People who succeed in business naturally celebrate, but one North Korean man’s financial success led him to fake his own death, leave his family and change his identity to start a new life.
Dzhon Khen Mu, a North Korean native, defected from the totalitarian country because he became “too rich.” He has been living in South Korea since 2003.
His business success began when he was a hotel manager in Pyongyang, according to The Guardian. At the time, he was one of the few citizens permitted to communicate with foreign guests on regulated visits.
On one occasion, Mu gave a Japanese visitor a box of ginseng. In return, he was handed a $300 tip, which would eventually be used as his start-up capital.
Mu began importing goods from China like clothes, bikes and other in-demand items. He capitalized on the black market that emerged in North Korea in the 1990s.
The defector told RFE/RL:
“I learned to buy clothing in China for almost nothing. These clothes were written off by large stores and stuffed into huge vacuum-storage bags. The bags would then be packed into 100-kilogram bales. I would buy these bales for $100 each and sell the clothes in North Korea.”
As his business flourished, Mu has accumulated the equivalent of $100,000, quite far from the country’s annual average salary of less than $1,000. He affirms that most people in country lived in poverty.
“Underwear and socks were handed out for the whole family at the same time, once quarterly. 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,” he shared.
Mu explained that big money in the hands of private individuals threaten authorities. He knew he had to go when his colleagues began disappearing. He also shared that those who become too wealthy or too influential were put behind bars — or to death.
Mu made the conscious decision of faking his death to keep his family safe. His forged death certificate, which cost $50, indicated his passing from a car crash. “This was the only safe option for them. If they had known that I was alive and that I had fled but not have reported it to authorities, they would have been severely punished,” he recalled.
His escape was not a smooth journey. He crossed China’s border through the help of a friend and spent four months in the country while waiting for a fake South Korean passport. He used this to get into the South Korean Embassy in China. He was first sent to the Philippines — an indirect route for defectors — before being taken to Seoul.
The rest is history — Mu now works as a broadcaster for a radio station that reaches out to North Koreans. He still has nightmares though, and believes that fear will stay for the rest of his life.