03 November 2005

First Impressions of China after North Korea

The river crossing didn't take long, two minutes, perhaps, of running across the ice with as little noise as possible. I still remember clearly the mix of emotions I felt just then. There was certainly fear--of getting caught and of what awaited me on the other side--but I also felt sadness. I was abandoning something indefinable that was reproaching me for leaving. ... Those two or three minutes on the ice were like an eternity.

Though the area was supposed to be under surveillance, we didn't see a single guard. Running across the border today is even easier: many more people are at the starting line, and the guards are more lax than ever. Just give them some money or a good pack of cigarettes and they'll let you pass. Back in 1992, if they saw a fugitive, they would cry "Halt," then start firing.

We arrived at our guide's house tired and out of breath. We found him dressed in South Korean-made jacket and pants, which must have cost the equivalent of a North Korean worker's monthly wages. He was a man bubbling over with plans, the first of which was to move to South Korea as soon as he had enough money saved up. "Going from the North directly to the South is impossible," he said with effect, trying to bait us. But we weren't going for it. We had taken the precaution of not telling him we were wanted by the authorities. While he was happy to help people make little "business" trips into China, he had no interest in running seriously afoul of the law. To help ensure he kept quiet about our crossing, I gave him a handsome wad of cash [sent by relatives in Japan], for which he was also supposed to find us a truck to Yonji--or Yongil, as we say in Korea--the capital of China's autonomous Korean region. As we sat chatting that first night, we heard some astonishing things from our guide. We learned, for example, that he was actually a member of the Chinese Communist Party. It was totally baffling. Korean Communists were hard, austere ideologues--or at least tried to act that way--and here was this Chinese Communist proudly flaunting his wealth!

The next evening's meal was as ample as the first. The guide's wife claimed it was just the usual fare, but what was ordinary to them was gargantuan to me: there were many different dishes, and several had meat! I couldn't believe my eyes. I felt as if I'd been invited to a feast for Party cadres. In the North, alcohol is very expensive; an average bottle sells for 10 won, one-tenth of a worker's monthly wages. The most popular spirit, pai jou (white alcohol), comes from China. It costs 60 won a bottle and is usually reserved for special occasions. Here it was being poured into our glasses as an ordinary accompaniment to an improvised meal! ... China was like paradise, and I began to sense the huge gulf separating the universe as I knew it and the world as it might actually be.

There were more surprises to come. After dinner, our host suggested we walk to a nightclub in the neighboring village. We accepted the invitation--though I couldn't help thinking, Don't these people go to work? It was nearing midnight, and we were only now stepping out! Finally, I worked up the courage to ask, "Don't you have to wake up early tomorrow?" His answer left me stunned: it was "up in the air!" His next observation, though, is the one that really did me in. "In any case," he said, "the important thing isn't work; it's to enjoy life." I was speechless.
SOURCE: The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, translated by Yair Reiner (Basic Books, 2001), pp. 197-198

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