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.
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.
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,