Authors: Charles Robert Jenkins,Jim Frederick
Tags: #History, #Asia, #Korea
Like every other North Korean household, we were assigned a leader. I had too many leaders to count over forty years. As members of the North Korean Workers’ Party (which we usually just called “the Organization”), leaders were responsible for keeping an eye on our every move, making sure we behaved and that we lived according to “correct ideology.” Depending on where I was living and with whom, the leader (or leaders) would sometimes live in the same house as I, while at other times he would live in a house nearby. A leader’s contact with me was nearly constant, especially at the beginning, and even in later years, rarely a day went by that I didn’t see, talk to, get criticized by, or get into a fight with my leader. Leaders oversaw our propaganda indoctrination—the hours of forced study and memorization of Kim Il-sung’s teaching that we endured—and they administered the special self-criticism sessions we underwent whenever they believed that we had committed some sort of infraction, as well as the regularly scheduled self-criticism sessions held once a week.
Self-criticism is a way of life in North Korea. Everybody has to do it, even the highest party members. Our sessions were once a week on Monday mornings. All through the week, we were supposed to keep a diary, where we wrote about the times we failed to live up to Kim Il-sung’s teachings. Perhaps we left the house one day without permission, or perhaps the front door broke because we had not tended to its upkeep well enough—both of those would be good entries for the diary. Then we used those diary entries for our criticism. There are variations to the selfcriticism session, but basically you stand at attention and confess all your failings to those superiors present. The weekly sessions, which we called “sum up,” were pretty formulaic, and once we got the hang of it, they were not that difficult, though they could get extremely stressful when a leader decided to prove a point and got in your face and yelled at you for hours on end. Even so, the key is to detach your mind from the experience as much as possible, to treat it as if none of the words that you are saying and none of the proceedings you are participating in have any meaning at all—which happens to be the truth.
Usually, you started by citing a teaching of Kim Il-sung’s, something like: “Our Great Leader Kim Il-sung taught as follows. The first and foremost task of a revolutionary is to study. If the revolutionary fails to study properly, he will fail to successfully create the revolution.” Some of these teaching-recitations could go on for a few minutes, and you better not screw up even a single word or you’d have to start over or get in more trouble. After that, you would read your failings from your sum-up book. My self-criticism formula was almost always to admit to not being as diligent about studying as I should have been. There were a lot of Monday mornings when we realized we hadn’t kept our diaries, so we would scramble to remember things we had done wrong. Often we’d just invent them or copy them from previous weeks. Other times, we would do something we knew we weren’t supposed to, like steal some peaches, and we’d say, “That’s one for the sum-up book.” After reading all the things you did wrong, you’d express regret that your revolutionary ideology was not sufficiently honed or whatever to uphold Kim Il-sung’s teachings, and then you’d say you were sorry you let the party and Kim Il-sung down. And finally, you’d finish by listing all the ways through more committed thinking and conduct you were going to do better next time. Once a month, we had to submit a written confession, at least four pages long. And any time we did something the cadres considered serious, we could be called in for a special session.
Leaders never operated independently, though. In North Korea, even the watchers were being watched. A chief of staff was the leader in charge of the leaders of a small group of families or homes. He was the boss of the leaders and drivers. (Leaders usually had cars.) And the chiefs of staff always had at least a superior or two above them, simply called “cadres,” who would come around intermittently to check up both on us and on the leader.
Some leaders would be major recurring presences in my life over many decades. Other leaders would last for only a few weeks and I would never see them again. Sometimes we would call a leader by name, although this was rare, since we soon came to assume that the names they gave us were fakes. Sometimes you would meet Comrade Pak, and the very next week the exact same man would introduce himself as Comrade Lee, as if you were some sort of moron and wouldn’t notice. Even if they were telling the truth, however, since this was Korea, almost everybody you met had the same four or five names anyway—Lee, Kim, Pak, Moon, and so forth. So for most of those who stuck around longer than a few weeks, we developed nicknames: the Tall Cadre, Whitey, the Fat Cadre, the Colonel in Glasses, and so on.
