North Korea is a nation notorious for its isolation. Perhaps it is for this reason that an air of mystery surrounds both the country and her inhabitants. Growing up as a Korean-American, I found it absurd whenever I was asked whether I’m from the North or South. Movement both within and outside of the country is strictly monitored by the state. It might even be easier for a citizen living in the provinces to defect from the country, than to visit the glorious capital city of Pyongyang. Generally speaking, if you’re a North Korean living outside of North Korea, it means one of two things: 1. you defected, or 2. you were sent. Although seemingly unlikely, North Korea boasts a significant population of expats living outside the impermeable walls of the hermit kingdom. I’ve even met a few.
Over this past year I’ve spent time listening to the tales of North Korean refugees secretly hiding in China as they tearfully shared their stories of escape, I’ve delivered presents to orphaned stateless children who were abandoned by their Chinese families after their mothers were caught and forcibly repatriated to North Korea, and while in South Korea this past summer, I spent a great deal of time getting beat-up by my female North Korean high school students who liked to translate their affection into pokes, slaps and punches. However, there is a stark difference between those North Koreans who left their country by choice, and those who were sent; between those for whom ideological indoctrination is less a survival tool than a profound allegiance.
From the expat North Korean waitresses adorned in hanboks performing North Korean songs on the gayageum, to the elite university students studying abroad in prestigious institutions overseas, their calculated, uniform response to routine questions such as “what is your favorite song?” or, “who is your hero?” indicates that there is something uncomfortably unfamiliar about them (Arirang and Kim Il-Sung are the typical replies, in case you’re wondering). The North Korean exchange students studying in my department are no different.
With their Kim Il-Sung badges neatly pinned to their shirts over the heart on the left-side of their chest, these North Koreans never travel alone, always accompanied by at least one other peer. The theory behind their “camaraderie” is that they are required to monitor and report each other’s suspicious actions and movements. Although they are from the elite class, these North Koreans are much shorter in stature than their South Korean counterparts (food is reportedly scarce even in the affluent neighborhoods of Pyongyang). Since encountering these students for the first time, I made it my aim to befriend one of them.
Ryu Jung Chul; you can pick him out as a northerner just by the sound of his name. Many Korean surnames are pronounced differently in the North than they are in the South. For example, one of the most common Korean surnames 이, pronounced Yi, is pronounced Ri in North Korea. Although his accent is another dead giveaway, Jung Chul’s soft face and cheery demeanor separates him from the crowd of emotionless expressions.
The first time we talked I had caught him while he was riding his bike to his next class. The ride created enough distance for me to have a private conversation with Jung Chul as his other North Korean peers rode on ahead. If I was a South Korean, Jung Chul would have stopped talking to me on the spot, as North Koreans are forbidden to speak to or communicate with South Koreans. So we conversed in Chinese and English, until I eventually revealed that I was an American of Korean descent who couldn’t speak Korean very well (which was not too far from the truth – although a bit of acting on my part was required). The revelation was noticeably a bit unnerving to him, but he must have been as intrigued by our contact as I was, as he calculated that technically he was not breaking any rules by communicating with me.
Our conversation continued and over the course of the next few weeks I bumped into Jung Chul quite a few times. With each encounter I bowed my head in respect and greeted him formally, as is customary between Koreans. Sometimes words were exchanged, other times we passed each other by in silence. But after a few weeks of random encounters, as I was lost in thought staring at an announcement board waiting for the elevator, Jung Chul nudged me to acknowledge his presence with the faintest grin spread across his face. His companion on the other hand remained emotionless, even to my gestures of friendship, and kept his eyes off me the entire time, even when giving a curt reply to my questions. It struck me at that moment, the “forbidden” aspect of these exchanges.
With a foreign student population of 3,500, nearly half of all the international students at my university come from South Korea. With so many Korean students you would never think twice hearing people converse in Korean, nor would you ever feel the urge to approach one of them. But the same doesn’t seem to apply to those North Korean exchange students… Maybe it’s that air of mystery that shadows their very existence. The fact that North and South Korea have been separated for so long, coupled with the North’s extreme isolation, only seem to fuel this intrigue. I begin to wonder, will reunification eventually leave us indifferent and indiscriminate to North or South Korean; or will the immense pain from generations of separation result in an even greater joy, leaving us with a stronger sense of unity and brotherhood? Only reunification will tell; in the meantime, I can only wait and pray.