Dzhon Khen Mu was a hotel manager in Pyongyang, and often came in contact with foreigners who stayed at the hotel. Many Japanese-Koreans frequented the country’s capital.
Dzhon’s life turned around when as a kind gesture he gave one of his hotel visitors a box of ginseng roots. In return the Japanese man gave him $300.
Dzhon, who fled North Korea in 2003 and sought refuge in South Korea, decided to use the money to start up his own business and that’s when he began buying discarded clothes in China and selling them off in North Korea. These garments were written off by well-known brands and stores and dumped into large bags as garbage.
He also bought over other items such as bicycles and sold them in his home country, earning a large profit on them. Over a short period of time, he amassed thousands of dollars, a large amount compared to what others earned.
Although most North Koreans survive off low wages and dwell in poverty, some of them can shop every now and then. The state even provides a number of clothing items to families.
"Underwear and socks were handed out for the whole family at the same time, once quarterly," Dzhon says. "Shoes were provided more rarely. Everything was scrupulously recorded. Such a person received such a number of underpants, so many meters of fabric, during such a period of time."
Dzhon soon became one of the wealthiest men in North Korea, but being rich also spelled danger for him. North Koreans are not allowed to interact freely with foreigners, and neither are they permitted to hold large amount of foreign currency as private individuals. Authorities demanded that Dzhon share the money with the state.
Although Dzhon was well settled in his country, with a family, job and enough money to live a comfortable lifestyle, he noticed that his well-to-do business colleagues had begun to disappear one by one.
"I had no other choice. I became really scared when I learned that all my business partners were missing, and then people told me how and where they were killed,” he said.
Aware of his circumstances, the wealthy businessman also knew he would not be able to cross the border with his family, because if he came into the limelight, he would be jailed or executed. So instead he faked his own death with a $50 bribe and a forged death certificate that claimed he had lost his life in a car crash.
He soon left his home, and crossed the border into China, pretending to be a shuttle trader. A friend who was waiting for Dzhon at the other side of the border helped him escape.
"It's very difficult for people who have lived all their lives in a socialistic country to adjust to a capitalist lifestyle," Dzhon says. "In the North, the party tells you what to do your whole life — you don't make any decisions. The South forces you to make all the decisions yourself, and at first this is incredibly difficult to understand, accept, and apply to life."
Dzhon can never contact his family in Pyongyang again, since if he did and it's revealed he's alive, they would be in big trouble. As long as he pretends to be dead, they will remain safe, and that’s what gets him through life every day.