But then disaster rained down on her hometown, Chongjin, on North Korea's remote east coast. Factories ran out of fuel. Food rations stopped. Watching her family slowly succumb to the famine — her mother-in-law, husband and son eventually would die of starvation — Kim realized she had to change.
Once a stickler for following the rules, she bribed a bureaucrat so she could sell her apartment. Then, with no business skills other than the ability to calculate on an abacus, she used the proceeds of the sale to set herself up in a black market business, hawking biscuits and moonshine she brewed from corn.
Kim could have been sent away for life for such crimes. But obeying the rules would have meant a death sentence.
"The simple and kind-hearted people who did what they were told — they were the first to die of starvation," said Kim, a soft-spoken grandmother who now lives in South Korea and has adopted a new name to protect family members still in the North.
The famine that killed 2 million North Koreans in the mid-1990s and the death of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung, in 1994 sparked vast changes across the secretive communist country.
Markets are springing up in the shadows of abandoned factories, foreign influences are breaching the borders, inflation is soaring and corruption is rampant. A small nouveau riche class has emerged, even as a far larger group has been forced to trade away everything for food.
This is the picture of life in North Korea as painted by more than 30 people from Chongjin, the nation's thirdlargest city. Some are defectors living in South Korea. Others were interviewed in China, which they had entered illegally to work or beg. Accounts of aid workers and videos taken illegally in Chongjin by disgruntled residents were also used to prepare this report.
Although the North Korean regime has a reputation as the ultimate Big Brother, people from Chongjin say the public pays less and less heed to what the government says. There is little that might be called political dissent, but residents describe a pervasive sense of disillusionment that remains largely unspoken.
"People are not stupid. Everybody thinks our own government is to blame for our terrible situation," said a 39-year-old coal miner from Chongjin who was interviewed late last year during a visit to China. "We all know we think that, and we all know everybody else thinks that. We don't need to talk about it."
Kim Sun Bok, a 32-year-old former factory worker who came to South Korea last summer, said the country was "changing incredibly."
"It is not the same old North Korea anymore except in name."
Just a decade ago, when people in Chongjin needed new trousers, they had to go to government-owned stores that sold items mostly in drab browns or a dull shade of indigo. Food and other necessities were rationed. Sometimes the government permitted the sale of home-grown vegetables, but even a hairbrush was supposed to be purchased from a state-run shop.
Today, people can shop at markets all over Chongjin, the result of a burst of entrepreneurship grudgingly allowed by the authorities. Almost anything can be purchased — ice cream bars from China, pirated DVDs, cars, Bibles, computers, real estate and sex — for those who can afford the high prices.
The retail mecca is Sunam market, a wood-frame structure with a corrugated tin roof that is squeezed between two derelict factories.
The aisles brim with fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, peaches, scallions, watermelons and cabbage, as shown by rare video footage taken last year by the Osaka, Japan-based human rights group Rescue the North Korean People. Everything else comes from China: belts, shoes, umbrellas, notebooks, plates, aluminum pots, knives, shovels, toy cars, detergents, shampoos, lotions, hand creams and makeup.
Each of Chongjin's seven administrative districts has a state-sanctioned market. Sunam, the city's largest, is expanding, and some say it has a wider variety of goods than the main market in Pyongyang. Many vendors wear their licenses pinned to their right breasts while the obligatory Kim Il Sung buttons remain over the heart.
Although markets have been expanding for more than a decade, it was only in 2002 and '03 that the government enacted economic reforms that lifted some of the prohibitions against them. Most of the vendors are older women such as Kim Hui Suk, a tiny 60-year-old with short, permed hair and immaculate clothing.
She was working in the day-care center of a textile factory in the early 1990s when production ground to a halt. Men were ordered to stay in their jobs, but Workers' Party cadres at the factory started whispering that the married women, or ajumas, ought to moonlight to provide for their families.