Two or three of these leaders became the closest thing I would ever have to a North Korean friend, and they would take great risks to help me out when I was in trouble. But they were the exceptions. Many leaders were just cowards pretending to be thugs—they could be easily manipulated or bought off. Others were cruel bastards who hated me and the other Americans so deeply that they refused to see us as human and enjoyed making our lives hell. I, in turn, learned to hate these bastards right back.
Most were just pathetic—a combination of small-time power and big-time fear. One of these idiots was the officer who was my escort from the border to Pyongyang the day I crossed over. We ultimately nicknamed him Captain Major. Why Captain Major? Because sometimes he would show up wearing a captain’s uniform, and sometimes he would be wearing a major’s. One time I asked him about his uniforms and told him how confusing it was that he seemed to hold two ranks at the same time. He responded, “That’s right, and someday I’ll make colonel!” Later, I would think about him, hoping that he did “make colonel” and that someone, somewhere is now referring to him as Captain Major Colonel.
Starting here in this little house and throughout the rest of the next forty years, I had to adapt to live in a place that I came to think of as another planet. Years later, in fact, I would often tell my daughters, “We are not in the world. This is not the real world.” They had no idea what I was talking about until we ultimately got out. The rules of logic, order, and cause-and-effect ceased to apply. Things happened all the time that made no sense and for which we were given no explanation. Why did a squad of ten soldiers just drive up in a truck and set up camp in our backyard? We didn’t know, and they wouldn’t say. Who are they, where did they come from, and what are they doing here? Again, no answers, either from them or our leader. They would then stay for a few days or a few weeks, you never knew how long, and then, one day, with no reason offered, they would just pack up and leave. Or we would be told to do something, to weave some fishing nets, say, “for the good of the party and the people.” Just a few days later, we would be told to drop that, since we were being moved because the Organization needed our house more, apparently, than the fishing nets. Sometimes the person telling us what to do would be our leader, and sometimes he would be a cadre we had never seen before and would never see again. You just never knew.
For much of my forty years, it is true that I enjoyed a high amount of freedom and material comfort considering that starvation, malnutrition, slave labor, and execution or imprisonment without trial are standard risks for huge parts of the population in North Korea. It was never easy for me there, and in most other countries, my existence would have qualified as the lowest of the low. But in North Korea, I and those I was with usually had enough food to eat and a roof over our heads, which in that twisted realm made me one of the fortunate few. We four who willingly walked across the DMZ were cold war trophies, which is why I think we were never held like POWs and why, I believe, we were kept mostly healthy. As the stars of several propaganda pamphlets—and later movies—we had to look like we were happy, or at least healthy. With permission and supervision, we were allowed to leave the house fairly regularly and shop in the Pyongyang Shop, a store that was reserved only for foreigners, or go fishing if we had passed our studies and finished whatever work detail was laid out for us.
But still, I suffered from enough cold, hunger, beatings, and mental torture to frequently make me wish I was dead. To this day, I suffer from panic attacks, high blood pressure, and insomnia. It is hard to convey how hopeless we were during much of that time. Sometimes we took chances that seem unbelievable to me now—whether stealing government property, mouthing off to the cadres, or going on daredevil hikes, clinging to tiny ledges on the sides of canyons, “just for fun”—because in many ways we felt like we were already dead. Other times, when we participated in what seems like the worst forms of betrayal to the United States—whether acting in propaganda movies or teaching military cadets English—it is similarly difficult to express how futile we had come to believe resistance was, how impossible escape.
Rationing is one of the primary ways of distributing goods in North Korea, and during our early years, our rations went something like this: Every month we got a tube of toothpaste, a bar of body soap, a bar of clothing soap, a pair of socks, two bottles of beer, and forty packs of cigarettes. That may sound like a lot of smokes, but these cigarettes were the worst quality I have ever seen. They must have been stuffed with corn husks rather than tobacco. You had to wet them, like they were roll-your-owns, because if you didn’t, when you lit one, it would burn up toward your fingers before your very eyes before you even took a puff. You were lucky if you got more than three drags off a single cigarette. Every Sunday we were taken into town for a bath and a haircut. At first we were also issued a straight razor once a month, until I told a leader I particularly disliked that a straight razor would come in handy during a fight. After that, we were issued safety razors. Starting out, we each got paid five won per month. A won at that time was worth about fifty U.S. cents. A pack of 555 brand Western cigarettes was about two won at the Pyongyang Shop, so I would usually buy two packs of those and try to make them last all month.
