This week’s Ask a North Korean deviates somewhat from our usual formula. Instead of publishing answers to readers’ questions, we’re publishing the first part of a series of excerpts from an upcoming e-book by one of our longtime contributors, Ji-Min Kang, which will be released later this year.
In this excerpt, Ji-Min, who now lives in London, recounts a meeting he had when working for the ruling party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department.
I stepped out of my office to meet with a South Korean who had willingly moved to North Korea.
I arrived at the old inn where he was staying at dusk. When I stepped into his room, it was so dark that I could barely see his face and the room stank. There was a light on the ceiling which exuded red light onto the floor, but it didn’t help at all. The room reeked of fried corn and fungus.
I saw a man walking towards me. His face was tanned but his teeth were shining. This guy had a big smile on his face while walking towards me: he must’ve been waiting for me for a while.
“Pleased to meet you. I’m Lee Jinsok.”
He spoke with slight Seoul accent he was yet to get rid of completely. Soon, I got used to the darkness of the room and I could get a closer look at his face. Although his face was tanned and the clothes he was wearing were already out of fashion, he carried himself with elegance and dignity.
There’s a saying in Korea which goes “Women are more beautiful in the North and men are more handsome in the South.” This man was living proof. He was an intelligent man with a handsome smile. It was obvious to me that he was very different from other South Koreans who had entered North Korea voluntarily.
To be honest, all the South Korean defectors I had seen were sly human beings who only cared about flattering the regime. These people settled down in Pyongyang after marrying women the regime chose for them: they had no other choice.
That was the first step to the revolutionary mission assigned to them by the regime. At every ceremony and event, they stood on stage and enthusiastically spoke of the importance of working for the Great General and sustaining and embracing the authority of the Juche Chosun.
He spoke with slight Seoul accent he was yet to get rid of completely
We walked out of the cold dark room of the old inn and started walking downtown, and I took a closer look at him once we were out on the street, walking side by side. He wasn’t at all impressed by the luxury of Pyongyang. He only walked in silence.
We walked past Ryukyung-dong and the People’s Cultural Palace. He barely spoke. It had been 40 minutes or so. A group of loud foreign tourists walked past. They were absolutely obnoxious. Their tour guide gave an explanation of the statue of Kim Il Sung in spectacular English.
Of course, I didn’t understand a word of English back then. But the South Korean man by my side chuckled with a wry smile on his face and gave a glance to the tour guide. Then, he turned around and kept walking straight toward the Taedong river.
This was the spot to get the best view of Pyongyang at night. Lights began reflecting onto the Taedong river and the Juche Ideology Tower shined ever more brightly among them. I tried to break the silence by saying “Have you tried Taedonggang beer yet? I highly recommend it.”
Taedonggang beer was popular, but not everyone gets a chance to taste it. He nodded approvingly. We walked into the first pub that came into our sight. It was a shack where there were only a few tables and people were mostly standing inside, but it was already crowded with loads of people. A few old men were already heavily drunk and moving about noisily. When we were served with two glasses of beer and boiled chicken feet, we raised our glasses to toast.
He wasn’t at all impressed by the luxury of Pyongyang
His face looked as if he had all the worries of the world. We talked about various topics and during the conversation, I got to read a few scripts he had written and he told me about the painful military service he had to get through.
He said he was in KATUSA [Korean Augmentation To the United States Army] in the South: he had to do chores and run errands for American GIs. During his military service, he even had to bring a bucket of water for America GIs to wash their feet. They even forced the water they washed their feet with down his throat and made him run around all night completely naked. While he was telling me all these horrible stories, his face was expressionless and he sounded nonchalant.
According to him, South Korea was a living hell where people couldn’t live. He went on to tell me that North Koreans should have pride in themselves for living in a sovereign country. He was immensely happy that he was now a citizen of North Korea, he said. I thought that he was a skillful writer and that he had a meaningful message but it was not convincing to me.
Before we knew it, our table was covered with empty beer bottles and we were tipsy. Our faces had already turned red by that point. I wanted to know the truth. So, I worked up the nerve to ask him directly.
“Bro, tell me. Why did you come all the way here? I can tell that you’re a highly educated man. Why are you living in a small town when you could be living in Pyongyang? I wanna know. Why did you come to North Korea in the first place?”
He went on to tell me that North Koreans should have pride in themselves for living in a sovereign country
At first, he looked at me suspiciously. But soon, the suspicion fell from his eyes and he began to tell me why he came over.
“I graduated from a highly prestigious school in Seoul which is called Yonsei University,” he told me. “Have you heard of Yonsei? It is one of the top universities in South Korea. Then, I wanted to go to the Military Academy.”
“I submitted my application and sat for exams but I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get in. I had excellent grades and I was good at sports. I could never understand why they wouldn’t let me in.”
“I just enlisted in the military instead of going to the military academy. When I went home one day and told my parents how disappointed I was that I couldn’t get into Military Academy. My parents told me that my uncle had been a guerilla working for the North.”
“It turned out that the South Korean government didn’t hire people who had someone in the family that worked for the North for any good positions in society. My uncle was the reason why I could never get into Military Academy despite my impeccable grades. Ha!”
“Then, I thought to myself that there is no place for me in the South Korean society just for something my uncle did in the past. So, when I got my chance, I moved over to the North.”
Suddenly, he seemed disturbed and began gulping down a glass of beer. I wanted to ask him if he was happy and content with his life in the North. I ended up not asking him as I didn’t see a point in it.
He looked out the window and his eyes filled with regret and sadness. I could guess why he chose to live in a small town instead of Pyongyang: it was obvious to me the regime didn’t trust him. He must have shown that he regretted coming to the North.
He began to mumble: “This is the people’s heaven.”
Written by Ji-Min Kang
Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Featured image by Adam Westerman
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