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Serial Story: An Appeal by a North Korean Refugee Who Had Been Hiding in Russia (1)
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2016-01-20 14:42:59
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Serial Story: An Appeal by a North Korean Refugee Who Had Been Hiding in Russia (1)


Dong Sung LEE

This is an appeal by a North Korean lumberjack, Mr. Dong Sung Lee, who had been hiding in Russia. His urgent plea had reached us via a Japanese journalist. The Citizen's Alliance had supported him financially from October 1996 to April 1998. Mr. Lee successfully defected to Seoul via a third country. 


"I am a North Korean. Please help me. Please give me a loaf of bread and a cup of hot tea. Just help warm me up a little." 

Shivering with cold, a haggard man is knocking on your door. Have you ever let him in your house? He is asking for help with teary eyes. Have you ever let him take a seat as a fellow human being who is breathing the same air with him, let alone practicing humanitarianism and charity? 

If you ever provided him with warm food and a space for rest, you deserve my gratitude. You may be wondering, after he was gone, why he had been wandering around Siberia, a wasteland of winter storms. You may want to find out who he was. 

Judging from his ragged appearance, you may think he was just out of a mental institution. However, he was neither a beggar, nor a mental patient. He has a sound mind with a keen sense of what is right. His heart is burning with a strong sense of love and hatred. Neither was he a bum, nor was his mental faculty inferior than others. And given the oppressive nature of the North Korean society, his only choice as a conscientious person was to wander around Russian cities and villages. 

He is an escapee or a defector. He is a former lumberjack, a laborer for a new mine, and a construction worker. He is now a refugee, regardless of what he has been. He is "ideologically contaminated" and a "traitor" hotly pursued by North Korean security agents. 

What makes him so "notorious"? Why is he wearing such "celebrated" hats? What is forcing him to roam about in deep valleys and fields in a remote Far Eastern corner, hiding and begging in the extremity of Siberian winter? 

Who is the defector? 

He was type of person who never dreamed of defection. His family in North Korea was simply too precious for him to desert from the rank. Any defector was a faithful party member. He never questioned and bargained for the directions from party higher-ups. He would simply follow the order with single- mindedness. The living condition in North Korea was cruel, barely subsisting on scanty rice. No medicine for a sick member of the family was available. No luxury of watching television was affordable. The last option was, of course, to cross the border. 

He endured the hard life beset by such a total deficiency and gloom without any compliant. When others were collecting "the patriotic rice" for the government, he gave all he had not even thinking about what to eat for next meal. When the government authorities asked people to collect mushrooms so that the government can "earn foreign currency", he was the first one to run to the hill to pick them. He was one of those who had persuaded themselves to tighten their belts in view of national crisis, let alone the fatherland still divided. Once he came to Russia, he gave up smoking and drinking. He picked blue berries day and night even on holidays so that he could send what little money he could collect to his family. Had the program for earning foreign currency not progressed in full gear among the North Korean lumberjacks, he would have gone back to his family and to the party as an ordinary member. 

Program for earning foreign currency has been rumored from around 1993. It was officially named as "Loyalty Foreign Currency Earning" before too long. So many North Korean lumberjacks in Russia have been goofing around for the scarcity of work. Around the time when the new agreement on lumber work was signed, the Russian side refused to provide forestland and equipment. For example, out of four platoons of lumberjack's company only one had job to do, leaving three platoons of lumberjacks unemployed for the year. Of course, those unemployed couldn't earn money and had to borrow for their daily food. There should have been some sort of emergency measure for the plight of the lumberjacks who initially had come to help North Korean economy. At this juncture, a few bribery cases took place ostensibly to bargain for works, that is forestland. 

To make things worse, there came an appeal to donate foreign currency-ruble in order to demonstrate their loyalty. The higher-ups "recommend" thirty thousand rubles for each. Through lumberjacks' office, company, and platoon the directive was promptly reached. On top of that public "discourse" and "address" were made to ensure everyone's participation. Some donated one hundred thousand rubles, some two hundred thousand rubles, some even paid more than one half million rubles to surprise all. Those represent a very small portion of the lumberjacks. In most cases their pockets were empty. Apportioned amount for the lumberjacks' office fell well short of its target. 

