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A Visit to North Korea


On February 16, 2002, the sixtieth birthday of the Great Leader Kim Jong Il, I was standing in front of a group of Workers’ Party leaders in Pyongyang, singing a South Korean protest song called “Morning Dew.” It was a strange situation for a fiction writer from New York’s East Village who is neither a political activist nor an entertainer. I am South Korean by birth and an American, having immigrated at thirteen. The American in me dismisses North Korea as off-limits, the bastard child of the cold war. But I am often haunted by the photographs of famine there that I see on the evening news. When friends ask me whether I think the two Koreas will ever be reunified, I never know what to say. I know as much as they do, or as little. The one thing that sets me apart is that I am certain, no matter how evil North Korea is supposed to be, that I could never hate its people.

The story of my journey began in the fall of 2001 when I wrote a letter to Yoo Tai Young, the head of the Korean American National Coordinating Council (KANCC), asking how I might obtain a visa to go to North Korea. A retired minister of the Bedford Park Presbyterian Church in the Bronx, he is well known among New York’s Korean-American community for his activities on behalf of North Korea. If you want to find a way to Pyongyang, several people had advised me, you should get in touch with Mr. Yoo. Very few Americans have been issued visas in recent years, and I doubted that he could arrange one for me. But after an interview with the KANCC’s representative, I received, in an envelope bearing the return address of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, a simple form entitled “Homecoming Application.” The key question on it was whether I could supply the name of a family member in the North. I filled in the blank, writing the name Yoon Nam Jung. Age 68. Relation, maternal uncle. Address not known.

On June 25, 1950, when North Korean bombs began dropping on South Korea, my grandmother fled her home in Seoul with her five children, including my then-four-year-old mother. Cars were rare, and the only means of escape was on foot or by train. Seoul Station was packed with panicked citizens fighting to get on the southbound trains. The family had finally secured seats for themselves when someone screamed that young men should make room for women and children. The last thing my grandmother recalled was that her eldest child, then seventeen years old, rose from his seat. “Don’t worry, Mother,” he told her. “I’ll be on the next train.” Except that hers was the last train out of Seoul. Later, neighbors reported seeing him, with his hands tied, being dragged away by North Korean soldiers.

My grandmother spent her remaining years in search of her lost son. She would often wander around the city muttering his name. Her only solace was the prayer rituals during which the local shamans reassured her that he was alive somewhere near Pyongyang. Korean Confucian ethics hold that there is no bigger sin than abandoning one’s family. Despite the stroke that debilitated her later in life, she kept herself going, waiting for the 38th Parallel to break open.

On February 9 last year, amid the ebullient homebound crowd at the Korean Airlines lounge in Kennedy Airport, I met Mr. Yoo, who turned out to be a silver-haired man in a Lenin beret and a musty green trench coat. Something about him seemed stuck in another era: the way he insisted on referring to me as Miss Kim, or the way he always spoke for me to the Workers’ Party leaders we encountered later that week. During the nearly twenty-hour flight to Beijing, which included stopovers in Anchorage and the South Korean airport at Incheon, I learned that there would be twelve members in our party, the rest of whom we would meet in Beijing. There we would stay overnight before flying to Pyongyang.

Air Koryo—North Korea’s only airline—has flights between Beijing and Pyongyang only two days per week. Since Pyongyang is less than a four-hour drive from Seoul, the detour through China was yet another reminder of the division of the countries. Relations between North and South improved under South Korean President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine” policy of reconciliation, which was supported by Clinton. But the Bush administration’s hard-line position has reversed the agreements made at the Korea summit meeting in 2000. Nor did the “Axis of Evil” speech by President Bush help to ease the tension. So I was surprised to have been admitted to the country. I still did not know if an invitation to the celebration meant that they had found my uncle.

Yoo spoke to me on the trip only once. As we were nearing Incheon Airport, he suddenly turned to me and the pair of stewardesses perched near us and asked, “Do you know where we’re headed?” When they shook their heads with intrigued expressions, he blurted out with a boastful grin, “I’m going home. No, not Seoul, that’s not my home.” He was, he told us, born in Hwanghae Province, south of Pyongyang, and had fled from home in 1950 when he was nineteen. After fourteen years in South Korea, he spent thirty-six years in America. “Home is back North,” he said. “I’m sixty-nine years old, but the only home I’ve ever had belongs to those first nineteen years. When you get to my age, you know there’s only one home.”

