How I unintentionally ended up spending 15 years of my life in North Korea

Introducing her new NK News column, Monique Macias explains why she calls North Korea home
February 21st, 2014

Hello, my name is Monique Macías and over the coming months I’m going to be sharing my experiences about living in North Korea with you from a very unique perspective: as a foreigner who lived in Pyongyang between 1979 to 1994.

But before I start my column, let me tell you a little about my background and how I came to end up living in North Korea.

I was born in Equatorial Guinea during the 1970s, a small country in West Africa that got its independence from Spain on October 12, 1968. My father, Francisco Macías, was the man who spearheaded the decolonization process, becoming Guinea’s first President after the first ever election in October 1968 – with Franco of Spain’s reluctant agreement.

As a newly independent country, my father initially said that Guinea would be open to working with any nation – including the former Spanish colony. But Spain, which for over 200 years directly governed Guinea, was not supportive of his leadership. In fact, the Spanish would go on to attempt his assassination three times, from just three months after he became President until they ultimately succeeded, in 1979.

In this situation, Equatorial Guinea – a new country with no links to major powers in Europe or America – was looking to forge partnerships with anyone it could. In this situation my father’s advisor, Antonio García-Trevijano, a Spanish lawyer who helped him gain independence, suggested Guinea play an increasing role in regional meetings that were occurring at the time, often with countries like the USSR, China – and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

It was at one of these meetings that Guinea made an agreement to work closely with North Korea, a decision that ultimately led to Pyongyang helping the country economically, providing resources and facilitating regular student exchange programs between the two countries. With Spain providing no assistance and blocking Guinea’s currency, North Korea’s help was welcome.

Through increasingly close cooperation it wasn’t long before my father would become acquainted with North Korea’s President, Kim Il Sung. In time they would become good friends and my father would grow to greatly trust Kim Il Sung’s judgment and character. Even though Guinea was not a communist country and did not share this ideology with North Korea, it turned out that Kim Il Sung and my father nevertheless had a lot in common: both fought against colonial powers and both built their support base through nationalism.


Francisco Macías, Former President of Equitorial Guinea

During the 1970s Antonio advised my father to send young people to study overseas to help improve Guinea’s future. As a result, children and young people were to sent to China, the USSR, Spain, and beyond. But given the growing relationship between Guinea and North Korea – in addition to my father’s personal friendship with Kim Il Sung – it wasn’t long before I was sent with my brother Francisco and my sister Mary-Bell to study in Pyongyang under the guardianship of Kim Il Sung.

Arriving in Pyongyang in fall 1979 with my mother – who needed hospital treatment – my siblings and I started our new lives in North Korea.

My mother’s illness meant that upon arrival in North Korea, she would be sent immediately to Bonghwa Hospital in Pyongyang to have a painful gallstone removed, while we were sent to go and live with Kim Il Sung at his mansion for three months. It was here we learnt our first Korean words.

But during my mother’s hospital stay things changed dramatically back home in Equitorial Guinea. There was a coup d’état and my uncle became the new President of the country. A show trial was held and within just one month my father was killed, on September 29 1979.

Not wanting to overly stress her, Kim Il Sung didn’t tell my mother about the news until she recovered from her gallstone operation. But when she did recover, he told her that it wouldn’t be safe to go back to Guinea and recommended she stay in North Korea. Being a close friend of my father, he even offered her a house to stay in Pyongyang for as long as she wanted.

Despite the President’s offer, my mother decided to leave North Korea. She was extremely worried about my elder brother, Ernesto, who had been studying in Cuba up until then. He had recently set back for Guinea, unaware of what had happened to my father. So in October she returned to Guinea, leaving me and my siblings under the care of Kim Il Sung.

A few months later my uncle, the new President of Guinea, came to Pyongyang to collect us and bring us back to Guinea. But Kim Il Sung denied his request. My sister recollects Kim Il Sung told my uncle, “Francisco, who was like my brother, left the children with me, so they are my responsibility.”

