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The Arduous March

We stayed in the mountain village up until we left the North. Before that, when we had been living in the farming village, we couldn’t afford to visit our relatives in China. But after a few years in our new location, we started applying for temporary passports so we could travel back and forth across the border. With both my father and mother making trips to China, our family seemed to be among the better off in the village.

My father, who traveled frequently to procure materials for the government-run farm where he worked, was a very generous, proper, and considerate man. People used to say he was naturally good at heart. This shows how much people trusted him. If he had any flaw, it was that he loved alcohol and paid little attention to family affairs and took better care of his business and his friends than he did his family.

Then a few years later, starting in the mid-1990s, the era of great famine known as The Arduous March came to North Korea. Anywhere from hundreds of thousands to millions of people died of starvation due to the country’s economic isolation and the natural disasters of flooding and drought. As in other places, the food shortage in our village reached a critical point. People ate porridge and continued going to work; meanwhile, food rations stopped entirely, and the distribution stations shut their doors. With rations cut off, people began to starve. In spring, everyone would go out to gather frozen potatoes and forage in the mountains for grass roots, tree bark, and wild greens.

I think it is no exaggeration to say that this was when my dream of becoming a musician changed to that of becoming a writer. My father had been a musician, and ever since I was young, he had encouraged me to follow in his footsteps and study music. I, too, had been interested in music, but after The Arduous March was upon us, I was filled with the desire to record everything I saw. I wanted to make the people I saw around me—people so hungry to live that they would forage in the mountains for food!—the heroes of my books.

Everyone struggled, doing whatever they had to do to survive, including engaging in trade that the government had ordered them not to do. My mother kept us going by bringing back rice and other items to sell, with the help of our family in China. Whenever the rice ran out, she would get another temporary passport and go back for more. But since she had little experience with trading, it never occurred to her to make a real business out of it. Our father, on the other hand, knew a great deal about buying and selling from his position as a procurement officer for the government farm, and he scolded our mother constantly for not doing something more with the goods she brought back from China. But since she knew nothing of running a business, my mother had no choice but to quietly tolerate his scolding.

Thanks to our relatives in China, we kept going to school, wore better clothes and shoes than others, and even ate good food. We lived well for several years, but after a while our family also began to fall on hard times. Our relatives in China moved to South Korea to make money, so we lost contact with them. My younger siblings and I did not have enough to eat. Weak from hunger, we could not go to school and had to join others in the mountains to forage for wild greens.

Whenever he was home from a trip, our father would join us in gathering songgi—our mother was unable to, having suffered a bone infection in her leg when she was young. Songgi is the thin inner bark of the pine tree that you get to by peeling away the outer bark with a knife or a scythe. It was really difficult work to collect an entire sackful of it. My two younger siblings would pick wild greens while my father and I worked on the songgi. At home, we blanched the greens in boiling water to make porridge. Then we boiled the songgi in lye for a long time and stretched it out and soaked it in water overnight. When that was done, we beat it with a club and added a handful of corn flour to make a kind of cake called songgi tteok. It was barely edible, and having to make do with that kind of food was terrible, yet it never occurred to us to blame North Korea’s dictatorial government for our hardships, nor did we feel sad about it. That was because of the lectures we attended once a month: 

Our nation, with its many mountains and little arable land, must import rice from other countries. But the boats that bring in rice from abroad are fired upon by the United States, which maintains an economic blockade against us, and all are sacrificed. The United States is the reason we are undergoing this current hardship.

These ideas were drilled into our heads, so we could not help thinking of the US as our sworn enemies.

Because my father was often away on business, the role of head of the household fell to me. When we ran out of firewood, I would go with others from our village into the mountains to chop down trees. The work was profoundly difficult. Young as I was, I was barely able to fell a tree on my own. It took all of the strength I did not have to swing the ax, and more often than not, the tree would land on me, injuring my arm or foot. It was so hard that I often collapsed in the snow and cried. Blowing into my gloveless hands and chopping down trees in the winter with the wind howling past me in my threadbare shoes, I felt miserable and envied the others who had borrowed an ox from the government farm to carry back their firewood. When the people of my village saw me dragging the wood behind me with rope, because it was too heavy for me to carry, they would murmur, “Poor thing!” but they never helped. It was not that I expected them to help, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping just a little that they would.

