In the 1960s, North Korea’s disaster was not yet on the horizon. In economic terms, the country was going neck and neck with the South, and in Pyongyang, the regime’s privileged showcase, it seemed the Party’s talk of triumph and promise might actually hold true. I know what I’m talking about; Pyongyang is where I was born and grew up. I even lived some happy years there, under the guardian eye of Kim Il-sung, our “Great Leader,” and his son, Kim Jong-il, our “Dear Leader.”
To the child I was, Kim Il-sung was a kind of Father Christmas. Every year on his birthday, he would send us gift packages of cakes and sweets. Our beloved Number One chose them himself, with a care and kindness that gave his gifts a savoriness all their own. Thanks to his generosity, we also had the right, every third year, to a school uniform, a cap, and a pair of shoes.
Our mothers said these polyester uniforms were sturdy, easy to wash, and permanently pressed. As for the shoes, daily use showed them to be of excellent quality. The ceremony for the distribution of uniforms, a most solemn event, was held in the large hall adjoining the school, which was specially decorated for the occasion with slogans and portraits. The parents in attendance applauded speeches by the school principal and several representatives of the Party. Student delegates got on the rostrum and thanked the Party in their little childish voices, pledging allegiance to the Clairvoyant, and pouring imprecations on all our enemies, American imperialism first among them, “because its claws still grip part of our dear Fatherland.” At the end, the student delegates were entrusted with the precious gifts, which they distributed to the rest of the pupils the following day.
Kim Il-sung was actually even better than Father Christmas, because he seemed eternally young and omniscient. Like his son, Kim Jong-il, who was said to be in line to succeed him, he was more like a god to us than Father Christmas. The newspapers, the radio, posters, our textbooks, our teachers: everyone and everything seemed to confirm this. By marrying our singular Korean genius with the immutable ideals of the Communist revolution, these two masterminds, these two darlings of the universe, were building for us the Edenic socialist state. Had not Kim Il-sung’s political acumen and incomparable intellect already been the cause of wonders, against the cruel American invaders, for example, whom he dealt the most humiliating of defeats? Only much later did I learn how the war was really started and what happened in its aftermath. Like millions of other North Korean children, I was taught that thanks to the military genius of our Great Guide and, to a lesser degree, the international aid of China, to whom we were united “like lips to teeth,” our valiant People’s Army had routed the Americans. Kim Il-sung—a.k.a. the Light of Human Genius, the Unequaled Genius, the Summit of Thought, the North Star of the People—was the object of a personality cult extravagant enough to rival that of Stalin or Mao Tse-tung, and indeed, even to outlive them. In 1998, the People’s Supreme Assembly even made the astounding decision to name Kim Il-sung president “for all eternity”—four years after his death!
To my childish eyes and to those of all my friends, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were perfect beings, untarnished by any base human function. I was convinced, as we all were, that neither of them urinated or defecated. Who could imagine such things of gods? In the portraits of their paternal faces I found comfort and all that was protecting, kindly, self-assured.
Like other children, I started grammar school at the age of six—or seven, if you count according to the traditional Korean formula, where year one begins at conception and another year is added every January 1. (The Korean and Western calculus for determining age can vary by as many as two years.) While ordinarily eager to defend its traditions, North Korea has officially renounced this manner of calculating age, although it is still widely used in private.
The name of the grammar school I attended was the School of the People, and Kim Il-sung once honored it with a visit—a truly exceptional event, which conferred the greatest prestige on the parents whose children attended the institution. Of this place, too, I have fond memories. I recall with particular warmth Mrs. Ro Chong-gyu, a teacher of enormous kindness and pedagogical skill, who always found the right word to encourage me. Despite their adherence to communist educational methods, almost all the teachers I had were attentive and patient with their pupils, even during our criticism and self-criticism sessions. Anyone who has never lived in a Communist country may be shocked at the thought of little children mimicking their politicized elders and denouncing themselves and others for lacking revolutionary vigilance or for not meriting the Great Leader’s confidence. Yet these sessions generally ended with words of encouragement from our teachers, not of reproach, and with the hope that we would try harder in the future. I don’t believe any of us were really traumatized by these sessions.
