had been once boiled. 

Repulsive smell is emitted while boiling ordure with fuel that had been gathered from garbage. 

French textile cloths are usually made of various chemicals thus they emit intolerant odor when burned. Furthermore boiling ordure would probably add more repellent smell for sure. 

I wondered how it would taste, which were fed with ordure. Although the ordure is boiled, I felt that the meat would certainly taste disgusting. But it was a luxurious thought of mine. North Korean people only get to eat them once or twice a year if they are lucky enough.