One Sunday we stepped out for what we said was a little walk, leaving behind a few of our things to lend our lie some credibility. The train ride to Dalian passed without incident, but we had no definite plan besides avoiding police patrols and eating. In the meantime, blending into a crowd and getting some food seemed like a fine idea, so we headed for the market. It must have been around 1:00 P.M. The streets were peopled but far from packed. Dalian doesn’t really liven up until evening, when its streets metamorphose into an immense bazaar, brimming with every manner of food and clothing merchant. We were strolling through the market like tourists, considering what our next step might be, when suddenly we heard Korean. Next to us, three women were chatting it up. It was as though a lifesaver had been thrown our way. I grabbed it without thinking. One of them seemed particularly nice. She was around thirty, well-dressed.
“Onni,”6 I asked, “are you Korean?”
She answered my question with another question.
“Where are you from?”
I decided to go for it.
“From the North,” I told her. “We’ve hit a rough spot. Could you help us?”
She gave us a close once-over, dismissed her friends, then led us to a nearby restaurant and ordered us bulgogi—a kind of Korean barbecue—with rice and beer.
“Alright,” she said once we were settled, “let’s hear your story.”
She sat listening to us for a long time, occasionally nodding her head to encourage us to continue. She was visibly moved, but afterward the only thing she would reveal about herself was that her parents were also from North Korea and that she had no sympathies for Kim Il-sung—we could be quite sure of that. By the time we ended our meal, she had invited us to stay with her. Her apartment was large and messy. And we were bewildered to find it inhabited by about fifteen young women, most of them around twenty years old and several of them Korean. It didn’t take much to figure out they were prostitutes, living there under the protection of our new friend, who also lodged her adoptive niece.
I am indebted to all those women for one of the most important times in my life. A current of sympathy ran among us, growing stronger with time. Our hostess, whom I will call Madame Yi, eventually proposed that she and I join in an oath to make us like brother and sister. I was deeply moved and accepted immediately. From that point forward, our mutual affection would be unconditional, vulnerable only to death. Once our pact was sealed, I was allowed to discover that, aside from her escort service, this energetic woman also ran another business, whose secrecy was more scrupulously maintained. Most of her earnings came from smuggling snakes into South Korea, where they are a rare and highly prized delicacy. I had eaten them myself at Yodok, but that was only because I was dying of hunger. As far as I knew, there was no shortage of food in the South! Madame Yi laughed at my naivete and explained that virility-obsessed South Koreans ate snakes for the supposed aphrodisiacal virtues they shared with eel, ginseng, deer antlers, bear bile, and, of course, seal’s penis—the be-all and end-all of sexual aids.
Madame Yi bought the reptiles from a network of local roughnecks who caught them in the mountains. She had a warehouse not far from her apartment where she kept the snakes until she could arrange transport—she had her connections—aboard a South Korea–bound ship. The most difficult part of the affair was keeping the snakes in their boxes until shipping time: they could slip through the smallest of holes. The police already had been called out once by frightened neighbors and needed to be paid off with money and girls. Madame Yi bought the snakes for less than 100 yuan and resold them to specialized dealers for $10 apiece. With two deliveries a month, each of one thousand snakes, it was a highly lucrative business.
An-hyuk and I played it safe and went out as little as possible. Our hostess advised us to keep a low profile, though she was equally worried we might be turned in by one of her employees, a girl whose father was none other than president of the Association of Koreans in Dalian. Madame Yi had little cause for concern though: the girl was not only the prettiest of the bunch, she was the most generous, too. She had fallen in love with An-hyuk and took meticulous care of him when he fell ill. Neither did she hesitate to dip into her own nest egg to help us. With several Pyongyang agents among her clients, she even promised to warn us if she ever got wind of impending danger. I had such trust in her that I told her my real name. If she wanted to turn me in, so be it. Perhaps it’s naive, but I’ve always had the belief that women would shield and protect me from the vicissitudes of fate.
After a month in Dalian, I offered to work for my hostess. I didn’t want to continue living off her good graces. She refused at first, saying that as long as I was in China, I was her guest; my turn to help her out would come one day, too. I insisted so much, though, she finally started giving me odd jobs around the snake warehouse. A little later, when she needed a discreet, reliable assistant, she chose me. As for the girls, they generally hung around the apartment, joking and flirting with us until a customer called. At night they went out to the docks. When they met someone they didn’t mind spending some time with, they asked him for a little present.
One night, one of them told me a North Korean navy ship had pulled into port. Having by this time grown less timid, An-hyuk and I decided to check it out, taking four girls along for company. Down by the docks we walked up to several sailors and stared in mock wonderment at the Kim Il-sung badges attached to their uniforms.
