My mother, the Iron Lady

The type of truck my mother used to smuggle steel plates (Oleg Znamenskiy / Courtesy of Shutterstock, Inc)

One of my most terrifying memories was the day the secret police ransacked our family’s house.

Three men barged in and one of them barked at my two-year-old baby sister. “Where is your mother?” he said. Before we could reply, they started searching everywhere.

The two of us stood in the kitchen, holding hands. We were petrified, scared even of the sound of our own breathing.

The agents, who were from the Ministry of State Security (MSS), were looking for evidence to incriminate my mother. She was running a side business selling steel products. Someone had reported her. 

Later, looking back, I wondered why they couldn’t have investigated her workplace. Why did they have to come to the house? Perhaps as someone snitched on her, they saw a chance to make some money themselves and came to scare her into paying them off. 

That day, they didn’t say anything clear that I remember. They left our tidy place in a mess and neither of my parents returned home for a day or two.

My motivation to eventually defect from North Korea was connected to many incidents of this sort that I experienced. The fear I felt that day later turned into a kind of resentment. Since then, I have constantly questioned to myself, “What’s wrong with earning some money by trading in an environment where making a living through regular work is difficult? Why should I live in a place where even the opportunity to work hard to make money is denied?”

Reflecting on that day, my mother used to tell me, “If you want to gain anything, you must be prepared to lose something.” This was her way of rationalizing her illegal business dealings with China, which she embarked upon despite the risk, so she could buy food for her family.

My mother was a graduate of the Kim Jong-suk University of Education (named after Kim Il-sung’s wife), in Hyesan, on the Chinese border. She became an elementary school teacher. The school system required her to teach all subjects, including physical education and music (harmonica and accordion). 

But she came to feel there was no hope in being a teacher. She decided to give it up and do business with Chinese traders. Before the pandemic (and now starting up again), these people would come to North Korea to conduct business. Private trade with them was illegal for us. But mother went ahead and started selling steel items to them. The products came from the Kim Chaek Iron and Steel Complex. This is the country’s biggest steel mill and is located in Chongjin, which is known as the City of Iron. 

The key people who made the business possible were Chinese customs officials. The person my mother dealt with had good connections. They would load a truck about two thirds full with steel and cover it with boxes of seafood, which is a popular export item to China. The Chinese partner had such good relationships that sometimes his truck would pass through customs without being inspected at all. 

“It seems like you are living with a bomb on your head, never knowing when it will explode,” my grandmother told my mother. 

Through this risky business, it wasn’t just our family that lived in relative luxury. So did the cadres around us. It was not possible to engage in this kind of business without the cadres around us finding out sooner or later. It was inevitable. For this reason, my mother used to bribe them to turn a blind eye. She gave them cash, CRT monitors, computers, color televisions, washing machines, tape recorders, and cassettes. 

Of course, if anything went wrong, she would be the one to bear all the responsibility. That was how it was.

Making money by selling thousands of laptop-sized rectangular steel plates to China was no small thing. It’s unclear how things started to go wrong. But, after about two years, the secret police caught wind of it. 

When they burst into our house that day, without even taking off their shoes, they were looking for evidence. They searched everywhere but found nothing. That was because the cash was hidden where they wouldn’t think to look. I don’t know if my father anticipated a visit when my mother started the business, but I remember one day he reinforced the threshold connecting two rooms in the house. He raised it, using bricks and cement, and hid the money inside it.

After the search, the MSS interrogated my mother for several days. She managed to avoid punishment. I don’t know how. Perhaps she bribed them.  

But the outcome was that she had to stop the steel trading. She must have been scared now that she was a person of interest to the MSS. Another factor might be that after being summoned by the MSS, she collapsed in the toilet. She was diagnosed with a cerebral hemorrhage. Fortunately, she was found quickly, and her health recovered enough that she could resume daily activities without any trouble. 

The uncertainty about my father’s job security and my mother’s health filled me with great fear about how we were going to survive.

This incident solidified my thinking. No matter how hard we work to make a living, in this country we are not guaranteed any reward for our efforts. If my mother, the Iron Lady, could face such misfortune, what hope was there?

“I loved children and teaching them,” my mother told me. “I quit teaching and went into the steel business to support my kids. Then I was caught. When I collapsed with the brain hemorrhage and had to give it up, I probably felt greater relief that I didn’t have to do this dangerous work anymore than fear about not being able to make money.”

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