When I was growing up Hyesan was an exciting place to be. Not because it was lively – nowhere in the country was noted for its theatre scene, restaurants or fashionable subcultures. The city’s appeal lay in its proximity to the narrow Yalu River, Korea’s ancient border with China. In a closed country like North Korea, Hyesan seemed like a city at the edge of the world. To the citizens who lived there it was a portal through which all manner of marvellous foreign-made goods – legal, illegal and highly illegal – entered the country. This made it a thriving hub of trade and smuggling, which brought many benefits and advantages to the locals, not least of which were opportunities to form lucrative partnerships with Chinese merchants on the other side of the river, and make hard currency. At times it could seem like a semi-lawless place where the government’s iron rule was not so strong. This was because almost everyone, from the municipal Party chief to the lowliest border guard, wanted a share of the riches. Occasionally, however, there were crackdowns ordered by Pyongyang, and they could be brutal.
People from Hyesan were therefore more business-minded and often better off than people elsewhere in North Korea. The grown-ups would tell me that we were fortunate to live there. It was the best place in the whole country after Pyongyang, they said.
26 November 2016
Life in a North Korean Border City, 1990s
From The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee (William Collins, 2015), Kindle Loc. 296-306: