‘The Whole World Knows We Koreans Are Best!’
How North Koreans see themselves and look suspiciously at foreign influences.
One December, I got a taste of the frigid winter life near the Chinese border. In the process, I came to understand how triumphantly North Koreans hold their sense of national purity. On the train to Pyongyang from the Chinese border town of Dandong, I chatted with locals who were curious about me, my family, my life in Pyongyang, and about what I was doing in their country.
I told them about my wife and my little daughter. Thinking my wife was from Switzerland, they asked if it was not too difficult for her to adapt to life in North Korea. I explained, in what turned out to be a faux pas, that my wife was not Swiss but a Vietnamese woman born in Hanoi. I went on, perhaps to their discomfort, to explain how Vietnam and North Korea were full of similarities in both eating habits and culture.
The conversation came to an abrupt halt and I wondered if I had offended my new acquaintances. Of course I had, I thought. North Koreans are proud of the purity of their race and their culture, which they believe to be untainted by decadent foreign influences. They thought that only puppet South Koreans married foreigners, who were inferior to themselves, and that these nuptials were a consequence of Western oppression.
My friends were uneasy that a comrade from the capital of the Vietnamese socialist revolution, an event Americans call the “Vietnam War,” married a foreigner from a non-socialist European country. The revelation must have startled them: it was the latest evidence that the DPRK’s ally betrayed its revolutionary roots.
After an awkward bout of silence, I relaunched the conversation with a joke. “It is a known fact that mixed children pick the best genes from both parents and tend, therefore, to become superior to their parents,” I said. A new theory of superior races was instantly born. One fellow traveler apparently challenged in their beliefs, responded politely, “Is that so? Interesting!” The conversation then resumed, though they didn’t touch on family matters again.
Historians pretty much concur that, in prehistoric times, the ancestors of present-day Koreans migrated from North Asia. But this theory would have been heresy in the eyes of my fellow travelers. North Koreans consider their nation to be one cradle of humanity, which gave birth to the ancestors of all of humankind. The North Korean government, of course, does not give much thought to the archaeological evidence that countless tongues were spoken here, all bearing little relation to today’s Korean language.
To be fair, though, the idea of racial purity stretched beyond Pyongyang and even into South Korea. Until 2006, biracial South Koreans were not allowed to serve in the military even if they held South Korean citizenship; nevertheless, all other citizens were required to serve for two years in the armed forces. Even today discrimination against biracial South Koreans is still common in the countryside. They’re often teased and bullied at school, and not a single yet has held public office. North Koreans, it would appear, have more in common with their southern brethren than is usually stated.
Others have had it worse than me. My friend Eduard Meier-Lee had a South Korean wife, and was on the receiving end of even more racially charged questions when he visited Pyongyang in 2003. One evening I took him to a centrally-located Japanese restaurant, where we sang karaoke after dinner. The charming waitresses, wearing their typical Chosŏn Ot national dress, invited us to sing and dance with them. They were very keen to learn about Edi’s family life, thanks to his decision to marry a South Korean. The pairing was so outrageous to them that they bombarded him with questions and ignored me.
Until the early 1960s, mixed marriages were allowed in the DPRK. But that opening was long before the waitresses, all in their twenties, were born and they were surely not aware of this. In 1963 the Party began a campaign against mixed couples, going as far as to ask interracial couples to divorce—mainly Korean and Eastern European couples. Since then, the party story line has been that South Korean women were forced by the brutal American occupation forces into prostitution and arranged marriages. The liberated women in the DPRK, on the other hand, could marry the man of their choice, who was, of course, always a Korean.
Another time, a group of foreign children—mostly the kids of diplomats—were invited to play soccer and rope-pull with their North Korean counterparts. The Korean children overwhelmingly defeated the foreigners in every game by a significant margin. North Korean parents cheered on their allegedly superior offspring, once more reassured in the natural strength of their race. They probably didn’t know that their children trained for weeks or month before the informal competition, whereas the expatriate kids arrived unprepared.
After a seminar at the Pyongyang Business School, I drove the lecturer from Hong Kong to the airport, and we joked around and had a jolly time. The jokes were certainly not politically correct and could be perceived as offensive in the wrong context. My secretary sat silently in the back, and didn’t say a word. On the way back home, she suddenly broke out crying and yelled that my behavior was not acceptable. She exclaimed that she didn’t want to work with me any longer, and then shouted: “The whole world knows that we Koreans are the best!”
I tried to explain to her that we were only being sarcastic, and not specifically directing our jokes at the Koreans. We also insulted ourselves in a comic way, I added, and that it was merely a misunderstanding. I indeed had a high respect for the Korean people. Usually, my secretary carried herself with an excellent sense of self-control, and she would not have offered sharp words under normal circumstances; she was legitimately offended and expressed what North Koreans truly thought about themselves.
After a few years in Pyongyang, I realized that the ways North Koreans viewed themselves had two faces: one targeting the outside world, and one discussed among North Koreans themselves. North Koreans were trained to be polite with foreigners and to skirt around political talk that could antagonize these impure humans. Like many East Asians, they’re pragmatic enough to subordinate their personal views to the higher calling of bringing in foreign investment and charity. They would never tell a foreigner that he is a suspected sleuth or trouble maker, or that his work in the country equals an expression of greatness of the Kim regime.
Yet this is exactly what they believe in, at least under the surface. My staff occasionally translated political slogans, book, newspaper texts, and even North Korean songs played in Karaoke rooms. I correspondingly scoured through the English-language literature on ideology and politics, finding some differences in the way they portrayed ideas.
To name one example, our guides told American tourists, “We love American civilians!” Kim Il Sung, however, used to call upon the Workers’ Party to always prepare for war against the Americans by instilling hatred against them: “The most important thing in our war preparations is to teach all our people to hate U.S. imperialism. Otherwise, we will not be able to defeat the U.S. imperialists who boast of their technological superiority.”
I also tried to spark improvised discussions that revealed their true mindsets. While this helped me understand the business environment, my inquiries destroyed my wishful thinking that I, along with most other foreigners, come to believe during short visits. We can acknowledge, with a jest of humor, that they see themselves as exceptional, and get along with it.
Author of A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in the Hermit Kingdom
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