Issue 190, Fall 2009
The night sky in North Korea might be the most brilliant in northeast Asia, the only airspace spared the coal dust, Gobi Desert sand, and carbon monoxide choking the rest of the continent. And no electrical glow competes with the intensity of the stars there. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up its old Communist ally with cheap fuel oil, North Korea’s power stations rusted into ruin. The lights went out. Now when the sun drops low in the sky, the landscape fades to gray and the squat little houses are swallowed by the night. Entire villages vanish into the dusk. Even in parts of Pyongyang, the capital, you can stroll down the middle of a street at night without being able to see the buildings on either side.
Such darkness is a curse, of course, but it also has its advantages. If you are a teenager dating somebody you can’t be seen with, invisibility confers measures of privacy and freedom that are hard to come by in North Korea. You can do what you like without worrying about the eyes of parents, neighbors, or the secret police.
The boy found a spot behind the wall of the girl’s building where nobody would notice him as the light seeped out of the day. The noise of neighbors washing dishes or using the toilet obscured the sound of his footsteps. He would wait hours for her. Two hours, three hours—it didn’t matter: nobody owned a watch in North Korea.
There was only one road that ran through town and headed up to the mountains. They walked as briskly as they could without appearing to be running away from something. They passed a billboard of the smiling face of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder and leader, and another praising Kim Jong Il, the leader’s son and successor. They walked under a wide archway painted with blue flowers. As the road began to climb, a valley opened on one side and the hills rose steeply on the other. Thickets of pine clung to the rocky slopes and between them, large unkempt mounds of purple wildflowers spilled over the rocks.
At first the young couple would walk in silence, then their voices gradually rose to whispers and then to normal conversational levels as they left the village and relaxed into the night. They maintained an arm’s-length distance from each other until they were sure they wouldn’t be spotted. Walking and talking, that was all they did. The conversations were animated, consuming. They would walk through the night, scattering ginkgo leaves in their wake.
Mi-ran and Jun-sang grew up in the outskirts of Ch'ongjin, one of the industrial cities in the northeast of the peninsula, not far from the border with Russia. They met in 1986, when there was still enough electricity to run the movie projectors at the local cinema.
When she was born, in 1973, Mi-ran was the youngest of four girls, which was as much a calamity in the Confucian culture of North Korea as it was in Jane Austen’s England. Mi-ran’s parents were ultimately spared the tragedy of having no sons with the birth of Sok-ju three years later, but his arrival meant that Mi-ran became the forgotten child of the family.
Her family was poor, but so was everyone she knew. Since all outside publications, films, and broadcasts were banned, Mi-ran assumed that nowhere else in the world were people better-off and that most probably fared far worse. She heard many, many times on the radio and television that South Koreans, in particular, were miserable under the thumb of the American puppet President Park Chung Hee and, later, his successor, Chun Doo-Hwan. They learned that China’s diluted brand of Communism was less successful than that brought by Kim Il Sung and that millions of Chinese were going hungry.
So Mi-ran felt she was quite lucky to have been born in North Korea under the loving care of the fatherly leader; and, in fact, the village where she grew up, just beyond the smokestacks of Ch’ongjin, was not such a bad place in the seventies and eighties. It was a cookie-cutter North Korean village of about a thousand people, stamped out by central planning to be indistinguishable from other such villages. In keeping with her father’s status as a mine worker, her family lived in what was called a “harmonica house,” a single-story building with homes stuck together like the little boxes that make up the chambers of the musical instrument. The entrance led directly into a small kitchen that doubled as a furnace room. Wood or coal was shoveled into a slot in the floor, and the fire it produced was used for both cooking and heating. A sliding door separated the kitchen from the main room where the entire family slept on mats that were rolled up during the day. With the birth of the boy, they were eight people—the five children, their parents, and a grandmother—and Mi-ran’s father bribed the head of the People’s Committee to give them an adjacent unit.
In the larger space, the sexes were segregated. At mealtime, the women would huddle together over a low wooden table near the kitchen, eating cornmeal, which was cheaper and less nutritious than rice, the preferred staple of North Koreans. The father and son ate rice at their own table. If the older sisters noticed, they didn’t make a fuss, but Mi-ran would burst into tears.
