My North Korean Story

Or something like that.

This is what watching Crash Landing on You has brought me–aside from rekindling my interest in Hyun Bin and in Korean dramas (the last Kdrama I enjoyed and watched till the end was Her Private Life last year–not so long ago after all but it’s been a case of one Kdrama per year that I’d end up watching till the end)–it brought back memories of years ago in what perhaps could be my only close encounter with North Koreans.

The story is set in the United Kingdom, not Switzerland, and is definitely NOT a love story. But how many people can actually say they know North Koreans and not mean Capt. Ri Jeong Hyuk?

I was a young and poor (I’m still poor) journalist doing a fellowship in Oxford. Two of my co-fellows were from North Korea. We called them by their last names–as is common for East Asians–Kim and Chae. Kim was the younger one, the type who’d help us slice vegetables and cook for our weekend cook-ups. Chae was the older one–maybe more senior in rank too–and the type to sit there while nursing a glass of alcohol (the Koreans–both North and South–would buy soju from one of the Asian stores in the campus) and watch the rest work. (Kim looked like one of the NIS agents in CLOY while Chae looked like a darker version of Pyo Chi Su, including the ‘do.)

We all lived in the same building. They rented one of the rooms on the first level while I shared the third level with another fellow from Hong Kong. The second level was where the living room, kitchen and laundry were. We also held our sessions there with invited speakers, and the other fellows would hang out in the TV room if they were not at the library, working on their papers, attending classes or back in their own dorms.

I have been on the program one term ahead of them before Kim and Chae arrived. The day was marked on the calendar by everyone who was curious enough about North Koreans. And when they arrived aboard one of those ubiquitous black taxis, someone shouted “they’re here!” and we all tried to peek from the windows hoping to catch a glimpse. Later, we would meet them in a welcome party that not all the fellows had the privilege of being given (we all had welcome cocktails for everyone, but the NoKors got a special one in honor of just the two of them).

So for the next three months, we paid attention to Kim and Chae–sometimes even more than we did our papers–including the clothes they wore when they arrived to eventually becoming more modern, succumbing to the Western concept of… horrors… capitalism and shopping. Even a walk to our next lecture would somewhat be a competition on who gets to provoke them enough to get a word out of them aside from their usual deflection (Kim would joke while Chae, whenever the questions would turn uncomfortable, would just keep his mouth zipped).

Of course they wore those little red badges with the faces of their Supreme Leader and Dear Leader. They were curious about everyone else’s countries and asked a lot of questions about where we came from, but rarely answered ours. Even in our talk sessions when we would usually start off a point of discussion with–“in my country”–they didn’t have such references. We learned early on that the reason there were two of them despite the one-fellow-per-country quota (in my batch, we had one each from Hong Kong (China), Japan, South Korea, Brazil, the UK, the US, Russia, Germany, Estonia, New Zealand, Austria, Australia, Switzerland, and the Philippines) was because it was required by their government and that they always needed to travel in pairs–maybe to spy on each other, or to put it in a more diplomatic way, to keep each other in check. They were also probably quite senior in their media organization to have been allowed to leave the country, though were not that old (they were around their 30s that time).

Sometimes, I’d wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom and hear the TV downstairs. When I’d go down to check, Kim and Chae would be there in the living room looking comfy on the sofa while watching B-type Hollywood movies until the early morning. There were mornings too when we’d need to print in the study hall only to find out that we were out of paper and someone would whisper–“Kim and Chae were printing gazillions of pages last night.” Perhaps they were for their research or something else, who knew. They also bought loads of books.

I knew they had families back home but they barely talked about them and watching CLOY made me wonder now what kind of life they lived back in Pyongyang. If for anything, the drama’s appropriation of life in a North Korean village made people realize that beyond what we hear from the news, those on the other side of the DMZ have their own dreams, aspirations and stories to tell beyond the stereotypes we have created about them. Of course much of the drama can be attributed to creative freedom, even a fantastical appropriation of life in the North, but it did help put a face and a heart to people from the hermit kingdom.

I wonder how Kim and Chae are doing now.


© Orange Jasmine Purple Yam (blogging since 2001). Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the contents in this site without permission from the author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Orange Jasmine Purple Yam with appropriate link to the original content.



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