Fate of a fishmonger

pyongyang_kim-il-sung-square_dreamstime_xxl_13969-857-editLet’s introduce Ms. Yi (not her real name), one of many North Korean entrepreneurs and one of the pioneers of the country’s private economy.

Ms. Yi and her husband began their operations in the late 1980s, soon after their marriage. Private enterprises began to pop up at the time despite the anti-capitalist founding father of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, still at the helm. This was especially true for two sectors―retail and fishing―in particular where the North Korean market economy was born.

Upon marriage Ms. Yi moved to her husband’s hometown, a small fishing village on the Yellow Sea coast. The newlyweds soon discovered that fish, clams and sea cucumber were a virtual gold mine. In 1988 they used their savings to purchase (or rather, order) a fishing boat, the first privately built vessel in their town. The order was unofficial: the couple visited a small local shipyard, explained what they needed, and paid money.

Ms. Yi’s boat was essentially a floating base for divers who were harvesting sea cucumber. It was largely she who dealt with the business, since her husband’s health soon deteriorated and, in spite of playing an important role in the early stages of their operation, he spent most of the time at home, often bed-ridden.

The patriarchal nature of North Korean society, however, forced Mr. Kim (let’s refer to Ms. Yi’s husband that way) to handle some formalities. On paper, he was an employee of a fishing company established by the North Korean Navy. Accordingly, the company owned all boats in the area and enjoyed exclusive access to large parts of the fertile sea bed. This was largely a fiction, however, since from the early 1990s nearly all seagoing fishing vessels were privately owned and operated. Owners of these boats gave the company a fixed amount of money as a reward for legal protection, and rights to protected waters.

Initially Mr. Kim was the skipper of his boat, but when his health deteriorated, his wife took over day-to-day operations. Harvested sea cucumbers were processed and then sold wholesale to merchants who came to town. The merchants paid foreign currency, mostly US dollars, and resold the goods in China.

Business was good. By the early 1990s Ms. Yi had expanded her fleet to a couple of larger boats and established more direct links with markets on the Chinese border. To ensure that police would not harass her, she made regular payments to the local precinct and provided the wives of the police officers with generous gifts.

By 1996, mass starvation and death had impacted the whole of North Korean society. Ms. Yi and her family weathered the storm, but it became impossible to obtain enough fuel for her boats. She stopped fishing for a while and took up other activities, money-lending in particular. Connections with local political elites were vital, and she seldom dealt with the problems of unpaid loans and debt―everybody understood that this woman was not to be messed with.

Towards the end of the famine in the late 1990s, the fuel situation improved and Ms. Yi restarted her fishing operations. By that time, she not only managed a small fleet of three to four boats, but also began to buy the catches of other fishermen at sea and delivered the seafood to the coast where wholesalers were waiting. Ms. Yi’s family was one of the richest in her town―perhaps more affluent than even families of top local government officials. However, she grew increasingly pessimistic about the future. Her sons excelled academically, but had dim career prospects in such a decrepit economy―Ms. Yi certainly did not want her boys to spend their lives in the risky and unstable world of the North Korean private sector.

After her husband’s death, Ms. Yi decided to move South. With her money and connections, defection was a breeze; she crossed the border in relative comfort and soon arrived in Seoul, where she resides today. She makes much less than she did in the North, but her children have graduated from one of the best Korean universities and have started promising careers. She has no regrets about leaving her business behind.

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