Beijing, on February 11, was ablaze with the lunar New Year’s Eve festivities as we arrived. The other members of our party were already there, divided into three groups. First, there was the “artistic team,” consisting of a conductor, a violinist from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a soprano from Los Angeles, and a baritone from New York. They had been hired to perform at Kim Jong Il’s sixtieth-birthday celebration. Then there were three “supporters”: an elderly man from Los Angeles on his way to be reunited with his seventy-one-year-old sister, an installation artist wearing a beret and sideburns who claimed to be bringing an artwork for the Great Leader, and an evangelist from a gospel church on a humanitarian mission. Lastly, there were the “delegates,” core members of KANCC, the US-based organization of pro–North Korea activists. Mr. Yoo and a second member named Kim Bong Ho were permanently forbidden entry into South Korea because of their anti-government activities. Two others, Oh Bo Yong and Yi Chang Il, were die-hard loyalists of the North Korean regime. Why I was billed as the fifth delegate was not made clear to me until days later.

Our Air Koryo flight the next day was full. Most of the passengers, dressed in suits and furs, appeared to be diplomats from the former Eastern bloc and Southeast Asian countries. Many wore tiny red badges showing a picture of either Kim Il Sung, the “Eternal Great Leader” or “Eternal President,” who died in 1994, or his heir, Kim Jong Il, the “Great Leader,” also known as “Great General” or “Respected General.” The delegates were speaking with distinct North Korean accents now, addressing one another as “comrade.” Suddenly liberated, even buoyant, these men in their sixties and seventies were bursting with childlike excitement.

Upon boarding the aircraft, I was immediately struck by the martial music, the sort that would be played at a military procession. It soon drifted into a melodic song about the Great Leader, Kim Jong Il. The stewardesses in navy-blue suits and white blouses and gloves were in their early twenties and uniformly pleasant-looking. What struck me about them, other than the Kim Il Sung badges across their chests, was that they did not smile.

The interior of the plane was light green. From its wall panels and its command knobs to its overhead luggage compartments, everything was made of either linoleum or plastic. The fluorescent light cast a somber shadow. The seatbelt signs never flashed on. The in-flight magazine had on its glossy cover a picture of Kim Jong Il with his right arm stretched out, pointing at a red banner with the words “Chosun” (North Korea’s name for itself) and “Juche 91.” Juche, meaning self-reliance, is the central concept promoted by the regime, and it is often attached to significant words or events, in this case to the ninety-first year since Kim Il Sung’s birth.

In just ninety minutes, the plane arrived at the North Korean capital, which had been a source of heartbreak for generations. My grandmother until the day she died could never grasp why she was not allowed to cross the 38th Parallel. Now, fifty-two years since the war, twenty-seven years since she died, two weeks after Bush had called it part of the Axis of Evil, I was flying into the taboo land, holding on to my American passport as though it were a shield.

My first glimpse of the country was of serene, empty patches of farmland below. Only four other planes were parked on the runway as we landed, three Air Koryo aircraft and one bearing a “Vladivostok” sign in red. Stepping onto the tarmac, I was struck by the huge portrait of Kim Il Sung on top of a lone concrete building from which a crowd of dark-suited men were walking toward us. I heard my name called from several directions. Suddenly I was being pulled to one side, to pose with the other delegates before flashing TV cameras. A mob of reporters surrounded us. One of them was holding up a sign that read, “Delegates to the Gathering to Meet the Sun of the Twenty-first Century.”

The customs officials confiscated my cellular phone and my passport—both, they reassured me, to be returned when I left. The narrow baggage-claim area was chaotic. Suitcases were thrown about everywhere, and people were frantically searching for them in the dark. Soon I was being led away by a grinning man in his late forties, who effusively said that he had been looking forward to meeting me and offered his coat when he saw me shivering in the cold. Someone introduced him to me as an ambassador, the head of the North Korean Permanent Mission to the UN.

The delegates were ushered into two cars: Yoo into a blue Mercedes-Benz 200 and the rest of us into a van. We drove past frozen fields sparsely dotted with huge cement blocks that appeared to be housing projects. We saw hardly any cars. A few people were walking on the side of the road, some in khaki military uniforms, others bundled up in dark coats. Soon more dilapidated concrete buildings came into view, most of them less than ten stories high, and many without windows. Shops were few and plainly marked as “Fish Shop” or “Fruit Shop.” The signs were in old Korean words no longer used in South Korea. The display windows were each covered by a cloth. At bus stops, long lines of people were waiting with no bus in sight. A tram went by, followed by a few people on bicycles.

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