I was only seventeen at the time, and chopping firewood was so difficult for me that we had no choice but to use it very sparingly. As a result, the house was often damp, which made the fire very smoky. We had to leave the door open whenever we cooked, so we wore thick, padded clothing all the time, even indoors. In North Korea, the houses have heated floors—beneath the top layer of oiled paper, which is glued down with flour or corn paste, a layer of large concrete slabs are spaced apart to create passages for the warm air from the stove to flow through and heat the room. If the fire is not kept going and the room gets damp, the floor paper comes unglued and rolls back, exposing the concrete underneath.

At some point, the smoke started coming out of the stove rather than going out through the chimney, so I had to roll up my sleeves and rip up the floor to repair it myself. But how good a job could a seventeen-year-old girl do all on her own? I had to use a pickax to break through the concrete. My face was covered in soot, and my clothes turned black from digging up the large slabs with my short arms. The smoke had been unable to escape through the chimney because the channels between the slabs were packed with soot. I had to remove all of it. That required me to lift each of the slabs and clear out the soot, but I was too weak. Instead, I tied a rag to a long piece of chain, stuffed the chain between the slabs, and dragged the soot toward me so I could dig it out with a trowel. This was only possible while lying on my stomach, so it was extremely tiring work. To finish the floor, I had to replace the slabs and pack them in place with clay: this meant mixing the clay in cold water and packing it between the stones with my bare hands in the dead of winter. Without gloves, and so young, I could barely do this. My mother could not do anything, and my siblings were too young, so I had to struggle on my own.

If I had been just a little bit older, I could have found a job or some other means of helping my family, and things would not have been that difficult. But because I was at an age where I was supposed to be under the protective wings of my mother and father, it was my duty to look after my siblings and care for my ailing mother. The weight on my shoulders grew heavier with each day.

From that point on, our family slipped further and further into poverty. My father was practically living in another province because of his work, and in the spring he had to go to Eundeok County to procure fertilizer for the farm. The fertilizer problem was nearly solved, but the impoverished farm could not afford to front my father the money for the trade. He said that was no reason to give up, and so he sold our own belongings, including a recorder, a sewing machine, and the TV, and when that was not enough, he even borrowed money from a wealthier family. After doing so, he was able to get the fertilizer to the farm by freight train. Compared to the farms that had no fertilizer, his was unaffected that year, but as poor as we were, everything we owned wound up going into the farm. With nowhere else to turn, my father applied for another temporary passport and went to China. Fortunately, his sister had returned from South Korea, and he returned with a great many things from there. We were able to escape our troubles for a short time, but my father’s debts meant that it did not last.

When the loan sharks heard that my father was back from China, they came to the house every day. And each time, my father handed them money. But the interest was greater than the money he had borrowed in the first place, which meant he was still a long way off from settling his debts. My father tried to get reimbursed for the money he had put into the farm, but the manager refused to budge.

Finally, my father seemed to have a change of heart. “At this rate,” he said, “our family will never survive!” I think he’d seen signs that the North Korean regime was collapsing. He realized that the government was treating its people like slaves while the citizens of Pyongyang alone enjoyed prosperity. For the sake of three million Pyongyang residents, the government condemned the remaining twenty million citizens to lives of hardship as little more than slaves.

One evening, my father announced that we were going to China. My mother and my siblings and I were all surprised, of course. We asked him why on earth he wanted to leave, and he said that if we continued the way we were going, we would starve to death, and that soon enough the loan sharks would be back, and the farm didn’t give a damn about him.

He told us that when he was in China, he had heard radio broadcasts from South Korea and learned that people in the South were living well, which was contrary to everything we believed. We had always thought that South Korea was full of beggars, but he said it was not like that at all. I could not understand him and refused to go.

That was when the shadow of hardship truly began to fall over our family.

© Ji Hyun-ah. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Sora Kim-Russell. All rights reserved.