A Radical Place

Sceneries of North Korea Imagined from Berlin (B)

I was born on January 4th, 1934, in a little village in East Germany. Nowadays, the village has turned into a factory town. I am an only child. My father used to work in a steel factory and my mother was a housewife.

After the liberation in 1945, a new school was built in my village. The kids would learn skills needed for manual labour jobs, such as farming or factory worker. The school was a “comprehensive school” and the children would attend from age 10 to 18. The apprenticeship lasted for 8 years, 4 in elementary school and 4 years in high school.

From 1950 on, university admission was guaranteed. My school headmaster asked me what I would like to study and I answered that I was interested in language studies, particularly Russian. He recommended me to study western languages, but I didn’t feel like it. East Germany was impressed by the Chinese Revolution at the end of the 40s. In 1952 I registered at the Humboldt University. The first lecture I attended was held by an old Professor, fluent in Chinese. He told us that if we learned Chinese, we could learn other East Asian languages as well. I was 19 years old.

1950, I knew there would be a war in Korea. In order to fight the Soviet propaganda, progressive South Korean politicians decided to form a new socialist government, which would represent the entire country. I had frequently heard stories about how the North Koreans had suffered during American bomb attacks and this created a strong connection between us. About 10 other students also wanted to learn the North Korean language. We chose to major in Chinese with North Korean as an optional language.

Our Chinese professor was a lawyer from Berlin. Our Korean professor was a nice guy who did not speak Korean perfectly himself, but was also educated in Iranian and German literature. He had learned Korean on his own and taught us Korean grammar until 1959; however, we did not learn to speak Korean in his class.

At the time, there were about 2000 North Korean students in East Germany and I learned North Korean from one of them. By 1954, East Germany had built strong political relations with North Korea and Pyongyang had a GDR Embassy.

The German Embassy in Pyongyang recruited GDR citizens to work in North Korea and I joined the diplomatic mission in 1955. Many embassy employees were already fluent in Korean. I could read the newspapers, because I had a good understanding of the grammar. My job was to read the news everyday and reported on its content.

During my one-year mission at the GDR Embassy in Pyongyang, I would take classes with a professor from the Kim II Sung University once a week. He was specialized in English literature, could not speak German but had written a North Korean schoolbook for Russian students. I learned a lot from him.

You could not take a degree in Korean literature in Europe and accordingly, in 1954, we decided to create the “Korean studies” program at the Humbolt University in East Berlin. I graduated in 1954 in Korean language and Japanese studies. In 1959 and 1960, the first Korean literature classes were created. I did not understand Korean literature, mainly because I did not know the Korean History of the 1920s. I then visited the Kim II Sung University and took modern Korean literature classes for 2 years. But even as I came back to Germany, I could not graduate. It was very difficult and it took me 3 hours to read one single page!

There is this saying in German: ”Among the blind, the one-eyed person is the King”. In 1958, I was the sole North Korean - German interpreter and went to work in Pyongyang with the GDR Committee.

Together with a North Korean German student, who studied in the GDR, I translated the conferences between the GDR and North Korea. The GDR politicians explained their views on revolutionary conventions; however those were interpreted by the North Korean counterparts (including Kim II Sung) as military arguments. At first, I thought it had to do with the translation, but then I realized it was due to the different historical backgrounds of the two countries.

I first noticed the theme of reunification in North Korean literature, in the 1970s. So far, I had concentrated my research on the differences and similarities between the North- and South Korean literature. My research supported a reunification process of the two Koreas. In 1992, I translated the text “Earth” written by Park Kyung-Ni, and “Scrimmaging River” a text written by the North Korean author Lee Kiyoung. Both translations were published and it was incredible to see how similar they were.

Pyongyang was very poor as I visited the city for the first time. Many people lived in some sort of caverns that had been built and I understood the dimension and damages of the war. As I returned to the city in 1960, a lot had already changed and the reconstruction had begun. I stayed in a student apartment for 1,5 years. The lifestyle of the North Korean students showed me that Pyongyang had managed to overcome the damages of the war.

This is the daily schedule of my North Korean flat mate: leaving the student apartment at 5am to attend the classes from 7am to 1pm at the Kim II Sung University. After that, she would join the reconstruction work for 4 or 5 hours, removing detritus and ashes. After diner, she had to attend the “political education” (brainwashing) and as she came back home, we barely had time to talk. She slept from 11pm to 5am and was still so tired during class that she could barely concentrate.

My flat mate’s name was Jungsook Choi. She had a beautiful voice, studied communication with a specialization in print media and wanted to become a reporter. Like many other North Korean students, she would sing in a choir towards the end of the day. In 1961, she belonged to a choir with almost 1500 members. Prior to concerts, they rehearsed in tents because Pyongyang didn’t have a stage. From October to December, Jungsook Choi would rehearse every night during the cold winter, although there was not enough to eat. Later she became ill and could not walk any more. She visited a hot Japanese thermal bath where she received a treatment. The last time I saw her, 1961, she was 21 and walking with crutches. To this day, she looks very very sad.

As the North Korean politicians (including Kim II Sung) were young, they suffered a lot as a consequence of the war. To this day, they are convinced that young people have to work as hard as they did. In my opinion this is dangerous for the North Korean socialism, because the young people are facing challenges they cannot handle.

Please, don’t ask me about today’s North Korea. During the 50s and 60s I supported North Korea. At the end of the 70s however, North Korean politicians only thought about their own careers. In the GDR too, the pursuit of ones own career became more important than the social values.

Kim II Sung died in 1994. I think he really tried to develop North Korea.
I don’t understand Kim Jong II and his son Kim Jong Eun.

Between 1966 and 1989, I worked as an interpreter. I translated for Kim II Sung and Erich Honecker. Kim II Sung knew many Eastern Europeans who could speak Korean and I feel thankful towards him. I think he was a reasonable man, with a clear and logical way of thinking. He expressed himself in beautiful imagery and was more convincing than any German could be. It was a pleasure to write his biography and to present him in an objective and pragmatic light.

About 2000 North Korean students lived in Berlin between in the 60s and the 70s. There were love stories between German women and North Korean men. Some got married and had children. However, the North Koreans had to go back to North Korea. About 12 women accompanied their husbands to North Korea, but they did not stay. They complained that the quality of life was even worse than in the GDR; they came back alone, even if they still loved their husbands.

For men who married a German woman, it became difficult to pursue a career in North Korea. The government could not understand why they did not marry one of their own kind. They were considered renegades and their children grew up in the GDR, and could only visit them a few times in North Korea.

I visited South Korea for the first time in 1990. After the German reunification, I was the second German from the GDR flying there (the first one was a businessman). As I went shopping in Itaewon, I remember being followed by an “observer”. As I spoke with the shop attendant, he asked me how long I had been living in Korea and how I had learned the language so well. As I explained that I had learned North Korean, he shook his head in disbelief repeating:” this is impossible!”

One week prior to visiting South Korea, I stayed in Japan for a couple of days. The Koreans congratulated me on the German reunification; however, I told them that it was too early for compliments still.

As I was questioned about the history of German reunification, I commented:
“The unification of Korea doesn’t have to happen in the same way as in Germany. You cannot imitate another country because the process of unification requires your own thoughts and creativity.” When asked when a reunification of Korea could materialize, I said that was anyone’s guess.

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

한국어 번역 내려받기

Courtesy: Seoyoung Kim