U.S. citizens were only rarely admitted to North Korea and American journalists even less frequently. When I finally got a visa to visit Pyongyang in 2005, myself and a colleague were led along a well-worn path of monuments to the glorious leadership of Kim Jong-il and his late father, Kim Il-sung. At all times, we were chaperoned by two skinny men in dark suits, both named Mr. Park. (North Korea takes the precaution of assigning two "minders" to foreign visitors, one to watch the other so that they can't be bribed.) The minders spoke the same stilted rhetoric of the official news service. ("Thanks to our dear leader Kim Jong-il" was a phrase inserted with strange regularity into our conversations.) They rarely made eye contact when they spoke to us, and I wondered if they believed what they said. What were they really thinking? Did they love their leader as much as they claimed? Did they have enough food to eat? What did they do when they came home from work? What was it like to live in the world's most repressive regime?
If I wanted answers to my questions, it was clear I wasn't going to get them inside North Korea. I had to talk to people who had left defectors.
In 2004, Mi-ran was living in Suwon, a city twenty miles south of Seoul, bright and chaotic. Suwon is home to Samsung Electronics and a cluster of manufacturing complexes producing objects most North Koreans would be stumped to identify - computer monitors, CD-ROMs, digital televisions, flash-memory sticks. (A statistic one often sees quoted is that the economic disparity between the Koreas is at least four times greater than that between East and West Germany at the time of German reunification in 1990.) The place is loud and cluttered, a cacophony of mismatched colors and sounds. As in most South Korean cities, the architecture is an amalgam of ugly concrete boxes topped with garish signage. High-rise apartments radiate for miles away from a congested downtown lined with Dunkin' Donuts and Pizza Huts and a host of Korean knockoffs. The backstreets are filled with love hotels with names like Eros Motel and Love-Inn Park that advertise rooms by the hour. The customary state of traffic is gridlock as thousands of Hyundaismore fruit of the economic miracle try to plow their way between home and the malls. Because the city is in a perpetual state of gridlock, I took the train down from Seoul, a thirty-minute ride, then crawled along in a taxi to one of the few tranquil spots in town, a grilled beef-ribs restaurant across from an eighteenth-century fortress.
At first I didn't spot Mi-ran. She looked quite unlike the other North Koreans I had met. There were by that time some six thousand North Korean defectors living in South Korea and there were usually telltale signs of their difficulty in assimilatingskirts worn too short, labels still attached to new clothesbut Mi-ran was indistinguishable from a South Korean. She wore a chic brown sweater set and matching knit trousers. It gave me the impression (which like many others would prove wrong) that she was rather demure. Her hair was swept back and neatly held in place with a rhinestone barrette. Her impeccable appearance was marred only by a smattering of acne on her chin and a heaviness around the middle, the result of being three months pregnant. A year earlier she had married a South Korean, a civilian military employee, and they were expecting their first child.
I had asked Mi-ran to lunch in order to learn more about North Korea's school system. In the years before her defection, she had worked as a kindergarten teacher in a mining town. In South Korea she was working toward a graduate degree in education. It was a serious conversation, at times grim. The food on our table went uneaten as she described watching her five- and six-year-old pupils die of starvation. As her students were dying, she was supposed to teach them that they were blessed to be North Korean. Kim Il-sung, who ruled from the time the peninsula was severed at the end of World War II until his death in 1994, was to be revered as a god, and Kim Jong- il, his son and successor, as the son of a god, a Christ-like figure. Mi-ran had become a harsh critic of the North Korean system of brainwashing.
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