About the Author
View more articles by Christopher Carothers
Christopher Carothers is a Ph.D student in government at Harvard University.
Editor’s note: All North Koreans in the following story have been given pseudonyms.
“What about this Donald Trump guy?”
It was a fair question, but the last I expected from a North Korean.
Mr. Gang, I’ll call him, is a wealthy, middle-aged businessman from Pyongyang. We met outside the North a few weeks ago, waiting for the same flight. I was on my way to visit North Korea with a group tour, and Mr. Gang was headed home. He was glad to meet me, he said. I was the first American he’d ever spoken to, and the first Westerner he had ever met who spoke Korean. He shook my hand and, once I introduced myself, suggested we go get some beers.
I asked Mr. Gang what was in his big bright gift bag.
“Mostly hard liquor,” he said with a smile. He was going to give bottles out to his Korean friends as presents. He seemed like someone who would have important friends. We sat at the airport bar awkwardly for a little while,unsure what to talk about. Not North Korea. Not South Korea. Not the hostile U.S.
And that’s when I got the Trump question. I was surprised and a bit relieved. We talked U.S. politics for a while. He seemed interested, but not in too much of a sharing mood. Then he asked me where I went to school, so I told him Harvard. “You have to really study hard to go there, right?”
“Uh, yes, but it helped that my dad went there too,” I replied. He laughed.
“Ah, I guess our countries aren’t so different after all,” he said.
THE KID AND I
On my flight out of Pyongyang five days later, I sat next to a North Korean very different from Mr. Gang. His name was Jong Ho and he was 15 years old. Jong Ho’s soccer team had been picked to go to Singapore and compete against teams from elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Word of mouth spread that there was a Korean-speaking white person on board. At first his teammates wanted to know who I was, but quickly they moved on to the real prize: my smartphone. They wanted to go through my old Galaxy Note for interesting photos and any South Korean music I might have.
I must have seemed strange, asking so many random questions to a 15-year-old kid
“You don’t have headphones?” They sounded disappointed. I chatted for a while with Jong Ho about soccer. He had stopped studying in school a few years ago to train full-time. He had traveled for matches before, but he never got to see much outside the stadiums and the hotels.
I must have seemed strange, asking so many random questions to a 15-year-old kid. Had he ever seen a black person?
Where would he like to go in the world?
What were his parents like?
On a whim I showed him a photo of a young Asian woman in a bikini on my phone.
“Oh no,” he said, scandalized. He covered the photo with his hand.
We talked about more serious things as well.
“If you could meet Marshal Kim Jong Un, what would you like to say to him?” I asked. A serene, glossy-eyed smile came over his face.
“The Great Marshal loves soccer a lot. So I’m glad I play soccer.”
Jong Ho, like all locals I met, wanted to know what I thought of North Korea. Children’s pride in their country is particularly obvious. Here are the first questions various North Korean kids asked me:
“Have you seen any North Korean movies? Aren’t they great?”
I had. They’re not.
“Isn’t Pyongyang much better than you’d heard (from the American propaganda)?”
“Do (amusement park) entrance fees cost more in your country? How much more?”
“Our hometown has 14 universities. Does your hometown have as many?”
Our tour group visited a local high school in a city north of Pyongyang. The students were disappointed when none of us could name three female North Korean heroes from their revolutionary history.
I didn’t mind their patriotism, and their curiosity was refreshing. But when asked how I liked Pyongyang, what could I say? Usually I just said polite things and was rewarded with beaming faces. But was I being fair to these young adults? Doesn’t intercultural exchange require some basic honesty? I told Jong Ho that I liked Korean people and appreciated how clean and grand their capital was.
“However,” I went on gingerly, “I have to admit that Pyongyang is a poor city and out of touch with the modern age. Even a poor provincial capital in China wouldn’t be envious.”
He took this in for a minute and looked thoughtful.
“It’s okay,” he said with a smile, “I’m very glad to meet you.”
He gave me a little square box of gum and we went back to watching a North Korean musical performance on the TV in the plane. The box was shoddy and the gum pieces seemed to have been wrapped by hand on a hot day. But I placed it carefully in my bag. It was the only North Korean product I had been able acquire that was not made for foreign tourist consumption.
THE AMERICAN SOUTH
On our first morning in North Korea, we had woken up early to take our tour bus three hours south to the DMZ. Once we got near it, a small military escort joined us. The officer in charge was a young man with a deep tan. He had two stripes and two stars on his shoulder, a medium-low rank. Our tour guides greeted him and told him there was an American on the tour who could speak Korean. He came straight away and sat down next to me. Having heard so much about America all his life, here was his chance: a real-life American he could actually talk with.