Our primary “job” at first was to study. They had lots of propaganda books in English. We were ordered to read all day about North Korean history, famous tales of the guerillas who battled the Japanese during World War II, and the teachings of Kim Ilsung. The books had names like The People’s Leader and Among the People. We were supposed to read them and then tell our leader what we had learned. It was like an oral book report from school. If you passed, you got to move on to another book. If you didn’t pass, you had to read the book again. Our other task was to teach English to the military officers who would come in and out of the house in packs of four or five for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks at a time. They weren’t really English lessons. They were more like conversation classes. We never really knew who they were, and we were never able to determine any pattern to their schedules.
Until we all got married, we usually had a cook to make our meals. This sounds like we were living the high life, but having a cook was no luxury, I assure you. The cook was more often than not just another set of Organization eyes or another person you had to worry about stealing from you. The food she made was an afterthought: It was almost always too little and barely edible. The rice was filled with bugs, the vegetables were wormy, and the meat, if there was any meat at all, was often spoiled.
In June of 1965, a cadre arrived to tell us that the Organization needed our house—which was in a prime location in east Pyongyang—for some other purpose, so we were being moved to a bigger and better house in Mangyongdae, about thirty minutes away. Mangyongdae is still very close to central Pyongyang and is famous throughout North Korea as the ancestral homeland of Kim Il-sung’s family. The house we were moved into was high on a hilltop and definitely bigger, big enough that Parrish and I were able to have our own room while Dresnok and Abshier shared a room. We also got beds. The leaders’ area, which was two large rooms, had its own entrance. Off to one side of the house was the Ping-Pong room, so dubbed because it had an old Ping-Pong table in the middle of it. We used the room as our study and the table as a desk. (It was a pretty uncomfortable one, too. Sitting on a regular chair, the table came up to my armpits.) One time, some officers came back with some paddles and built a “net” by laying a stick across two bricks set on either side of the center of the table, but that was the only time I ever saw anybody play Ping-Pong there.
This house was bigger, but it was by no means better. It had no heat and no running water. We had to go one hundred fifty yards down the hill with two buckets on a yoke to fetch the drinking water. Even though the Taedong and Potong Rivers ran nearby, we couldn’t do anything with that water, since they dumped sewage in the river just a few miles upstream. At first, we didn’t have any buckets, so we borrowed buckets from an army unit nearby that was growing corn. That lasted a few weeks until we noticed that the army was using those same buckets to fertilize their corn with shit from their own latrine. “But we wash out the buckets!” they claimed, when we told them how disgusting that was. We weren’t having any of that. We made the leader get us some of our own buckets. During the winter, however, the well would dry up or freeze up completely. When that happened, we would try to cut ice or melt snow if there was any. A couple of times, when there was no snow and dying of thirst became a real possibility, they had to bring Russian-made water tanker trucks with emergency drinking water.
At this house, they moved us on to more advanced studies. We graduated from simple tales of history and freedom fighters to more complicated passages on the Juche Idea, or Kimilsungism, which was Kim Il-sung’s homegrown theory of communism. Juche’s biggest message was absolute self-reliance. North Koreans doing everything themselves was better, according to Kim Ilsung’s theory, than relying even on other communist countries like China and the Soviet Union for trade. I’m no economist, but it is a crazy theory. And the more you study it, the less sense it makes. Sometimes, I would look around, and I couldn’t believe that a whole nation seemed to believe this gibberish. And of course it was all horseshit anyway, because any fool could see that not only would North Korea collapse without trade with other countries, but that it also relied on a steady stream of handouts and gifts just to feed itself.