Beginning of tragedy ? "Loyalty foreign currency earning" 

The higher-ups, however, came up with a strange idea that nobody was able to comprehend. They allowed lumberjacks to travel out of the designated area so that everyone could earn as much as one could. Then foreigner's certificate was issued to anyone who so desired. 

Initially North Korean laborers in Russia turned in their passports to security office. If they want to go out to stores or market, either lumberjack's office or security office provided them with temporary pass. "Patrol teams" would go out to keep eye on them. For the laborers it was unthinkable to get out without passes. 

If they were caught without passes, imprisonment was surely guaranteed. Now everyone was psyched up for the possibility of getting out of the area even if it was for earning foreign currency. It was certainly a revolutionary step. It has dawned on me that North Koreans were "taught" for decades so as to travel beyond designated area to earn foreign currency. It seemed that the government trusted the party members to some degree. All the higher-ups including the manager urged the laborers to get out and make money. "Why not earn foreign money instead of idling by." 

So, a lot of men took off. Although some were swindlers, majority of them were eager to earn so that they could help the country. As they were departing, no one was able to foresee what was in store for them. 

Very few North Koreans knew about business. Not many mistakes were made among those who went to work in construction sites or mines. However, for those who jumped into an unknown world of business, it was all disaster. Among the escapees in later days these people numbered most. It was not easy to earn foreign currency whether one was in contract work or in business. Everybody could be a hero if money making was that easy. Some followed hunters into deep forest only to meet with failure. And some of them simply deserted. 

North Korean laborers were all willing to take any work which Russians had avoided including unloading sacks of cement from freight cars and outdoor chores in construction sites in winter. They didn't mind whether it was hazardous or not. When Russian refused to paint a sky-high television relay antenna for safety reasons, a team of North Korean laborers finished the job in several days. 

In general North Korean workers are well recognized throughout the world for their hard work and diligence. Some was street vendors in marketplace hollering all day long. Others collaborated with Chinese merchants making easy money. 

Those who started their own business braved frostbite in the marketplace, routinely skipping their lunch. Still others sold ballpoint pens, underwear, and balloons. When the deadline came they sent in money, resuming whatever works they were doing afterward. 
It was not quite clear as to how much foreign currency they brought into the State Treasury. As people commented later on "Loyalty Foreign Currency Earning" project was very ill conceived with no thorough planning in advance. Many party higher-ups and swindlers fattened their pockets, leaving so many ordinary citizens poorer. 

Money, the barometer of loyalty 

It was time for those who had gone abroad to earn foreign currency to return to the homeland. However, most of them could not keep the deadline. Especially to those who were engaged in business time was too short for tying up all the loose-ends and close down the store. For them a couple of months would quickly pass in the midst of anxiety. Only those who made money with their physical prowess and skill were able to return home on time. 

If so many workers did not return on time, the unit supervisors and security agents who vouched for them are in for a big trouble. When the workers were leaving for Russia party higher-ups mouthed all the patriotic rhetoric. Once things went awry the party cadre would only criticize the unit supervisors and security agents. Well, this happens in any country, though. As old saying goes: when things go well it's because of my effort; if not, it's because of my ancestor's fault. So, the security agents had to rush to the scene. In many cases those laborers would plead with the agents for more time. With the money in hand they would return home, leaving the laborers behind. If "a gentlemen's agreement" is reached between the two parties, the laborers would have their stay extended. 
This applied to those who were in business and contract work. Should they fail to make a deadline, then situation surely will deteriorate. Once they were caught by a simple enthusiasm to demonstrate their loyalty by earning as much rubles as possible. Now, their sense of frustration was acute. 

Things would be rather simple had they made enough money, since all their perspiration and hardship under adverse circumstances were rewarded handsomely. For those who lost even their seed money in business venture it was disaster. Those who failed in business suffer not only mental turmoil but also abject poverty ? for this the party hierarchy didn't care. When they returned home empty-handed, they were not embraced by the State as a loving mother does to her child. They were given a cold shoulder along with slander and severe criticism. 

"They changed a great deal after making money abroad." 
"They acquired some capitalist's trait." 
"Surely they hid the money somewhere." 