“Hello,” I said.
“How come you speak Korean?”
I explained I was a graduate student interested in Asian politics.
‘This so-called South Korea thing,’ he sneered, ‘it’s just America’
“Have you been to the DMZ from the American side?” he asked.
North Koreans often dismiss South Korea as simply a puppet state of America. So they don’t refer to buildings on the other side of the DMZ as Korean, but rather as the “American side.”
“This so-called South Korea thing,” he sneered, “it’s just America.”
If there is one thing that would crush North Koreans to learn about the outside world, it is that most young South Koreans don’t want to reunify with the North anytime soon. It would be a blow to learn that the South is not still fuming against American imperialism and that the rest of the world has moved on from a war that ended more than half a century ago.
“Yes, I saw the DMZ from the South. And I visited the tunnels,” I said.
“What tunnels?” he asked suspiciously. I explained that, according to South Korean sources, the North had built tunnels under the DMZ to invade Seoul. He laughed. The idea was absurd. It must be the South that built the tunnels.
“Why does a big country like America give a little country like Korea such a hard time? We can’t develop because of American sanctions!”
“I disagree,” I said. “North Korea has isolated itself.”
“You say isolated. We say self-reliant. That’s our ideology. That’s how we weather economic crises caused by America,” he struck back. He had half a point.
“But I think your Cold War mentality is behind the times. Foreigners want to help North Korea. Maybe …”
“… maybe your own leaders are holding back economic development for fear of exposing North Koreans to the world and new ideas,” I suggested.
He shook his head and looked at me.
“Huh, I think you really are an Asian politics major from America.”
We parted with a firm handshake and he told me to come back to Korea again soon.
I thought about that conversation again when our tour group visited the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum.
Mrs. Lim, our head tour guide, was an old hand at managing foreigners. She has even visited Beijing and Moscow. She never said anything negative about North Korea or the ruling Kims, but she was interested in my perspective nevertheless. At one tourist site, she hung back and we started talking one-on-one.
“Who will be the next leader of America?” she asked. I explained about our two parties and gave her my best guess.
“But even if the party switches from Democratic to what are they called, Republicans, relations with Korea are always so tense. Why? Why does a big country like America continue to provoke a small country like Korea? No one wants war. We always say we are ready for war, but no one wants war. I don’t understand politics.”
“What American provocations do you mean?” I asked, curious. “Didn’t the Great Marshal Kim Jong Un threaten to turn Seoul into a sea of flames?”
“Well, he’s responding to American military exercises. Always with the military exercises with the South.”
“I think, uh, many countries do military exercises,” I tried to explain. “Some are defensive. Honestly, many Asian countries including South Korea are concerned about China’s growth and the North getting nuclear weapons and so have asked to work with the U.S.”
“The U.S. has many nuclear weapons. Isn’t it … hypocritical?”
“Maybe. But should a country that can’t provide electricity properly in its capital really have nuclear weapons?”
“I see,” she said quietly.
Coaxing North Koreans into a conversation was always challenging. When our tour group passed through public places I would linger around and try to catch some Korean’s eye. If I could find a reason to say something then they would say, “Oh, you speak Korean,” and come over to talk. When I did manage to strike up a conversation, the people nearby would start to gather around to listen. But two foreigners together, especially speaking English, scared people off.
Aside from Mrs. Lim, women were harder to talk to. The only other Korean woman I spoke with at length had attended elementary school abroad, which is rare. Mrs. Park’s parents had been diplomats in Europe, so she had learned French as a child. We talked about learning languages and I amused her by practicing some Korean idioms I knew. When she seemed comfortable, I mentioned that I had heard the old idiom “follow your friend to Gangnam” had been banned in the North. She said nothing, but her face darkened. North Koreans use the idiom as a kind of coded reference to defection to the South (gang means “river” and nam means “south”).
When we parted, she said I was ‘very honest.’ It was probably not a compliment
We moved on to other topics. I told to her about my family and my hometown in the U.S., but she was more interested to hear about South Korea.
“What do people like me do in the South?” she asked.
This was the first time someone had opened up to me with such a question, and I felt a lot of pressure to answer it well. We were walking alone, some distance behind my tour group. I tried my best to convey the luxurious lifestyle of Seoulites. I said that the North was very poor by comparison.
“When West and East Germany unified, it was a 4-to-1 economic gap. Between the Koreas, it’s more like 20-to-1.”
“Do I look poor to you?” she asked, incredulously. She looked nice, in fact. I struggled for what to say while she looked hurt. When we parted, she said I was “very honest.” It was probably not a compliment.
