A Radical Place

Sceneries of North Korea Imagined from Berlin (A)

As a child I collected stamps and I had one stamp that was different than all the others. Most of my collection consisted of Japanese and Chinese stamps. Only later did I discover that this particular one was from North Korea. I then realized the difference between the Chinese and Korean alphabet (Hangeul) and that it had been produced between 1962 and 1963 and was part of the North Korean propaganda.

I grew up in the GDR and didn’t have the possibility to travel freely during those years. Escaping to the West was no option, so my possibilities of international travel were limited to Eastern Block countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. Before travelling to Korea, I read extensively about the country and its monuments and imagined it exactly as presented in the books.

During my stay in Pyongyang, I lived in a Russian style apartment building on the 5th floor, especially set up for exchange students. The building had been built to house 250 inhabitants; however there were only about 25 of us living there. Half were Chinese, 3 came from the USSR, one from Poland, 2 from Romania and 2 from Albania.

I shared my student apartment with a North Korean student who used to disappear a couple hours every day before returning back home. He reported to the authorities where I had been and what I had been doing during the day. He was studying German language and literature, however, I was not considered as a fellow student but rather more of a colleague. Even after 2 years he was not allowed to address me informally.

During our stay as exchange students in North Korea, we felt incredibly isolated. In order to study, and to conduct my research, I had to visit the faculty building for natural science, whereas I actually belonged to the faculty for social sciences. As a matter of fact, foreign students were not allowed to attend the University building of social sciences, because we could then access local newspapers and posters, which we were not supposed to see. I could have been a political spy, gathering information for the enemy. (I studied Korean language and literature at the Kim II Sung University.)

Since the mid 1970s, Kim Jong II was chosen as the follower of Kim II Sung. Because of internal political tension, the official announcement of Kim Jong II as his successor took some time. North Koreans also found it unusual that Kim II Sung’s follower was his own flesh and blood, expressing it as an “Adventure of Marxism”. In 1978 I unexpectedly discovered who Kim II Sung’s successor would be. I was travelling by bus over the Daedong River as the bus conductor, a young woman, stood up and shouted that it could only be Kim Jong II.

During my first days in the Kim II Sung University in Pyongyang, I was permanently followed by an “observer”. After some time, once it was evident I was not a spy, the reporting and observation stopped. I could move freely around the city of Pyongyang, frequently by means of public transportation. However, I was not allowed to travel outside the city and it was strictly forbidden to visit surrounding villages.

In the student apartment building we had just about everything we needed; restaurants, hairdresser, a library. Still, once a week I would visit the East German Embassy, which was a few km away in East Pyongyang, to purchase groceries. There is a saying in North Korea: “You should not practice liberalism”. At the time, the GDR seemed like the most liberal place on earth.

I have vivid memories of this day. It was mid October, delivery trucks of Chinese cabbage arrived and the student home prepared Kimchi. I even took pictures of it. Afterwards, the home manager came over to me and we talked for about 2 hours. He wanted to know, why I had photographed working class women in dirty clothes. I explained that a GDR art class had taught me that pictures representing farm- or steel factory workers were aesthetically superior. The manager seemed unconvinced and was concerned that the pictures could give North Korea a bad image. At that point I realized that my frame of mind differed considerably from the North Korean party line. (The student home was located on a main road; I lived in an apartment facing the backyard.)

Towards the end of the 1980s I had worked for a North Korean publisher for 2 years and told my colleagues:” This propaganda is counterproductive. Any foreigner looking at these can see it’s fake. To produce believable propaganda you need to relate to the facts.” (The publication has been produced in 7 languages and sent abroad.)

I studied for 2 years at the Kim II Sung University, with a friend from the Soviet Union who had been there for 5 years already. We had the same teacher for 2 years and did not study with the North Korean students.

My teacher at that time, Professor Kwon, Seungmo, held an interesting class. There was a German-North Korean dictionary but not a North Korean-German version. Thanks to a West-German friend, I obtained a South Korean-German dictionary. Although my professor was not comfortable with it, I was pleased to have it. One day, he asked me if he could have a look at it and said to me: “What kind of a dictionary is this? This is not North Korean, both languages are foreign to me.”

Father-Son Relation
I once asked my teacher about the significance of the word "bujajigan". My teacher laughed at me as I asked him if it meant: " space between the male testicles and penis". He then explained to me that this word meant: "father-son relationship"

I participated at the 1989 “World Festival of Youth and Students" (WFYS) in Pyongyang. I also met up with Im, Sugyeong from South Korea. Already back then, Pyongyang was facing economic difficulties. Even though festive fireworks were organized, I felt bad at ease as I realized that people had been spending their money on the fireworks, and therefore couldn’t buy food or clothes.

Following the German reunification, I could not return to North Korea because the friendship between North Korea and East Germany was obsolete. I had to wait until 2001 before I could return, this time together with the leader of the German "Linkspartei" (left wing party). On the plane, called "Koryo Minhang", reading North Korean newspapers, I noted that at first sight nothing had changed during my 12 years absence. There was a picture of a working girl sitting in a rice field, wearing a white blouse. My friend Helga remarked: "In the Propaganda Department of the Central Committee of the Korean Labor Party, there must be a CIA agent, because their propaganda is absolutely counterproductive."

During the cold winter of 2001, Germany sent a delegation to North Korea. The delegates were shocked as they noticed that the floor heating of the Koryo Hotel had been turned off. Instead they had to use electric radiators. The breath would fog inside and the warmest place was a 70s Mercedes with a good heating system.

The last time I visited North Korea, I went to Gujang County, in the province of South-Pyeongan. Party members informed me that the area’s textile and cement factories had closed down and that many young people were now unemployed. I also visited North Koreans in their homes and even found pigeons on the balcony, belonging to the caretaker. This was really astonishing!

Expensive and modern cars are reserved for North Koreans in executive positions. The rest of the population is to walk, even on the highway. The most incredible was that people would gather for a picnic in the middle of the highway. They knew that cars only rarely came by and whenever it happened, they would simply move aside for a moment.

I saw people swim in the Daedong River. The school in Pyongyang gives swimming classes. It is rumored that people from other areas never learnt to swim and do not know how to. Pyongyang represents an island from the outside world.

Text from “Reflected Pictures: View from outside of North Korea

한국어 번역 내려받기

Courtesy: Seoyoung Kim