To help initiate us into North Korea’s highly militaristic brand of communism, we were awarded different ranks at school. We were hardly seven years old when our uniforms first began bearing stars—two or three, depending on our level. Already we were being directed by a “political leader,” the number one of the class, and by a delegate, the number two, who were appointed by the teacher and confirmed by a vote of the pupils. Admittedly, I was never much taken with military discipline: one day I convinced about fifteen of my classmates to ditch school and go to the zoo. It didn’t take long to notice fifteen absentees, and the episode soon caused a big stir. Since I was the class delegate, I was not only publicly demoted but was expected to execute my self-criticism with deeper-than-usual compunction and with exceptionally good form.
In the curriculum, too, training the revolution’s little soldiers was given first priority. Like students everywhere in the world, we learned to read and write with as few mistakes as possible; we studied arithmetic, drawing, music, performed gymnastics, and so on. But above all, we were taught about the morals of communism and the history of the revolution of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Given its singular import, the latter subject demanded that we learn by rote answers to questions such as: On what day and at what hour was Kim Il-sung born? What heroic feats did he perform against the Japanese? What speech did he give at such-and-such a conference, on such-and-such date? Like my fellow pupils, I thought cramming myself with such important facts was perfectly normal, and doing it gave me great pleasure. An education of this sort resulted in a wellspring of admiration and gratitude for our political leaders and in the willingness to sacrifice everything for them and the homeland. Like everyone in my class, I signed up for the Pupils’ Red Army. What a sight we must have made marching into battle, fake machine guns slung across our shoulders. Though we mostly just learned to form ranks and sing while marching, we loved these exercises and never had to be asked twice to strike a military pose. Right away we felt we were Kim Il-sung’s little soldiers. We were never asked to do anything too demanding. The training was adapted to our tender age and generally consisted of marching around the schoolyard a few times or around a block of houses. It wasn’t until the penultimate year of high school that we would be allowed to undertake the more serious and difficult exercises. The high school students went on mountain hikes, memorized emergency air-raid instructions, learned to hide from enemy planes, and to steer the population to the nearest air-raid shelters.
When I wasn’t in school, I could usually be found playing outside with the kids in my neighborhood. My favorite thing was to meet up under the weeping willows that ran along the Daedong River not far from where I lived. My friends and I knew the place well and felt completely safe there. At regular intervals we could hear a nearby bell, whose ringing had gradually become an integral part of the landscape. In warm weather, we waded in the water, catching dragonflies and other insects. And winter could be just as wonderful, during the festive time in late December, for example, when the statues of Kim Il-sung were decorated with footlights and draped with banners wishing us a happy New Year. Winter break ran from December 31 to mid-February, and when we tired of snowball fights, we would go back to our beloved river to ice-skate or play a game of ice hockey.
It would be bad grace to deny I had a happy childhood, but my family was better off than most, living in a newly built neighborhood that was exceptionally quiet, airy, and verdant. Situated near the main train station, Kyongnim-dong might have been less beautiful than the perimeter areas reserved for the nomenklatura, but it certainly came a close second. In my mind’s eye, I remember it more as a park than as an urban neighborhood. Our apartment was large enough to comfortably accommodate all seven of us: my parents; my little sister, Mi-ho, whose name means “beautiful lake” and who is two years my junior; my paternal grandparents; one of my uncles—my “third uncle,” according to Korean usage, which ranks uncles and aunts according to age and hierarchical standing; and me. My family enjoyed a level of comfort foreign to most North Korean homes, even in Pyongyang. We had a refrigerator, washing machine, vacuum cleaner, and even the most sought-after of all luxury goods: a color television set, on which, to our great delight, we could watch the dramatic political-crime series “Clean Hands.” Even our clothes seemed rich compared to those of our neighbors, to whom my grandmother would often give away what we no longer needed.
