At 12:45 p.m. on monday, december 19, 2011, there was a knock at my door. My heart sank. I knew who would be there. I ignored it and continued shoving my clothes into the suitcase. The knock came again. She knew that I was inside, and she was not going to go away. Finally I stopped what I was doing and opened the door. There stood Martha, a lanky twenty-four-year-old British girl with glasses, with whom I had been sharing teaching duties. “You must come to the meeting right now,” she said. I sighed, feeling the weight of the past six months there among thirty Christian missionaries, now gathered in secret for the pre-Christmas prayer meeting. Then she whispered, “He’s dead,” pointing at the ceiling. I thought that she meant God, and I was momentarily confused. I have never read the Bible, and my family is largely atheist. Then she said, “him,” and I realized she meant the main God in this world: Kim Jong-il.
Was it fate that my North Korean experience began with his birthday and ended with his death? It was February 2002 when I first glimpsed the forbidden city of Pyongyang as part of a Korean-American delegation visiting for Kim Jong-il’s sixtieth birthday celebrations. It was only a few months after 9/11, and George W. Bush had just christened that country part of an “axis of evil,” so it was an inauspicious time for a single American woman to cross its border with a group of strangers.
Over the next nine years, with each implausible crossing of its immutable border, I became further intoxicated by this unknown and unknowable place. This isolated nation existed under an entirely different system from the rest of the world, so different that when I arrived in 2011, I found myself in “Juche Year 100.” The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) follows a different calendar system, which counts time from the birth of their original Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994; Juche, which roughly means “self-reliance,” is at the core of North Korea’s foundational philosophy. Almost every book I ever saw there was written by or about the Great Leader. The state-run media, including the newspaper Rodong Sinmun and Chosun Central TV, reported almost exclusively on the Great Leader. Almost every film, every song, every monument heralded the miraculous achievements of the Great Leader, the role passed down through three generations, from Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, who was twenty-nine when he assumed power in 2012 and became the world’s youngest head of state. It has been reported that every home in the country is fitted with a speaker through which government propaganda can be broadcast, and that more than thirty-five thousand statues of the Great Leaders are scattered across the country.
But while the regime dabbles with nuclear weapons, provoking repeated United Nations sanctions, the people of North Korea suffer. The 1990s famine (known as the Arduous March)killed as many as three million, more than a tenth of the entire population, and even now the World Food Program reports that 80 percent of North Koreans experience food shortages and hunger. It is estimated that forced labor, executions, and concentration camps have claimed over a million lives since 1948. According to the latest UN report, the DPRK maintains some twenty gulags holding some 120,000 political prisoners (Human Rights Watch estimates 200,000). These numbers are inevitably approximate since nothing there is verifiable. Almost no North Koreans are allowed out—defectors risk execution—and almost no foreigners are allowed in except those on packaged tours, most holding European passports, and they get to see only what is allowed. In this global age of information, where secrets have become an anachronism, North Korea stands apart.
My obsession with this troubling country—because it indeed became an obsession—was based on more than just journalistic interest. The first time I entered North Korea, I was not sure what a “delegate” was and did not know much at all about the pro–Kim Jong-il group I was traveling with. This makes me sound either extremely irreverent or extremely young, but I was neither. My ignorance was willful. Since getting a visa into the country was so difficult, I thought it was best not to appear too inquisitive. But there was something else, too: a part of me, a very insistent voice inside, did not want to know those details. For those of us who grew up in 1970s South Korea, anything to do with North Korea is accompanied by a certain foreboding. And for those of us whose family members were abducted into North Korea, this fear runs still deeper. If I had known as much as I do now, more than a decade later, I doubt I would have made that first, fateful trip. But I did get on a flight from JFK, on Korean Air, one of the world’s most modern and luxurious airlines, and then almost twenty hours later, via Seoul and then Beijing, boarded North Korea’s state-owned Air Koryo, where the only reading material was a magazine about the Great Leader. And I would cross that same border into Pyongyang repeatedly for the next nine years.
Every story has its origin in a time that came before. My obsession had its roots even before I was born, in 1945. It was then, when the five-thousand-year-old kingdom of Korea was divided by the Allies who liberated it from Japan, that everything went wrong. And since then everything has continued to be wrong, and nothing, not even the three-year-long war that began in 1950, has made much difference.
Or maybe my obsession became inevitable when I was a child growing up in South Korea. The years I lived there remain unnervingly still, pristinely intact in my mind. As I get older, the memory of those years grows bigger, each nook casting a longer shadow. Such is the condition of a first-generation immigrant for whom everything is separated into now and then, into before the move and after. The ocean that separates the adoptive home and the old country also divides time.
I was just thirteen when we came to America. The early eighties in South Korea was a time of political unrest and economic upheaval, and my father’s businesses—from the shipping company and mining ventures to the hotels—collapsed rapidly. Bankruptcy in South Korea was punishable by a hefty jail term, and we fled our home in the dead of night. Like many new immigrants to America, my family was now poor and kept moving—from Queens to Jersey City to the Bronx to Fort Lee. I grasped few of the vast changes that seemed to have occurred overnight in my physical surroundings. I knew that I was no longer in Korea, and yet it was beyond my comprehension that this loss of home was permanent. Another foreign concept that took time to absorb was that I was now Asian, a term that I had heard mentioned only in a social studies class. Back home, yellow was the color of the forsythia that bloomed every spring along the fence that separated our estate from the houses down the hill; I certainly never thought of my skin as being the same shade. Those years were also marked by silence. My mother tongue was suddenly gone, replaced by unfamiliar sounds called English. It seemed a miracle when I took the SAT and made it to college.