“Why is Sok-ju the only one who gets new shoes?” she demanded. “Why does Mama only take care of Sok-ju and not me?” They would hush her up without answering.
In North Korea at the time, girls weren’t supposed to ride bicycles. There was a social stigma—people thought it unsightly and sexually suggestive—and periodically the Workers’ Party would issue formal edicts, making it technically illegal. Mi-ran ignored the rules. From the time she was eleven years old she would set out on the family’s only bicycle, a used Japanese model, on the road to Ch’ongjin. She needed to get away from her little village, to go anywhere at all. It was an arduous ride for a child, about three hours, uphill mostly, on an unpaved road. Men cursed her for her audacity—“You’ll tear your cunt!”—and teenage boys would try to knock her off the bicycle. Mi-ran screamed back, matching obscenity with obscenity, and she kept pedaling.
The North Korean landscape is strikingly beautiful in places. It could be said to resemble America’s Pacific Northwest—but substantially drained of color. The palette ranges only from the dark greens of firs, junipers, and spruce to the milky gray of granite peaks. The lush green patchwork of rice paddies that is characteristic of the Asian countryside can be seen only during a few months of the summer rainy season. The fall brings a brief flash of brilliant foliage. The rest of the year everything is yellow and brown—and to an outsider the land appears empty: there are almost no signs, and few motor vehicles. Private ownership of cars is largely illegal, not that anyone can afford them, and even tractors are hard to come by, heavily outnumbered by scraggly oxen dragging plows. The houses are simple, utilitarian, and monochromatic. There is little that predates the Korean War.
Yet every town in North Korea, no matter how small, has a movie theater, thanks to Kim Jong Il’s conviction that film is an indispensable tool for instilling loyalty in the masses. When Mi-ran was growing up, Hollywood films were banned from North Korea, as were virtually all other foreign films, with the exception of an occasional entry from Russia, and the North Korean films all bore the same message: the path to happiness is self-sacrifice and suppression of individualism for the good of the collective, while capitalism is pure degradation. Mi-ran didn’t mind the propaganda. She just loved going to the movies, though she especially liked the Russian films because they were less political and more romantic. Ticket prices were kept low—just half a won, a few cents, about the same as a soft drink—and from the time Mi-ran was old enough to walk to the theater herself, she begged her mother for money to buy tickets. Some movies were deemed too risqué for children, such as the 1984 film Oh My Love in which it was suggested that a man and a woman kissed. But Mi-ran saw everything she could.
Jun-sang was every bit as a crazy about movies as she was. He always wanted to be among the first to see a new film. When he was fifteen, he went to see Birth of a New Government, which was set in Manchuria during World War II, where Korean Communists led by a young Kim Il Sung had been organized to resist the Japanese colonial occupation. The anti-Japanese resistance was as familiar a theme in North Korean cinema as cowboys and Indians was in early Hollywood. Jun-sang got to the theater early. He secured two tickets, one for himself and one for his brother, and he was pacing around outside the theater, waiting for his brother to show up, when he first saw Mi-ran.
She was standing toward the back of a crowd that was surging toward the box office. Movie audiences in North Korea tend to be young and rowdy. This crowd was especially rough. The bigger kids had pushed to the front, blocking the younger ones from getting tickets. Jun-sang moved in to take a better look at the girl. She was stomping her feet with frustration and looked like she might cry. She looked exotic to Jun-sang, with well-defined cheekbones and a high-bridged nose. She wore simple clothing, a gray shirt and black trousers, and her hair was cropped at chin length. She didn’t make the self-effacing gestures of other North Korean girls, who masked their feelings as if they were shameful—the kind of girls, for example, who covered their mouths when they laughed. Jun-sang was immediately enchanted.
He thought, I can’t believe there is a girl like this in this little town.
He walked around the perimeter of the crowd a couple of times to get a better look. The movie was about to start, and his brother wasn’t there yet. If he sold this girl the extra movie ticket, she would have to sit next to him since the tickets were for assigned seats. He circled her again, formulating in his mind the exact words he would use to offer her the ticket. But he couldn’t muster the courage to speak to a girl he didn’t know. He finally slipped into the movie theater alone, and as the screen filled with the image of the movie’s heroine galloping across a snowy field, he thought of the girl outside the theater. When the credits rolled at the end of the movie, he rushed back out to look for her. But she was gone.