From the biggest cities to the smallest villages in North Korea, there is now some kind of market building where people can sell their wares and keep their profits. Some are state-run, some are state-sanctioned, some are ad hoc.
A doctor (42) who defected in 2014 explained, “The salary for doctors was about 3,500 won a month. That was less than it cost to buy one kilogram of rice! So of course, being a doctor was not my main job. My main job was smuggling at night. I would send herbal medicine from North Korea into China, and with the money, I would import home appliances back into North Korea. Rice cookers, notels, LCD monitors, that kind of thing.”
As the economy and the rules that govern it have change in North Korea, there are more and more gray areas that can be exploited which means that illegal trade and activity have also blossomed.
Said a drug dealer (46) who defected in 2014: “I worked as a broker transferring money and connecting people in North Korea with people in South Korea through phone calls. I arranged reunions for them in China. I also smuggled antiques out of North Korea, as well as ginseng and pheasants, and sold them in China.
“And I dealt ‘ice’ [methamphetamines]. 70 or 80 percent of the adults in Hoeryong city were using ice. My customers were just ordinary people. Police officers, security agents, party members, teachers, doctors. Ice made a really good gift for birthday parties or for high school graduation presents.
“It makes you feel good and helps you release stress. My 76-year-old mother was using it because she had low blood pressure, and it worked well.
“Lots of police officers and security agents would come to my house to smoke, and of course I didn’t charge them — they were my protection. They would come by my house during their lunch break. The head of the secret police in my area was almost living at my house.”
Increasingly, North Koreans are not fleeing their totalitarian state because they are hungry, as they did during the 15 or so years following the outbreak of a devastating famine in the mid-1990s. Now, they are leaving because they are disillusioned.