After graduation, I spent a couple of years in London, searching for something I could never quite name, then returned to New York to a series of part-time jobs and a rent-stabilized apartment in the East Village, where I spent my twenties. But I never felt at home there either and kept subletting my apartment and taking off, often on meager writing fellowships that required me to live in some remote place, whether it be a hundred-year-old cabin in New Hampshire or an empty room facing a desert hill in Wyoming. There were no cell phones then, and I was always calling my parents collect. I remember getting off a Greyhound bus one afternoon and standing in a phone booth outside a coffee shop in Taos, New Mexico, and my father, on the line from New Jersey, ending the call with: “If you keep moving like this, one day you’ll be too far away to come back.”
During those itinerant years, I once found myself on the Ligurian coast of Italy, which sounded better than it felt. It was a place whose awe-inspiring beauty so oddly failed to touch me that for years afterward I would look for an opportunity to drop the word Liguria in conversations, such as “I wore this dress often that autumn I was living in Liguria” or “I never finished that novel I was working on in Liguria,” as if to remind myself that I had spent nearly two months there.
Some experiences are like that. You live through them, and yet you aren’t quite there. Korea was the opposite. My first thirteen years remained real for me like nothing since. When you lose your home at a young age, you spend your life looking for its replacement. Over the years, I have never considered any apartment more than temporary. Each one remains spare, with bare walls and no personal touches—as though I might need to grab everything in a few seconds and run. People often ask me where my things are. The question always brings me back to South Korea; in my mind, I finally return. I put down my suitcase at the base of the incredibly long flight of steps I have never forgotten and look up at my childhood home, towering above.
Strangely, in 2002, when I visited Pyongyang for the first time, I felt more at home than I had since I left Seoul as a child. There was a sense of recognition. The past was all right there before me: generations of Koreans separated by division; decades of longing, loss, hurt, regret, guilt. I identified with it in a way that I could never shake off. I thought that if only I could understand the place, then I could find a way to help put the fragments back together. Like most Koreans, whether from the North or South, I dreamed, perhaps irrationally, of reunification. I returned repeatedly until 2011.
I am often asked, “Which Korea do you come from? North or South?” It is a nonsensical question. The chance of me or any Korean out and about in the world being from the North is almost nil. Virtually no one gets out of North Korea. It is a locked nation. Locked away from South Korea, from the rest of the world, from those of us whose families got trapped there. It is the sort of a lock for which there is no “open sesame,” and the world seems to have forgotten why it was sealed tight to begin with and who threw away the key.
My Korea is the South—the industrial, overachieving, better half that spewed out Hyundai and Samsung and in the six decades since the bloody war has established itself as the fifteenth richest country in the world. But the South is never just the South. Its very existence conjures up the unmentionable North, which, with its habitual nuclear threats and the antics of its bizarre dictator, casts a shadow far beyond its own peninsula. In recent years, North Korea has steadily become a siren for the hankering mind, making outsiders wait and guess and then wait some more, indefinitely.
Both my parents hail from families separated by the partition. And it is really the unrequited heartbreak of those separations—a heartbreak that lasts generations—that brought me North. If this were the sort of story that invites readers to nod with empathy and walk away both satisfied and educated, I would say that I traveled full circle. But in truth my journey was barely half a circle, a sad one that could never be completed, because those who were at the center of the harrowing history are almost certainly long dead, or old and dying, and time is running out before their stories are lost in the dust of the past.
The Korean War lasted three years, with millions either dead or separated. It never really ended but instead paused in the 1953 armistice exactly where it began, with Koreas on both sides of the 38th parallel. Historians often refer to it as the “forgotten war,” but no Korean considers it forgotten. Theirs is not a culture of forgetting. The war is everywhere in today’s Koreas.
There is, for example, the story of my father’s young female cousins, nursing students aged seventeen and eighteen, who disappeared during the war. Decades later, in the 1970s, their mother, my father’s aunt, received a letter from North Korea via Japan, the only contact her daughters ever made with her, and from that moment on, she was summoned to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency every few months on suspicion of espionage until she finally left South Korea for good and died in San Antonio, Texas. The girls were never heard from again. And there was my uncle, my mother’s brother, who was just seventeen when he was abducted by North Korean soldiers at the start of the war, in June 1950. He was never seen again. He might or might not have been taken to Pyongyang, and it was this suspended state of not knowing that drove my mother’s mother nearly crazy, and my mother, and to some degree me, who inherited their sorrow.
Stories such as these abound in South Korea, and probably North Korea, if its people were allowed to tell them. Separation haunts the affected long after the actual incident. It is a perpetual act of violation. You know that the missing are there, just a few hours away, but you cannot see them or write to them or call them. It could be your mother trapped on the other side of the border. It could be your lover whom you will long for the rest of your life. It could be your child whom you cannot get to, although he calls out your name and cries himself to sleep every night. From Seoul, Pyongyang looms like a shadow, about 120 miles away, so close but impossible to touch. Decades of such longing sicken a nation. The loss is remembered, and remembered, like an illness, a heartbreak from which there is no healing, and you are left to wonder what happened to the life you were supposed to have together. For those of us raised by mothers and fathers who experienced such trauma firsthand, it is impossible not to continue this remembering.