August 11, 2023

Street Market

By Morninglight*

August 11, 2023

*The following short story was written by a North Korean escapee.

Kyungju got out of school around 5 p.m. Thinking that today’s school activity ended early, she chose to walk home. After passing a small playground, the station street appeared on her right. As usual, the street was half filled with folks selling stuff, buyers, and passers-by. Then, from a distance, she saw a man in a beige-brown uniform walk towards the street. He wore an armband that read gyu-chal-dae. He was a trainee at the local police station.
        The trainee blew his whistle wildly to clear the street. Within an instant, many of the sellers jumped up, packed away their stuff in an instant, and ran. A lady who had chunks of cabbages took the most time. As the trainee approached, cabbages tumbled to the ground from her wide wrapping cloth. The lady struggled desperately.
        She seemed to be in her mid-40s. With a small body and a weary face, it looked as though her family depended on her to make a living. This was the first time that Kyungju had seen her, but she could tell that this woman had experienced great hardship, and could not afford to have her cabbages taken away.
        As Kyungju looked on, she hoped that the lady would run far away, so that the trainee could not catch her, and so that her cabbages wouldn’t be confiscated by the police. 

The street is much quieter now. There are no sellers. The gyuchaldae trainee is nowhere to be seen. Pacing her footsteps a bit faster, Kyungju looked for the woman. If she sees her, she wants to ask her, “Are you alright?” The lady did not appear, and Kyungju felt a bit sad. Maybe she should’ve run after her. But more than that, she was relieved that the lady managed to escape.
        Then, Kyungju imagined what the lady might say in reply. She would say “Yes, it’s okay,” even though she is not alright. Then she will let out a big sigh—the sigh that speaks of her devastated heart, the sigh that tells her big relief at not being caught. Then the woman would say:

        “Today is not the first time. And it’s not even just me.”

        “That’s true. It’s any street where selling stuff is not allowed.” 

       “Folks like me can’t afford a space in the local market. Only if the gyuchaldae guys         have mercy when chasing us down, it would be so much bearable.”

        “I wish we can make them never show up again.”

The lady will smile in silence. Though she understands the futility of her situation, she is comforted by hearing these words. 

The conversation in Kyungju’s imagination ended with unrealistic hope. But her thoughts kept on going. Like the woman said, today’s incident is far from a surprise. It is a norm to the point that many folks shake it off and accept it as part of life. In the worst case, though, they would lose their merchandise. This could shatter their lives. If the officer has mercy on you and lets you go, you are lucky that day. But not everyone is so lucky, and you can’t afford to take risks. Then, could you tell the trainee guys to leave the sellers alone? Sure, a brave soul could stand up and raise their voice, but it will not make the problem disappear.
        The sellers hate the gyuchaldae officers. Then again, what can the officers do? As part of their post-military service, they are assigned to the local police department. Far away from home, they have no attachment to the local folks, which is why it is easier to be merciless and strict. Perhaps they might not like their job. In fact, some of them are sick and tired of chasing and shouting at commoners who are simply trying to survive. But it is their duty. Their superiors order them to clear up the merchants off the street, and they have to carry their orders.
        It is a muddy reality. The deep resentment (han) built in people’s souls cried out quietly. Yet it does not make their lives easier, so the folks at the bottom blame themselves. They say: who would I blame? Nobody. If I was from a different background, I won’t even be living in this circumstance. If I had a connection with a police officer, I would easily avoid the gyuchaldae’s rules. It’s my fault that I’m not from a privileged family—my lack of ability to do better. And this is the cost that I have to endure…
        No one blames the societal structure. No one blames the rule-makers. Even if they fully understand the root of the problem, they won’t dare to speak out. Of course they wouldn’t. What would they say, and why? To get in trouble and be punished? No one would dare to do so in public.

Kyungju felt bitter at the reality she observed. Yet she couldn’t stop her thinking there. People can’t live like this forever. This outrageous system of rules and regulations has to be fixed. Can somebody change this? It would have to be a high-ranking official with authority and influence. Then, she scorned her hope. Why would they care? They probably don’t even know what struggles these street merchants have to endure. Also, those in such positions have everything to lose. Maybe it’s better if somebody with nothing to lose can question the system. This hope seemed to be more realistic. Still, Kyungju felt bad for what that person would face. It would be too much for one person to bear.

The evening sun set slowly. The sunset painted the sky with an orange and purple hue. Under these two shades of light, the day appeared to be both ordinary and odd. Carrying the image of the street and a nameless hope in her heart, Kyungju walked steadily with her gaze on the setting sun.