North Korean border guards prefer married women?

Wednesday 3rd December, 2014

The North Korean provinces of Yangang, Jagang, North Hamgyong, North Pyongan lie close to China, and in geographical proximity to the Yalu or Tumen River. For this reason, many border checkpoints are concentrated in these regions, with border guard units composed of soldiers in active service.

In the overall distribution of troops in North Korea, a high number are stationed in Kangwon Province, as well as North and South Hwanghae Provinces, and Kaesong. In those regions, troops are situated in the countryside areas, far from the main cities. However, as border checkpoints have to be positioned along the Yalu and Tumen Rivers, they are generally located closer to urban zones rather than in the remote countryside.

For North Korean soldiers, being posted to a border guard unit offers great opportunities to make money. In the past, values such as loyalty and mental fortitude were emphasized and cherished. But nowadays, a border posting is greatly coveted by soldiers in active service, because they understand the value of individual earnings.

After being assigned to his border post, one of the first things that a soldier needs to do is find a host house. North Korean border guards may wield the authority to guard the border and crackdown on smugglers; but if they want to make money, they must have access to a host house that is located not too far from his checkpoint and whose owner specializes in smuggling.

“People who work as smugglers in border towns are generally from the younger generation. Bringing in smuggled goods and sending them to China is easier said than done. You have to be meticulous with sums and be quick and crafty, to avoid being caught in surveillance operations set up by State Security and People’s Security agents. It is not a job for older people,” said Ms. Yoon Seong-hee, who is from Hyesan in North Korea and settled in the South in May 2013.

“When the border guards choose a host house, the most desirable criteria include those with young family members and/or with good looking women. Young people can better fulfill the demands and quotas set by border guards, by smuggling more goods at a time and by doing it at a higher frequency. Smuggling must happen extensively enough in order for the border guards to make decent sums of money by way of cover fees,” said Ms. Yoon. A cover fee is the bribery paid by smugglers to border guards such that they turn a blind eye when the goods pass through their section of the border.

“Hosts, smugglers and border guards become like a family. Smugglers must connect with the locality’s border guards in order to send and receive goods over the border. They come to be in frequent contact, and become familiar with each other to the extent that border guards take naps in their smuggling host houses,” explained Ms. Yoon.

“Since these kinds of co-existence arrangements are prevalent, relationships between the border guards and women of their host houses sometimes lead to affairs. There have even been incidents of men launching official complaints to the relevant brigade or party cadres, but the tendency is to compromise on the matter quietly, for the sake of the children,” she continued.

“Border guards prefer married women for several reasons. When the women are more mature, they take better care of soldiers, in the manner they do with younger siblings. And the closer the relationship between the two, the more reliably the woman can be trusted to manage their money matters. Regardless of how much money border guards can make, if they meet a bad host, they can be easily defrauded,” said Ms. Yoon.

“Moreover, once they are discharged, border guards have to technically leave their posts. Many will be from other regions of North Korea, and thus will have to leave the border region and with that, leave behind their money-making opportunities. But if they maintain a good relationship with the married women of host houses, it opens paths to bribing local party cadres and even securing entry to a border region university.”

According to Ms. Kim Hyun-kyung, a North Korean exile from Musan, “In the past, if there was an affair between an occupant of a host house and a border guard, people would point fingers and the woman could not go out with her head up high. However, things are very different now.”

“These days, a lot of soldiers posted to border guard units do not go back to their hometown upon being discharged. They may integrate into a family with married women whom they met during their border service, continue to make money through border exchanges, and secure entry to a local university with their earnings. This sort of thing would have been considered beyond the pale in the past. But nowadays, people may still criticize such people behind their back, but women who have younger men around in such a manner are actually considered to be capable and resourceful.”

“Before I fled, I knew several households in my own area where married women lived with border guards. Whatever the morality, those families make money, so they can live without causing much fuss. Even when scandalous rumours turn the town upside down initially, if they continue to live well, the criticisms soon disappear. But the older people say that the world is becoming more rotten and would still click their tongues in disapproval,” said Ms. Kim.

Reporting by Park Juhee.
Read in Korean
Translated by Yongmin Lee.

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