The Monsoon’s Sea of Fire in North Korea

Friday 27th September, 2013

Not many of us like to go out on a rainy day. But in North Korea, some people really love being out in the rain when the monsoon season comes.

Lee Yun-mi, a North Korean refugee from Gapsan-gun in Yanggang province, says, “The people in my town would count the days as the monsoon season approached. When it rains and the water level rises in the streams and rivers, the mountain frogs follow the water down to the riverbank and lots of people wait for this time to catch frogs.”

She explains that since the beginning of the 2000s, the price of frog oil has risen, as demand from China has increased. A big frog can be sold for the price of 2 kilograms of rice. In addition, you can also take the oil from the frog’s stomach and sell it, and as for the rest of it, “dried frog makes a delicious side dish fried or in soup.”

“The frogs’ stomachs start to fill with oil around the beginning of September, but it’s hard to spot them at this time because so many people are hunting for them. On a rainy night, people with lights trying to catch frogs far outnumber the frogs themselves. If I looked down from my house, I could see a long line of fire stretching into the distance along the river.”

Gang Jung-sook, who escaped North Korea in 2011, says, “Few rural homes in North Korea have electric lights. They don’t often light lamps even on the darkest of nights. It’s enough to eat a meal before falling asleep, and it’s too costly to burn oil. But even those who can’t spare the money to light their oil lamps, when they go out to catch frogs, they will splash out to buy batteries and go out frog-hunting with the whole family.”

She explains the process: “Children are good at catching frogs. The father lifts a rock, and the son holds a net to catch the startled frogs as they leap. I can still clearly see the people who hadn’t caught any frogs running around anxiously as they heard others yell, ‘I caught one!’”

In the Yunsun region of North Korea, close to the Chinese border, the number of frogs has dropped dramatically. The regime has even forbidden the catching of frogs, but no one is said to pay any attention. Because nowadays, North Koreans have a bit more spark: they learned through the famine  years that following the authorities’ instructions only leads to death.

Lamp oil is precious in rural areas. Currently, the price of lamp oil is about 1200 Won for a 500g bottle. That will last about 15 days. But you can’t use oil lamps when catching frogs, because the rainy wind will quickly put out any lamp. The only alternative is to use torches and batteries from China. Cheap as these goods are for the rest of us, a North Korean must consider them as a business expense.

Lee Mi-yun says, “Everyone ‘invested’ money in batteries, because catching enough frogs still made it profitable. People make their way even into the furthest valleys, deep in the mountains. In the monsoon season, the valleys turn into a sea of fire – swarming with people with torches.”

She adds, “Back home now, friends and family are probably going from valley to valley, in the pouring rain, looking for frogs. My heart aches when I think of my friends running around on the darkest of rainy nights, soaking wet, desperately hunting for frogs.”

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