“Are you from the North?” I asked in Korean. “We’re Chinese of Korean descent. I even lived in the North for a while.”
Delighted at meeting semicompatriots, they all shook our hands. I was finding the situation rather amusing. They wanted to do some shopping and were very happy when we offered to lend our assistance. The ubiquitous security agent who was accompanying them—a typical specimen you could spot a mile away—made no objection. An-hyuk, the girls, and I thus became their negotiators and interpreters for the day, walking them through the market’s maze of streets and alleyways and letting them sense that our company was winning them discounts. The whole thing struck me as very funny. I felt euphoric, like I could do anything. I even had the gumption to draw the sailors into a conversation about the state of affairs in North Korea.
“I’m not sure Kim Il-sung is as good a leader as you claim he is,” I ventured.
They tripped over one another running to his defense.
“How dare you say that?” they asked. “What do you have against him?”
I limited my observations to the country’s economic difficulties. They responded that the troubles were of a passing nature, brought on by Russia having stabbed communism in the back and broken off economic relations with the North. The country would soon get back on its feet, though; they were as sure of this as of their Great Leader, Kim Il-sung. But as soon as the security agent went to the bathroom, one of the sailors admitted he agreed with me. He wore the Kim Il-sung badge because he had to, not because he supported the regime.
“You and your friends would do well to take them off,” I told him, “at least while you’re doing your shopping. The Chinese take North Koreans for dupes and jack up the prices on them. . . .”
An-hyuk and I were giddy with malice.
The soldiers held a hushed discussion among themselves, then did as I suggested. Poor wretches! They had no more than a dollar or two to their name. It was sad to look at them. I don’t even know how much I spent that day helping them buy socks, belts, and other knickknacks. Dazzled by the abundance of merchandise, they couldn’t stop singing China’s praises. In the end, I made them another proposition.
“If you have a little money left over, I can set you up with a pretty girl.”
“How much?” they asked.
“Okay,” they said. “That’ll be for next time.”
They were fascinated by the girls’ miniskirts. I had the same reaction at first. But I had gotten used to it.
Weeks passed, then months. Madame Yi suggested several times that I settle down in Dalian. Her niece, she said, would be happy to be my wife. That we got on well was true, and my life in that city was certainly agreeable. Kim Yong-sun, the niece, waited on me hand and foot, and she had presented me to her family, who invited me over regularly. Before long I was being received like a regular fiancé. A consummate matchmaker, Madame Yi often organized outings for us. We would catch a ferry out to one of the islands off Dalian, stopping to eat mussels and taking long walks. Those were beautiful days, and they showed me I was as capable of enjoying life as my fellow humans.
Madame Yi’s offer was tempting, but I felt I hadn’t yet come to the end of my journey. South Korea attracted me more than ever. During my time in Dalian, I learned more about the country. I had heard it was richer than China and incomparably more democratic. My curiosity was piqued. After ten years in Yodok, I also felt an obligation to the people I’d left behind. I had to expose the existence of these camps, to denounce the way North Korea’s population was being walled in, surveyed, and punished under the slightest pretext. I had to tell my grandfather’s story. In South Korea this would be most possible.
Moreover, I still had reason to fear being stopped by a police patrol and getting sent back to where I’d come from. Despite my relative contentment, it was time to go. As Madame Yi’s contraband business proved, finding passage was not impossible. Perhaps I could even trade places with a few snakes and sneak into Korea among a shipment of precious aphrodisiacs. Madame Yi laughed at my suggestion, but after much prodding, she agreed to help me secure passage. We kept Kim Yong-sun in the dark. She would have wept and made a scene, insisting I take her along, which was impossible. I’m sad when I think about it now and feel awful about the way I treated her—especially considering how she once saved me from a police patrol on the train from Dalian to Beijing.
Toward the end of July 1992, Madame Yi began sending out feelers for a ship to carry An-hyuk and me to the South. Most of the captains she spoke to considered it too risky and were unwilling to run afoul of the Chinese authorities for our sake. After meeting with countless refusals, she finally aroused the interest of a captain with whom she’d had previous dealings and who was a regular visitor to her girls. The money involved, however, was not enough to allay all his fears. His ship sailed under a Honduran banner, the accepted practice among ships running between China and South Korea prior to the opening of the countries’ official diplomatic relations on August 24, 1992. His good-sized freighter transported various merchandise, including cereals, sesame seeds, beans, and dried seafood. Humans were not usually part of the cargo. Since he really didn’t know us, he looked to Madame Yi for reassurance.
“If I do this, will it be good or bad?” he asked.
“It will be good for the country, good for peace, and—most importantly—you’ll save these two young people’s lives.”
The deal was sealed without further ado.