From that moment, the relationship between Guinea and North Korea became troubled. When my uncle got back to Guinea, he made the country’s first contact with South Korea – and they started their own diplomatic relationship not long after. It was like he was trying to stick his fingers up at Kim Il Sung for what happened in Pyongyang!

After the dust had settled and we finished our initial Korean language studies, Kim Il Sung decided to send us to Mangyongdae Military Boarding School in outer Pyongyang for further education. I would continue studying in North Korea for a further fourteen years, working my way up through grade school, middle school, high school and eventually university.


Toasting my North Korean hosts

Through my time studying in Pyongyang I gained a truly unique perspective on living in the DPRK. Me, my siblings – and also two sons of Benin’s former President – were the only Korean speaking long-term foreign residents during that period. We lived a privileged lifestyle compared to other foreign students and the majority of North Korean people. Throughout those years Kim Il Sung stayed in regular contact with us and each year I’d receive a New Year’s gift from him and invitation to watch the New Year’s Show as his personal guest.

Now, more than 20 years later, and having lived in South Korea, the U.S., Spain and Equatorial Guinea, I have written a book about my life growing up in North Korea. While for now it’s only in Korean, soon there will be an English and Chinese version. But until those translations come, I will be sharing other experiences about my life in North Korea that I didn’t have space to fit in the book.

Why do I want to tell you? Since I left Pyongyang and lived in those countries mentioned, I met a wide variety of people who have always asked me about how life is in North Korea. Plus, I have found that Western media normally just focuses on nuclear issues, politics or human rights. Together, all this makes people think that North Korea is an evil country and that it’s people are simply robots. They think people don’t fall in love, that people cannot think for themselves, and that the education system is broken. But having lived there, I am proof that all of these things are not always true.

While I don’t agree with everything that goes on in North Korea, often the media exaggerates the issues there. Through this column, I hope to tell you about what I experienced, in the hope that it might give you a better understanding of the country I once called home.

See you next week,

Moniqe Macias.

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About the Author

Monique Macias

Monique was born in Equatorial Guinea and grew up in Pyongyang, North Korea. She graduated at the University of Light Industry, with a BA as a Textile Engineer. Since leaving North Korea, Macias has been working as a fashion designer in countries including Spain, South Korea, and the U.S. Macias recently wrote a book about her life in North Korea which will soon be translated in to English.

Join the discussion

  • Pokolik

    Dear Monique, you should somehow be ashamed. Well, not really, but maybe not that proud either. Being the daughter of a cruel dictator that stole his country’s riches and commited genocide (just like your uncle did and does), being educated abroad as an elite kid of a poor country just for being the daughter of the dictator, that’s not something to be proud of. And yes, you “lived a privileged lifestyle compared to other foreign students and the majority of North Korean people”. But you should also say “compared to the whole population of my country of origin”. No, I’m not interested about life in your North Korean golden bubble, where there was no repression or famine (no wonder you never saw it!). I would respect you and your past circumstances if you didn’t use them to try to justify the most cruel regime on Earth. Sure North Koreans are not robots, they love… and they suffer! Frankly, I don’t need your information to better understand the country.

    • Confused

      I think you miss her point > That is that North Korea isn’t just one big famine. Also, how is she “proud”? She’s just telling her story. What’s wrong with that?

      • Christian Fredrickson

        No, it’s not one big famine, that’s very true. There’s the capitol, drenched in the very capitalist excesses it claims to decry, a tiny dot surrounded by famine and death camps.

    • Paul Purvis

      Hear Hear. It’s a real shame to be the son or daughter of a dictator and pick a situation like the one Monique describes ending up in. Shame on her.

    • Shin Shin

      Well said. This is “article” is merely a thinly veiled billboard for a book about the privileged life of a brutal dictator’s daughter.

