WRAPPED IN LAYERS of threadbare rayon and vinylon, Kim Min-hee shivered on the shore of the frozen river and hoped she wouldn’t have to wait too long. After traveling for almost two days to get there, she had lain low for another day to watch for military patrols, and had been unable to light a fire for fear of being spotted. Hungry and cold, she spent the night huddled under an old blanket she had found tucked between rocks at the edge of the mighty Yalu.
She felt the small package under her clothes. Its weight and shape were both comforting and deadly. If things worked out, she would make contact with a Chinese buyer who would pay her well for the package. Bingdu—methamphetamine or crystal meth, was a valuable commodity, but if she was caught carrying the drugs, she would either be shot on the spot by one of the patrols, or worse, arrested and sent to one of the work camps where she would most assuredly die. The risk was extreme, but definitely worth it if Min-hee wanted to escape to the South.
Getting the drug was simple, since there was a man in her village who made it in his kitchen. He had once been a renowned chemist at a state-run laboratory, but when the country fell on hard times, he and other chemists who found themselves out of work turned to alternative means to support themselves. There were others who made the drug, but Min-hee’s villager was the most reliable. He had lost his wife the winter before, and no longer cared about life. The government threatened to crack down on the production and sale of bingdu, but the kitchen labs prospered, and the thriving black market along the border between North Korea and China was impossible to stop.
Min-hee had heard there was even a factory that was producing the drug on an industrial scale. Supposedly a Chinese businessman had built it and was manufacturing the drug using some of the same chemists who had been producing it in their homes. Min-hee feared it would only be a matter of time before chemists like the one in her village would be put out of work, or executed. The regime liked to keep the people scared, and mandatory attendance of public executions in the village square did that. Either way, if these rumors were true, she would have to come up with another way to fund her passage to the South.
Like many of the people in her village, Min-hee had sampled the drug she was carrying for the Chinese trader. Fellow villagers had told her how, in small quantities, bingdu suppressed the awful hunger they all felt. At first, she wanted nothing to do with it, but when she could no longer endure the gnawing emptiness in her stomach, she relented. The drug also had other supposed medicinal benefits. Some took it for headaches, to treat a common cold, or to seek relief from depression. She heard about soldiers who used it to stay alert when they were on duty or workers who took it to work longer hours in the country’s factories.
Everyone who tried it more than once found it extremely difficult to stop using.
Min-hee was not the only person in her village who sold the drug to Chinese traders. There were others who were willing to take risks, but not everyone was so lucky. There was one woman in her village whose son was arrested and thrown into jail for smuggling the drug into China. When the woman went to try to secure the release of her son, one of the guards told her that if she ever wanted to see her son alive, she had to bring him two grams of the drug. She did, and her son was freed. Another woman was caught and never heard from again.
It never crossed Min-hee’s mind that what she was doing was wrong. When she was younger, she had been mesmerized by her country’s charismatic leader. Once, while serving in the army, he visited her radar station on a mountain. She and the other women in her unit wept when he stopped to talk to them and pose for a photograph. It was one of the happiest days of her life. She believed in her country’s policy the Juche ideology or self-reliance. However, not everyone felt the same way. People grew tired of the food shortages and the empty slogans that told them to grow more mushrooms or annihilate the enemy to the last man. These slogans did not improve their lifestyle or put more food on the table. Soon, she dreamed of a better life.