The last substantial conversation I had in North Korea was also the hardest. It was the evening before our departure and the tour group had been invited to watch a mass dance in one of Pyongyang’s impressive squares. Under floodlights, thousands of men and women swayed and turned in time to the crooning music. Across the river, past the far end of the square, the flame of Juche Tower was lit against the black sky. Giant red neon letters on either side of the tower spelled out “The unity of one heart.” Our tour group was spread out, and I was sitting alone on the stone bleachers on one end of the square. That’s where I started chatting up Mr. Han. He never told me his age, but he was probably in his 40s. He was lively and curious, asking me about how I came to study Korean and visit Korea and so on. I told him about my family.
“My mother is Argentine and my father is American.”
“So that makes you a mixed race (literally mixed-blood) person?”
“Well, maybe. My parents are different ethnicities, but I don’t think they are different races.”
“What is … race?” he replied.
A lot of words are different in North and South Korea, so I assumed there had been some terminological mix-up. I explained about how in the Western conception of a race, say white or Asian, many ethnic groups, like Italians and Germans or Koreans and Japanese, might be subsets of it.
“Oh,” he said, bemused, “I’ve never heard of that.”
Because of the emphasis North Korean propaganda places on ethnic unity and purity, I was particularly interested. I had heard rumors that North Koreans believed in polygenism, the separate origin and evolution of the races. I did manage to ask a few North Koreans if and how they were taught human evolution in school, but there seemed to be some disagreement in the answers. I regret not asking more.
Probably because I was from America, Mr. Han was eager to talk politics.
“Why does the U.S. do so many provocations against Korea?”
“Because of North Korea’s provocations and violent language.”
“No way. Does this look violent to you?”
He gestured to the swaying dancers in the square in front of us.
“We are peaceful,” he said emphatically. “And this is my home. You are from Washington, D.C., so how would you feel if – ”
“If the great Kim Jong Un said he would turn my hometown into a sea of fire?” I asked curtly. “I would be upset about that.”
Mr. Han didn’t like that.
“He’s responding to all the horrible things America has done!”
And he gave me a shove. He was angry.
“Do you like this? Don’t you have to respond to this?”
“Stop. Don’t do that,” I said, laughing nervously.
“You have to acknowledge the horrible things that America has done,” he said.
“I think you misunderstand the history. Why don’t you listen to me?” I pleaded.
“I know a few things,” he interrupted. “I know what is right and what you are doing is wrong. It’s wrong.”
“The U.S. was actually greeted as a liberating force in 1945,” I proffered at random.
“America divided Korea, you have to acknowledge that!”
“Wait, wait. Give me 30 seconds to explain.”
He hung his head, looking furious.
“Japan attacked America at Pearl Harbor in 1941, so the U.S. went to war. The U.S. defeated Japan in 1945 by dropping two … ”
“That was a horrible crime.”
“Well, that’s debatable. I think if you … ”
“No, that thing in itself is evil. Evil.”
“So now you pity the Japanese?”
But he was not listening. We were talking past each other.
“Go to the South and see for yourself. They don’t think they are America’s slaves.”
“Why would they? It is your propaganda!”
“I have talked to lots of defectors in the South too.”
“That’s why your head is full of bad thoughts. Because you talk to bad people.”
The dancing was winding down. Finally he stood up to go, shaking. The blood was pounding in my ears. I waved him farewell and headed off to the tour bus.
A TASTE OF WHAT’S TO COME
Am I a horrible informal ambassador for America? Probably
Am I a horrible informal ambassador for America? Probably. I had wanted to get behind the surface politeness and talk without inhibitions or fear. It was hard to get behind the mask and see something raw, but for a brief moment I felt I had.
“Lovely dancing, wasn’t it?” asked someone in our tour group.
“Yeah,” I agreed, dully.
I was still thinking it all over the next day, sitting at a restaurant in Beijing. I had learned that, to foreigners’ confusion, North Koreans use the word “juice” to mean soda. And I had learned that the Pyongyang subway has a big section of reserved seats for “old veterans.” But mostly I had learned just how little I understood about North Korea. Reading books about defectors and watching documentaries on the Kim family is nothing like being there.
The outside world, which has been leaking in, will eventually come flooding in on the North. And for many good people that will be very painful. I didn’t set out to hurt anyone’s feelings or believe I could change anyone’s mind. But I hope that Jong Ho, the military officer, Mr. Han and everyone else I met will remember me when their world starts changing.
I will certainly never forget them.
All images: NK News, unless indicated