There was no real poverty in our neighborhood or anywhere else—at least in the big cities. North Korea hadn’t yet begun to suffer the major food and energy shortages it knows today. The rationing system worked well, and at the beginning of every month families received coupons for procuring food and heating oil. At our house, things were even better. My grandfather, who held a supervisory position in the state’s goods distribution network, had access to almost anything, including nearly unlimited supplies of meat. People privileged enough to know this important man sometimes dropped by for a visit only to depart with a little something extra in the bottom of their bag, a supplement to the rations provided by the government.
Other images from that time come back to me. We lived a few dozen steps from the Soviet embassy, and children of the diplomatic corps sometimes ventured onto what my comrades and I considered our territory. We watched with hostile curiosity as the group of foreign-tongued blond children walked through our neighborhood. We would harass them and try to pull their hair, and they’d push us aside or run away; but somehow the clumsy overtures never broke out into a general melee. Yet when it came to fighting among ourselves, we never let an opportunity slip. I was a difficult child—stubborn, vindictive, determined—never missing an opportunity to measure myself up against a competitor. My fights were sometimes stopped by my grandfather, who absolutely adored me. If I was on the short end of a brawl, he would break it up and call both me and my adversary hooligans, but whenever he saw I had the upper hand, he stayed out of it—beaming with pride.
In North Korea, kids my age were encouraged to cultivate a spirit of competition. I remember a time when students in every class posted numbers representing their relative position in terms of physical strength. The various classes then organized fights to measure their number one against the number one of other classes. Koreans can be violent, but they are also saccharine sentimentalists, who are easily brought to tears by the soppiest songs and most mawkish novels. I therefore hope I will be forgiven for cherishing another memory, this one of a little six-year-old girl. I was seven years old and I thought she was beautiful. So did a movie director, who spotted her and put her in one of his movies. She must have liked me as much as I liked her, because for a long time we were inseparable. “We’ll be marrying you two before long,” my grandmother once joked.
The prediction delighted the little girl but threw me into a violent rage. Why such fury? Perhaps my grandmother had unintentionally hit on a tender spot. Sex was a taboo subject in the North Korean educational system, and maybe in my mind as well. Was my anger an attempt to mask my embarrassment? Whatever the reason, that first love meant a lot to both me and the little girl: years later, when she was in high school and I was in the camp, she dared to inquire about my well-being. I went to visit her when I finally got out, but it was too late. Ku Bon-ok—the “real jewel” that the definition of her name rightly presaged—had married and moved away. To where I never learned.
I had one other childhood love: aquarium fish. Raising pigeons was the more popular hobby among my friends, but that never did it for me. My thing was fish, and they were more important to me than anything. Even sitting in class and listening to my teacher, I was with them in my thoughts. I worried that they were bored without me, that their water was at the wrong temperature, that an evildoer had broken into the house and done something to them. Almost all the kids I knew had an aquarium, but coming from a well-to-do family, I had about ten of them lining the walls of my room. As luck had it, not far from us was a store that sold water plants, colored pebbles, and other accessories. To make sure I always had the most original merchandise, I would wake up early and be the first to arrive upon opening. The lady who ran the store liked her assiduous young client and paid me a big smile every time I came and asked, in my most serious nine-year-old manner, to reserve such-and-such species from the next shipment of fish.
I wanted to own the most beautiful fish in the neighborhood, and the biggest and the strangest. One day I had the idea of adding specimens from the neighboring river to my collection. The trick had never been tried. So I caught a few fish, quickly brought them home, dropped them into an aquarium, and ran back out to fetch my friends so they could admire my new acquisitions. But alas, by the time we returned, the new lodgers had departed this world.
The competition for aquarium fish was as stiff as for physical strength, and jealousy gnawed at us whenever someone got a fish more beautiful than our own. One time a kid in my neighborhood invited us over to see an exotic fish he had just received as a gift, a truly magnificent specimen with huge bulging eyes. Yet no sooner had the boy owner stepped away from the aquarium, when one of his guests plunged a hand into the water and ripped out one of the fish’s eyes. The fish was too beautiful to live in someone else’s aquarium.