Twenty years ago in North Korea’s outer provinces, heavy industry seized up. In short order, so did most of the beneficial functions of government, including the food distribution system. The state continued to do other things, of course, most of them mean or silly. In former industrial regions, it still enforced the primacy of men as breadwinners by forcing them to report each day to idled factories that couldn’t pay their wages. A consequence of this was that market-savvy wives supplanted their husbands as providers. And in the areas near North Korea’s northern border, there have been other consequences.
Because North Korea has no Third Amendment, local families are expected to house border guards in their homes. Often, the guards’ hostesses live (and even prosper) by dealing in wares smuggled from across the border. For the guards, that’s not a flaw; it’s a feature.
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. [New Focus International]
Because North Korea also has no Fourth Amendment, the state must have expected these young guards to police their host families. But some of these guards share feelings with their hostesses that they do not share with the state: loneliness, fear, greed, trust, and desire. That has incubated something extraordinary—symbiotic polyandry:
“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.
New Focus offers no estimate of the incidence of these alternative lifestyles, but reports that they can outlast the guards’ enlistments. The young men, once emancipated, become the kept men of their sugar mamas, and de facto family members. (Imagine the awkwardness of the conversations over dinner.) In a country without a G.I. Bill, these relationships can earn them enough cash to bribe their way into a university, or even party membership. For the women, their boy-toys bring give them affection, wealth, and even status:
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.
Someone could make a fine screenplay from this, if he could abstain from writing “turgid,” “supple,” or “quivered,” or allowing it to be produced in Japan. It has all the elements of a best-seller: sex (and it has been proven that this is the only element any book really needs), adultery, jealousy, love, crime, punishment, intrigue, “exotic” cultures (that word), and the subversion of the world’s most inscrutable (that word) society by history’s most irresistible forces. Not to mention, so much potential for violence.