      • Christian Fredrickson

        Do you think that information should be suppressed? How would you propose forming the committee to determine whose stories should be censored or banned outright? How do you evaluate “good” information versus “evil” information? I for one am totally looking forward to reading my library’s copy of her story, in the due course of time.

    • Nick

      You’re telling someone that they should be ashamed of the circumstances under which they’re born and have no control over. That’s pretty shameful. I’d welcome discussion and critique of the leaders in question, but completely reject your post as unfair, inflammatory, and ignorant. Personally, I’m very grateful for Monique for offering to share her experience with us. Maybe you can learn something by reading.

    • Christian Fredrickson

      “I don’t need your information to better understand”

      I’d suggest this statement is the spectral opposite of truth. If you only gear yourself to hear one single, repeating message and block out all other signal, how can you consider yourself informed on the topic? Treat Monique’s story like jazz: listen for the notes she’s not playing.

      As for the rest of it: all governments resemble each other and all nations’ people resemble each other, and no government resembles its people. Do not confuse the two.

      • NarooN

        Yes, let’s ignore the very well-documented information and first-hand testimonies of those who suffered under the NK regime, because this woman’s account of her bubbled, silver-spoon privileged experiences there will assure us that in reality, all those kangaroo court trials and executions and famines really weren’t such a bad thing after all.

        It will be interesting to see what she writes, but to try to play the role of the white-knight for her whilst downplaying the harsh reality of what life was like, and still is like over there, is beyond ridiculous, to say the least.

  • Liberty Scott

    This story is curious, if only because Macias Nguema is more of an enigma than the Kim family, and because the truth of what went on in Equatorial Guinea under Monique’s father’s rule parallels the horrors of the Kim regime. His rule was genocidal, was fueled by a drug addiction that saw him act truly insanely, banning fishing boats (because people used them to flee), prohibiting maintenance on the country’s main power station (saying he was a living God and would make sure it worked, and of course it exploded), and having execution squads in the main stadium killing people to the sound of the song “Those were the days”.

    “Kim Il Sung and my father nevertheless had a lot in common: both fought against colonial powers and both built their support base through nationalism” well Kim Il Sung’s history in fighting colonial powers is small, and a tiny fraction of what official DPRK history has been manufactured to state, and frankly Equatorial Guinea would have been better off without the rule of Macias Nguema and the kleptocracy that has succeeded it.

    The children of brutal dictators do not bear responsibility for the sins of their parents, nor do you bear responsibility for the sins of the Kim family – but you did live a life created off of the blood, sweat and tears of millions who live as slaves, under constant threat of execution. I will be interested in the story, more interested if there was some genuine self-reflection of the horrors that happened when you were unaware of them, and even more interested if you donate any profits from your book to charities to assist the needy in both the DPRK and Equatorial Guinea (although frankly the latter would do very well if the ample oil wealth wasn’t simply used by the ruling family to live the life of Arab oil sheikhs whilst the country remains destitute).

    • Ianto_Jones

      This is sort of like Hitler’s daughter writing about how it wasn’t so bad to grow up in Stalinist Russia, and how her father was a lot like Stalin in many admirable ways.

  • Svetlan Czerny

    Thanks so much for sharing this story Monica. Obviously you lived a very unique childhood and it must have been very traumatic to have gone through the events that occurred in the 1970s.

    I commend you for speaking about your life. Ignore these people criticizing you. Everyone is born into different situations and you were born into yours – it was obviously out of your control.

    Looking forward to the next article.

  • Jen

    Wow unreal that she actually lived in the same home as Kim Il Sung! Must have some incredible stories from that. Dont really understand all the snarky aggressive comments though, she says she was a child when she moved there and when her father died, what has she done exactly to warrant the reaction? Guilty by association? Wow that sounds familiar, I think I read that in the UN COI report recently in relation to North Korea…bit hypocritical of the purists in this thread…

  • Jim Knowles

    Nice to see people are still rude…Thank you for your insight Monique. It is very much appreciated indeed.

