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"The Third Area" in Russian Territory (1)
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2016-01-20 14:01:54
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"The Third Area" in Russian Territory 

LEE Young Il


After the last customs inspection at Doo Man River station in N.K., our train started to move. A long-tail train boarded by general people when it had originally left Pyongyang, only two cars remained when we finally entered into Russian territory from Doo Man River Station, the last station in N.K. 

It took as long as 7 minutes for my train to slowly enter Hassan Station, the Russian border area, while crossing over Doo Man River railroad bridge, which links Russian territory and N.K.  As Russian territory began to come in sight after just passing the railroad bridge, the train hastily stopped. Bulky Russian border garrisons, wearing spotted camouflaged coats, strutted in their big combat boots onto the train and inspected here and there. A Russian woman, who wore plainclothes and looked like a medical officer, accompanied them, smiling gently and asking if there were patients or any people who had HIV. Then they slowly disembarked. It was a dismal autumn in September 1990. I entered Russian territory.

Why Russian Territory? 

After finishing a long 14-year military service, I entered the foreign affairs section of the 48-story Hap Young hotel construction company, which was constructed in collaboration with France in Yanggak-do in Pyongyang. After an unbearable year, I moved to another workplace, the 4th department overseas dispatch section of Reungra-do trade general bureau in the Botong River area of Pyongyang. 

Before leaving the army as an officer, I majored in French at 'Yalu River Military College', the North Korean military information graduate school. When the school was founded, only 10 students total were chosen from the entire North Korean Military Force Department, and there was keen competition among those who studied French. But closed off from the rest of the world,
North Koreans could not have both cultural interchange and a military relationship. Although I completed all my college courses and received the title of first lieutenant, I couldn't be employed. I tried to study English to find a new job, but doing so proved troublesome. I managed to get discharged from military service after many hardships. To tell the truth, my main purpose in entering the Reung Ra Do trade general bureau was to study Russian, which was the most popular foreign language at that time. Due to my age and career graduation from military academy, it was impossible for me to enter a new social college. I intended to study Russian while working there. 

It was September 2, 1990 when I finally managed to enter Russian territory after much effort. (I can never forget the date because that day, September 2, is my birthday.) 

Among those who accompanied me were two who had been elected as members of a North Korean representative bureau, situated at Blagoveshchensk in the Amur Province of Russia. The other 50 were workers and farmers, entering construction companies and plantations scattered all over Amur Province. In truth, they weren't workers or farmers, but actually from Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, and came from noble stock with potential power and a good background. Common people didn't have the opportunity to move abroad and be elected as overseas workers. 

North Korean people, living in the society
most closed off from other countries, sincerely hope to see the outside world even if it is only one time, and envy those involved in foreign affairs who work overseas. Even an independent-minded North Korean young lady would think very highly of a bachelor working in a trade section or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who frequently visited other countries and had his hands on American dollars. In the past, almost all beautiful dancers of the "Mansudea Art Group" usually married Kim Il Sung's attendants or those working at big trade companies such as Deasung Trade Company, one of the top trade organizations. Nowadays the most beautiful women of "Gibbeum-jo, 'delight giving group', or "Bochunbo Electronic Music Band" are also married to those kind of men. 

I'm offering this long explanation because I want to emphasize how eager ordinary North Koreans are to go overseas. However hard they work,​ North Koreans have difficulty buying a TV set or a suit of clothes with their own money, even sacrificing all their life. Regardless of job type, whether mere labor or trade business, ​people who work overseas can have a good opportunity to purchase various electronic products, including at least a TV set. In the past, many people both in Pyongyang as well as local provinces would travel all the way to logging areas in Siberia or foreign construction sites in the Middle East, like Libya. 

Reungra General Bureau, Situated in Amur Province 

Meanwhile, the Reungra-do General Trade Bureau, belonging to the Pyongyang municipal party, extended its hands on the region of Amur, Russia in early spring 1988. Originally it was not the Reungra General Bureau, but the North Korean Foreign Business Section of the General Construction & Building Material Bureau that first started trading, setting up fundamental milestones for workforce exchange. However, this favorable mood, created with help from the endeavors of forerunners, didn't last long. In 1988, the Reungra-do General Trade Bureau, with their strong power, deprived the General Construction & Building Material Bureau of its contract right to construction and agriculture. Since autumn 1988, the General Trade Bureau began to collect and dispatch overseas laborers to the East area of Russia. 

Before communist political power collapsed, the Russians, in consideration of an amicable and sincere relationship established between the two socialist societies, consented to all terms of a contract drafted by the North Korean side. The Reungra General Trade Bureau was praised by Kim Il Sung's instruction, called "holy teaching" in NK, for their effort contributing to the project. As a result, they then successfully grew from just 
a provincial organization following instructions from the Pyongyang City Party​, to a powerful central organization. The Reungra General Trade Bureau was awarded all unique business rights in the Amur Province of Russia. Thus, the history of North Korean labor began as the Bureau became an independent business authority.

What Did I Wish For? Freedom? Language? 

It was by means of my various life experience in Russian territory that I finally managed to enter Korea. 

As I mentioned above, my only objective of moving to Russia was my desire to study Russian instead of French, my major. Designated as reception staff in a representative department when I first entered Russia, I devoted myself to studying Russian for one year. According to a strict living law of my department that forbade foreigners from going out at night, I began to study Russian by myself, living inside my room during tedious winter nights. Six months later, I was able to communicate in daily life, and after 5 more months I was able to achieve a higher level of Russian, such that I was often called on for help as if I were an official interpreter. 
Looking back on those days when my Russian skills were praised at company dinner parties by people involved in business with Russia, I am proud of myself. This happened during my first vacation back to Pyongyang after working at the representative department. 

Improving one's language skill requires, from my perspective, not only an interest and talent but also the effort of trying to think like the people in that country and keep up with their lifestyle. During my childhood, I spent a long time separated from my parents, who were engaged in a special project overseas against South Korea. I never received a considerate domestic education, instead experiencing a life similar to that of the army, so I have brought strongly to my mind a desire for freedom.