Into North Korea
In the early 1960s, four American soldiers stationed in South Korea broke across the DMZ and defected into the communist North. In 2016, we came across a 24 year old self-proclaimed Kim Jong Un-ist with a desire to move to North Korea… from Florida.
Illustrations by Leon Bowers
Jacob (not his real name) was on a stop-over in China, trying to figure out a way to get permission to stay in North Korea. Surprisingly, he had the will to figure out a way, and actually went through with his plan. Jacob later left Beijing to work as an English teacher in Pyongyang.
What’s it like living in Florida and being a self-described: Leninist / Marxist / Kim Jong Un-ist? Were there like-minded people at your university or did you feel alienated?
Yes and no. 19 was my turning point. I got pretty involved with a group that was called Students for Democratic Society (SDS). They did a lot of activism on campus – particularly anti-war activism. We did an anti-war protest in DC. There, I met people from the Freedom Road Socialist Organization. Some of them were a group of Korean-Americans protesting the Korean war. I never really knew too much about it until I had my first conversations with some of them there. I started getting more interested into the issue. Later, I went on to university to study more about it. Almost at the same time, I started studying Kim Jong Un’s ideology and the history of the Korean war. So, it all kind of came together at 19 I guess. And then I also got involved with the Korean friendship association.
So the Marxism came first but not through South East Asia. Would you say that these are separate branches of your intellectual development that then converged at 19?
I suppose you must have an intellectual fascination with the history and culture of politics and an admiration of what Kim Jong Un does. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there is a big difference between that outsider admiration and actually wanting to live in a society which, by reputation at least, is extremely closed and extremely controlled; neither is it especially full of opportunity. That’s the usual impression of North Korea. Does it look that way too you? Do you feel like those are all misconceptions? Or perhaps are you attracted to that? Draw me a picture of the North Korea you are attracted enough to want to move to.
The biggest turn for me was actually going there. My impression particularly of Pyongyang was that it is an incredibly clean city. Like I literally didn’t see one bit of rubbish on the ground there at all. And the people there were very polite. When you go to a restaurant they pounce on you, the women wear beautiful dresses and the men wear these colored shirts.
They preserve their culture.
Whereas South Korea is probably one of the most adulterated cities of Western Imperialist culture of any country in the world. If you look at the Korean dialects in terms of North versus South, you’ll find a lot of English words added to the Southern language and dialects. The North have preserved their original language. It seems like it is one of the few countries in the world that’s actually resisting cultural imperialism.
My great grandfather moved to the United states from Sweden. My grandparents still spoke Swedish – I remember going to their house and eating Swedish food. They were still embedded in their culture, they still knew all of the stories and stuff like that.
And then, contrasting that with my father who doesn’t know any Swedish and is actually just like any other white American person - nothing against him at all. He is a great father.
I feel like, living in a society of cultural consumerism destroyed my root culture. So seeing another society out there that’s taking stand to preserve their culture against those influences is to me very admirable.
Do you dislike America?
I don’t dislike America. At all. The way I would say is that I feel like my homeland has been occupied by a group a very entranced group of ultra rich capitalist.
Reports later suggested that North Korea seemed to be a refuge for the US soldiers than a political reprieve. Perhaps Jacob’s attraction to North Korean ideology comes from a similar place; a simple desire to see a clean street, and the search for a warm, home-cooked meal.