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How China Got Me Interested in North Korea

Living in China started my North Korea fascination.

The title of this article may lead you to believe that I hold fascist sympathies and have perfected my goose step, but that’s certainly not the case. What has developed in me, however, is a morbid fascination with the ‘communist’ leaders in Asia, which is certainly something that I didn’t possess when I moved to China. And yet it was fully formed when I left.

It’s a country under strict control in terms of censorship (as we speak new censorship laws are being rolled out) and it’s a country that has been subject to years of fascist propaganda, examples of which can be found at the must-see Shanghai Poster Art Propaganda Museum. There’s no better place to spark political intrigue.

I taught adults in Shanghai and many of them were open to talking about politics, the idea being that it was safe to talk to a ‘foreigner’ about sensitive issues whereas you could never be totally sure who you were talking to amongst your own people. That’s something which always struck me as unsettlingly 1984ish.

When we first arrived we were warned that there had be instances where students had worn a wire and pushed teachers to talk about personal opinions on Tibet and Taiwan, and had subsequently gotten those teachers deported. But, after a while, you got to know students you trusted and had some fascinating conversations with them.

Some of the most gripping were about Mao Zedong and the extremely differing opinions on a leader who is undoubtedly revered by the Chinese government and who appears on every Chinese note. One story, however, really stood out for me.

A student who had worked on the Chinese border with North Korea shared this fascinating story with me:

“When we were young they told us that every foreign country was poor and dirty and that China was the best country. I really remember that. We all believed them and now I think back to this and realise how crazy it all was back then.

You and I are sat together in this room and that could never have happened 30 years ago. Now, even though I still can’t access the foreign media without a VPN, I can travel and see these places for myself and I can talk to foreign people about their culture and thoughts.

There are still people in the countryside who have never seen a foreigner, accessed the outside news or travelled and the difference is incredible. North Korea now is like old China.

We were once allies with North Korea but now they won’t accept food from us and the relationship has grown cold. I think this is very dangerous. I managed to get a chance to go to North Korea recently, just as a tourist. I stayed in a hotel for foreigners, was followed by a member of the military at all times and was only allowed to take pictures at designated picture spots – usually areas of some beauty.

Citizens are not allowed to talk to foreigners and have no idea about the outside world. My phone and laptop were taken off me but there is no signal or Wi-Fi access anyway. Near the Chinese border there is a river and beyond the river you can see beautiful houses in North Korea but if you manage to get closer you will find that they are made of paper. It’s a lie.

The people there are very poor and suffering but they have no idea how different they are to the rest of the world. Citizens often try to escape into China and, if they are caught, they are killed or badly hurt and so are their families.

Usually, they just disappear. I have a friend in the Chinese army who told me they found a North Korean lady who had managed to cross the border; they had to take her back even though they didn’t want to. She was a young woman but when she arrived back in North Korea she had both of her knees broken so she wouldn’t walk again. Generally, I’m very worried about North Korea; they lack education, just like we did and they are dangerous.”

This fascinating account captured me. It couldn’t not.

I’d heard of North Korea in the news; who hadn’t? But what did I actually know about it? The idea of a place that put up paper houses and didn’t allow its citizens to escape even existing in this modern day was certainly difficult to comprehend.

Further Interest in North Korea

My good friend (and now a writer for this website) Ashley Portero was way ahead of me on this morbid fascination which captures a lot of the politically-inclined when in Asia. She had watched many documentaries on North Korea and had even found a restaurant, based in Shanghai, which was owned by North Korea and served traditional food from the DPRK, and took us there for her birthday. Traditional songs were sung as we ate and at the time I had very little idea of how surreal the situation was. Yes, those are North Korean dancers.

I moved back to the UK for a year between living in China and now here in South Korea. I started reading a lot of books about North Korea, and by now there are few I haven’t read; I’ve also likely watched as many documentaries on the subject as Ashley has (a fine achievement). Looking back, I find it hard to believe I was that person who knew so little about the political situation there before.

The book that first captured me, and probably the most popularly read of the accounts on North Korea, was Yeonmi Park’s In Order to Live. A harrowing story with a thankfully happy ending.

Subsequently, I watched her give a TED talk online and found myself desperately wanting to help and learn more. It got to the point that the only books I was reading were books about North Korea (to the slight discomfort of my partner), mostly just trying to understand why it existed. Perhaps the more I read, the more I could understand the mentality behind the Kim family. Of course, that’s not how it works and no one can ever truly understand the sheer desperation to cling onto power within a fascist regime.

Moving to South Korea

When I then suggested moving to South Korea, a lot of jokes were made about how I was going to run across the border in the night, leaving only a red flag behind. But actually, through reading about North Korea, I’d learnt so much about the other side, the south, and started reading so much of their literature and enjoying their films that a new (and healthier) fascination had developed. I started learning the language and then came over here in August 2017. I’m still fascinated by the North but being in a place where I can actually help has in some ways been far more satisfying than reading endless books (But I will share a list of some of the fascinating books I have read shortly).

Learning More about North Korea

I’m still reading books (albeit less regularly) about the DPRK and recently took a trip to the DMZ, something that I, as a history nerd, had been desperate to do, but also due to it being closest one can get to North Korea without giving tourism money to a corrupt regime. This is, in fact, something of an internal struggle since a part of me, of course, would love to see the other side. Moral obligations to the contrary aside, who could not be tempted by such an opportunity?

Written by Jessica Esa.

Jessica Esa

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