  • Christian Fredrickson

    Thank you for sharing your unique perspective, Monique, I look forward to future installments. You have a story that no one else could possibly tell. As for the detractors here, no one who’s truly well-informed about North Korea would confuse its citizens with the DPRK, even though they use “North Korea” to cover them both with the same sloppy paintbrush.

  • Martin Brice

    There are only 30 days in September…unless I’m not remembering something from the 70′s.

    • PatrioticDissent

      Indeed. Her father actually died on September 29.

  • Rod L

    Is the media also exaggerating the satellite images of the numerous death camps? I don’t understand what you think you’re going to achieve with these articles. The world knows that the DPRK is a stain upon this Earth, and hearing stories about one persons privileged life isn’t going to change that.

  • PatrioticDissent

    After reading about her father and her uncle from other sources, it’s easy to see why such a family would cozy up to other despotic regimes. Her father was bad enough, but her uncle has apparently surpassed him in notoriety.

  • Mikey

    …and there is a whole nation full of brainwashed idiots, just like her.

  • Umbrosus

    She has the right to write whatever she want. If someone (everyone) have an issue, that’s someone problem… Or simply, “turn the page”…

    • NarooN

      Stop being such an apologist. It’s obvious that this article and the ones that will follow have an absolutely ridiculous premise. North Korea and the regime that runs it are cesspools that need to be cleansed. Her father alone was a massive POS, and her uncle is worse than he was.

      Her entire experience in North Korea was sheltered, she was clearly ignorant of all the terrible things that were going on (and still are going on) there. You really think she was hearing about all the hundreds of thousands of people being tortured and executed in the prison camps, or the aborted babies (who sometimes didn’t even get killed outright, but dumped in a box while still alive and then buried?) You think they were gonna tell her about the public executions and the purges? Get real.

      Not to mention, there’s no point in her trying to say “it’s not that bad” when she hasn’t been there in TWO DECADES, as if the situation back in 1994 and prior was some happy-go-lucky time or anything. Kim Il-sung and his descendents were all rotten pieces of shit, and Monique will only succeed in swaying the exceedingly gullible that it’s “not such a bad place after all”, just like that moron Dennis Rodman.

      • Umbrosus

        Yeah, right !
        Free speech for everyone, That’s all !
        Best regards for you, too.

  • Joe Joejoe

    I think the writers perspective is sheltered. She’s talking about the current NK dictators grand father, not him or his father. She didn’t even really say much about living in North Korea, she just kind of abruptly ended it after she talked about how she ended up there, then said some little compliments, and that’s it. Perhaps a symptom of her brainwashing? After all if she grew up there, she’s going to be imprinted with their culture. She may not realize she’s just as clueless as every other North Korean as to what’s wrong with North Korea. She may also feel some sense of allegiance since they brought her in, and that perspective was raised in a very different time than today.

    I think the perspective is from a highly privileged out of touch person. She was given everything, education, a home, invited to parties, etc. Her father was the president of a country. She was surrounded by the privileged of North Korea. She essentially had people dedicated to making her life ‘great’…even if she didn’t realize it.

    Beneficial trade agreements between two countries does not mean either country is inherently good. That’s like saying a store owner is automatically a good person and not a douche, if they sell you goods for money and vice versa. The two don’t go together, one factor doesn’t reflect the other.

    • pochombo

      Chill man, it’s just an introduction to her future column…

  • pochombo

    Jeez, what’s wrong with you people? You go to NK News to read interesting articles, reports, columns, and news about North Korea that can’t be found elsewhere or you just come here to bash everything you don’t like about the Kim’s regime like in a Youtube video comments? Pathetic and childish.

