A Visit to North Korea

Suki Kim
The Ministry of Railways’ painting of a train that Kim Jong Il once rode in; he was said to have died on a train while traveling tirelessly to oversee the well-being of his people (Kimjongilia Exhibition, 2002)

1.

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…


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