And other incredible rumors spread and eventually reached to the security agency. 

The workers' office abruptly suspended payment of their salaries. Not only that they were taken to security office and interrogated for several days. 

Had they borrowed money from others their troubles were much more serious. If the money was not paid back in time, people behaved like beasts even if they were "friends." The creditors would grab what little belongings the debtors might have. Or they would beat them up mercilessly. The party higher- ups and security agents pretended their ignorance. Some workers' office even excommunicated those party members who had returned penniless. Eventually they were put in jail. 

Their alleged crime was: listening to South Korean broadcast or reading erotic Chinese magazines or South Korean books; meeting with South Koreans several times to get "instructions." Security agents were determined to claim their credit by fabricating all sorts of crimes, making them traitors overnight. While some security agents might get medals and citations for meritorious actions, those "traitors" and their families were in deep trouble. They were condemned simply because they didn't make money. 

You'd better escape, if you are penniless 

People didn't want to return to workers' office if they failed in business or found themselves penniless. Some of them intended to start all over again without paying much attention to the deadline. By then they were blacklisted and targets of investigation. One whose deadline was over by three or four months reportedly escaped to Hong Kong. That man was supposed to return empty-handed after trying very hard to meet his apportionment. 

Now, how the office handled his case? The man spent several months in a prison cell. Then under a false charge of attempting to flee to Hong Kong or somewhere he was escorted to North Korea. Somehow he managed to flee from there and made it to Europe. 

One who had been rumored to have defected to South Korea made a ton of money and bribed the party hierarchy to his safety. After all money became the final authority to determine one's life and death. 

Nobody pays attention to whether you were a loyal party member in observing party discipline enduring many hardships. It is hard to draw a line whether one is a loyal party member determined to earn rubles or a potential defector. 

He is neither a former POW who escaped from the camp, nor a man who doesn't want to return to North Korea. He is not eager to denounce the party. He is a deserter, nevertheless. Search order for his arrest was issued. That was the time when he realized that he made a grievous mistake. He knew from others' experiences that it wouldn't make any difference whether he turned himself in or got arrested. Then the best thing for him to do was to flee from the area. A life of a defector would soon start. He had to be cautious and vigilant all the time. The longer he remains as a fugitive the harsher his punishment will be. Before too long North Korean agents asked Russian police to assist. As the pursuer's steps got ever closer, he had to focus on his hiding, not even thinking of going out to marketplace or making money. 

Once he was a loyal party member. What's happening now? He is now a wretched fugitive nervously trembling even to the whistling of breeze. 

A criminal falsely accused 

North Korean Security Department came up with a dubious scheme to arrest the defector. To rouse Russian police into action the security agents falsely labeled the deserter as murderer, armed robber, and drug dealer. Then Russian police was compelled to act. Nevertheless, he couldn't make up his mind to defect to South Korea right away. Although he knew it was best to go there to save his life, he didn't dare even though he had to endure cold winter by begging. He was well aware of the fact that if he went there he would be very well taken care of as a fellow citizen who had endured all sorts of hardship. Of course, his life would be secure. 

His burning question was: what kind of crime did I commit to deserve this? Why the security agents were so eager to arrest me? What sort of crime did I perpetrate? For what reason should I defect to South Korea? It was so absurd and unreasonable for him to run. But it was the only option available for him under the circumstance. Once he gets caught, he has to admit whatever crimes "they" cook up. So, he had no choice but to run. He knew that he could be all right once he made it to South Korea. But everyone knows what will happen to his family left behind in North Korea. 

A South Korean newspaper reported on North Korean lumberjacks who had defected. One of them was shedding tears. Somebody observed that he was so grateful to be in South Korea that he was crying. That was not the accurate description of his mind, as his own words later attest. We should realize that his tears are not for joy. He is crying for his family who would face grim reality of retribution on account of his defection. What shall he do for them? His children's future is doomed. How shall his feeble wife survive who had been homebound due to her sickness? No one would dare to defect to South Korea had there been no relentless pursuit by North Korean security agents in Russia. Everyone would seek an opportunity to start over a new life in Russia even though it was not easy.