  • Warren Kung

    When our singleton president called North Korea the part of the axis of evil trying to call attention to the so called oppression to its people and threat of a nuclearly armed north korea, litigated again and again in presidential debates where the candidates could do no less than making North Korea sound like hell of course this is whats going to happen. But “princess” Monique is correct they have been blown out of proportion, there are countries in Africa with far worse conditions under worse oppression and the only difference is they dont have nuclear weapons. People kept referring to Kenneth Bae does one realize what charge he was convicted of. It is akin to an American citizen who waa charged for being in Al Quaida and sentenced to hard labour. The only difference was they didnt use drone on Kenneth Bae. I do not wish to demonize Nortg Korea as i had dated guys from Soutg Korea and they do not like North Korea. But I do believe that some issues are indeed blown out if proportions. The bureaucrats said Iraq had WMD and we should colonize Iraq and bankrupt our country and they kept saying North Korea is evil. I am glad former first daughter Monique in exile will give us truebperspectives from someone who actually knows the country than someone who learns about the country through advisers and speak about it from political talking points

  • SKLady

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I’ve been interested in your story since your book came out and I’m happy to hear there will be an English edition. I’m looking forward to your next article.

  • thats right

    Id bet dollars to doughnuts that not one of you has read her book to base your comments, correct?

  • osoignorant1

    OBVIOUSLY you have been brain washed and have never seen the real north korea having been born into privilege your argument is in valid and you just waisted 5 minutes of my life hope your book tanks trying to profit in a capitalists society when you live in a communist nation

    • Dan

      And when was the last time you visited the DPRK? Since you speak about the “real North Korea” you must have been there a dozen times…

  • Alexandral

    I agree with those who appreciate hearing this perspective, and I agree Monique both a) has a right to share it and b) should.

    But it’s unreasonable to expect people to take very kindly to her opinions. People here haven’t really blamed her for what happened to her. So it’s very disingenuous to suggest anyone has blamed her for her life circumstances that were out of her control.

    What people ARE objecting to is that, from this brief article at least, she seems to admire these men who have committed atrocities. She seems to have fallen victim to that whole, “He treated ME well, and therefore can’t be evil.”

    It’s the same thing you see when, say, a mother refuses to believe her dear, sweet husband molested their daughter — or perhaps believes he did it, but it wasn’t THAT bad, and he was under a lot of stress, etc etc.

    People tend to frown upon those who defend evil men as just being misunderstood or else not quite as bad as people say. And they should indeed frown upon it.

    Monique should share her story. She should also expect a backlash if she expresses praise for evil men.

    A more interesting story would be one of internal struggle to make sense of feelings of fondness for these men vs. her knowledge of the atrocities they did indeed commit. Instead she seems to avoid that internal struggle (always the easiest choice when one can’t manage to do difficult emotional work) by convincing herself it just wasn’t that bad.

  • Stefano

    I really don’t understand why she must be ashamed. She was just a child, she lived a lot of time in NK and can tell something more about this country. What’s the matter? Do you think that if you were at her place, you would have acted differently? We cannot speak for other people, we just can try to understand, why there are specific issues.

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  • mick

    Monica what an intersting story, please do an AMA (ask me anything) on reddit. it will be fascinating reading and bring a lot more attention to your book.

  • Steve Harris

    Goodness gracious there are some baying hounds on this forum, Please show the girl some respect and don’t expect her to take responsibility for all the problems of North Korea and Guinea.

  • Michael

    Do North Koreans even know Obama is black?

  • Bill

    Review of Monica’s book in Korean on the DailyNK:

  • Paul Kelly

    A lovely testimony. I have long recognized that Kim Il Sung was a man of heart and you are proof. I feel it is appropriate in guided tours that visiting guests are obliged to bow to a large statue of Kim Il-Sung as is tradition as Father of his people. I hope Kim Jong Un will reflect on the rash use of capital punishment and the harsh treatment of political prisoners in the camps. I hope we see more exchanges between the young people of North and South.

  • creepycupcake

    Liar. Trying to downplay the terrible oppression that North Korean civillians face is shameful. Unless you are being blackmailed.

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