In 2011, during the final 6 months of Kim Jong-il's life, I lived undercover in North Korea.
I was born and raised in South Korea, their enemy. I live in America, their other enemy.
Since 2002, I had visited North Korea a few times. and I had to come to realize that to write about it with any meaning, or to understand the place beyond the regime's propaganda, the only option was total immersion. So I posed as a teacher and a missionary at an all-male university in Pyongyang.
The Pyongyang university of science and technology was founded by Evangelical Christians who cooperate with the regime to educate the sons of North Korea elite without proselytizing which is a capital crime there. The students were 270 young men, expected to be the future leaders at the most isolated and brutal dictatorship in existence. When I arrived, they became my students.
2011 was a special year, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of North Korea's original Great leader, Kim il sung,
To celebrate the occasion, the regime shut down all universities, and sent students off to the fields to build the DPRK's much-heralded ideal as the world most powerful and prosperous nation. My students were the only ones spared from that fate.
North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation. Everything there is about the Great leader. Every book, every newspaper article, every song, every TV program, there is just one subject. The flower named after him, the mountains are carved with his slogans. Every citizen wears the badge of the Great Leader at all times. Even their calendar system begins with the birth of Kim II-sung.
The school was a heavily guarded prison, posing as a campus.
Teachers could only leave on group outings accompanied by an official minder. Even then, out trips were limited to sanctioned national monuments, celebrating the Great leader. The students were not allowed to leave the campus or communicate with their parents. Their days were meticulously mapped out, and any free time they had was devoted to honoring their Great Leader.
Lesson plans had to meet the approval of North Korean staff, every class was recorded and reported on, every room was bugged and every conversation overheard. Every blank space was covered with the protraits of Kim II-Sung and Kim Jong-II like everywhere else in North Korea.
We were never allowed to discuss the outside world. As students of science and technology, many of them were computer majors. But they did not know the existence of the Internet. They had never heard about or Steve Jobs. Facebook, Twitter none of those things would have meant to a thing. And I could not tell them.
I went there looking for truth. But where do you even start when an entire nation's ideology my students' day-to-day realities, and even my own position at the universities were all built on lies.
I started with the game, we played the "Truth and Lie." A volunteer would write a sentence on the chalkboard, and the other students had to guess whether it was a truth or a lie. One student wrote "I visited China last year on vacation," and everyone shouted, "lie!" They all knew this wasn't possible. Virtually no North Korean was allowed to leave their country. Even travelling within their own country requires a travel pass. I had hoped that this game would reveal some truth about my students, because they lie so often and so easily. Whether about the mythical accomplishments of their Great leader, or the strange claim they cloned a rabbit as fifth graders. The difference between truth and lies seemed times hazy to them. It took me a while to understand the different types of lies; They lied to shield their system from the world, or they were taught lies and were just regurgitating them. Or, at moments, they lied out of habit. But if all they have ever known were lies, how could we expect them to be otherwise?
Next I tried to teach them essay writing. But that turned out nearly impossible. Essay are about coming up with one's own thesis, and making an evidence-based argument to prove it. These students however were simply told what to think and they obeyed. In their world, critical thinking is not allowed.
I also gave them the weekly assignment of writhing a personal letter to anybody. It took a long time, but eventually some of them began to write to their mothers, their friends, their girlfriends. Although those were just homework, and would never reach their intended recipients. my students slowly began to reveal their true feelings in them. They wrote that they were fed up with the sameness of everything. They were worried about their future. In those letters they rarely ever mentioned their Great Leader.
I was spending all of my time with these young men. We all ate meals together, played basketball together, I often called them gentlemen which made them giggle. They blushed as the mention of the girls. And i came to adore them. And watching them open up even in the tiniest of ways deeply moving.
But something also felt wrong. During those month of living in their world, i often wondered if the truth would, in fact, improve their lives. I wanted so much to tell them the truth of their country and of the outside world where Arab youth were turning rotten regime inside out, using the power of social media, where everyone except them was connected through the world wide web which wasn't worldwide after all. But for them the truth is dangerous. By encouraging them to run after it, i was putting them at risk of persecution, of heartbreak.
When you are not allowed to express anything in the open, you become good at reading what is unspoken. In one of their personal letters to me, a student wrote that he understood why I always called them gentlemen, it was because i was wishing them to be gentle in life he said.
On my last day in December of 2011, the day Kim Jong-il's death was announced, their world shattered. I had to leave without a proper goodbye. But i think they knew how sad i was for them.
Once toward the end of my stay, one student said to me professer, we never think of you as being different from us. Our circumstances are different, but you're the same as us. We want you to know we truly think of you as being the same."
Today if i could respond my students with a letter of my own which is of course impossible, i would told them this:
"My deer gentlemen, it's has been 3 years since i last saw you. And now you must be 22 and maybe even as old as 23. And our final class, I asked you if there was anything you wanted. The only wish you expressed, the only thing you ever asked me in all those months we spent together, was for me to speak to you in Korean, just once. I was there to teach you English, you knew it's not allowed. But i understood that you want to share that bond of our mother tongue.
I called you my gentlemen, but I don't know if being gentle in Kim Jong-Un's merciless North Korea is a good thing. I don't want you lead a revolution, let other young person do it. The rest of the world might casually encourage or even expect some sort of North Korean Spring, I don't want you to do anything risky because i know in your world, someone is always watching.
I don't want to image what might happen to you. If my attempts to reach you have inspired something new in you, i would rather you forget me.
Become soldiers of your Great Leader, and live long safe lives.
You once asked me if i thought your city of Pyongyang was beautiful, and i could not answer truthfully then but i know why you asked, i know that it was important for you to hear that I, your teacher, the one who has seen the world that you are forbidden from declare your city as most beautiful. I know hearing that would make your lives there a bit more bearable. But no, I don't find your capital beautiful, not because it's monotone and concrete, but because of what it symbolizes: a monster that feeds off the rest of the country, where citizens are soldiers and slaves. All i see there is darkness. But it's your home, so i can't hate it. And I hope instead that you, my lively young gentlemen will one day help make it beautiful.