Interesting interview with a North Korean defector now living in the US, at the Daily NK:
What made you defect?
I started baking and selling bread during the ‘Arduous March’ (widespread famine of the mid-1990s). I set up a coal furnace and baked egg buns throughout the night to make a living at the markets. I gradually grasped a knack for business and made some decent money. In the 2000s I was eager to start a bigger business with the seed money I’d saved up so I started a dog meat restaurant.
I assumed running a restaurant would be much more stable and safe compared to other lines of work, but in hindsight, I was very naive. While I was running the restaurant, cadres unabashedly demanded bribes from me. I couldn’t satisfy them all, to which they would respond with menacing threats because I was operating without the proper license.
A restaurant should be in a decent building with some staff, but the joint I was running at the time was just a kitchen in a warehouse site. A considerable bribe was needed if you didn’t have a service license issued by the affiliated Provincial People's Committee. Things went from worse to worst when I was scammed out of all the money I had been saving--my entire nest egg gone, overnight. At that point, I realized I couldn’t continue to live in a society like North Korea, so I swam across [a narrow portion of] the Amrok [Yalu] River....
At first, I learned how to be patient and considerate. Whether you’re driving in the car or crossing the street on foot, people yield for others--and they do it with smiles on their faces. In North Korea, people eye each other warily. American culture was astonishing by comparison.
At first, due to the language barrier, I was completely focused on my cleaning job. After some time I resolved to study English. My employer agreed, without prevarication, to readjust my work hours for my studies. Again, in North Korea, this would be inconceivable. But in American society, an individual’s right to pursue the path that makes him/her happy is guaranteed. I lived much of my life without knowledge or awareness of human rights, but I naturally came to grasp the concept simply by virtue of living in the U.S.
In fact, my most transformative moment occurred while I was working at a sushi restaurant. I was fully compensated for any overtime worked after my eight hours--right down to the second. This made me realize that a capitalist economic framework is transparent, and naturally conjured up comparisons to North Korea’s socialist economy [and my experience working within it]. At times, I wouldn’t be paid at all for my work ....