With the drumbeat of fear on both sides, it’s almost impossible for any of us in the U.S. to meet a North Korean, much less share insights and come to see them as people like ourselves. Yet in 1987, I was lucky enough to do just that.
I was teaching English at the Sichuan Institute of Foreign Languages in Chongqing in southern China and, when a group of English teachers from North Korea came to study for a term at our school, I was one of those chosen to teach them. Our department dean explained that giving these teachers an intensive course with native English speakers was part of the package of foreign aid that China gave her North Korean ally.
In those days, the rhetoric about North Korea was much like it is today. They were billed as Communists, a term of dread almost like “terrorist” today. So meeting one in person was like encountering a demon in the flesh.
But our North Koreans turned out to be charming, much better dressed than the Chinese, and courteous in an old-fashioned way, as if they’d just read Jane Austen in preparation for their trip. They held doors open for women and bowed whenever we met. They came to class in suits and freshly shined shoes, whereas the Chinese wore blue Mao jackets and plastic sandals. The Koreans never went anywhere alone. My Chinese students told me they even all went to the public shower together. Coming to office hours was also a whole group activity, so that they quickly filled my small room, discouraging any Chinese who stopped by.
There were three Mr Kim’s among the twenty teachers, all men, of course. Kim Uinam had a beautiful voice and would often, at the request of the others, sing a folksong when they came to office hours. He was one of the youngest among them and I understood, without being told, that he was there because his father was a Very Important Person.
Laughing Kim’s parents had been lost in an accident right before the war. That war, which they called the Fatherland Liberation War and the Chinese called the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea, was what we called the Korean War. It had brought devastation for them, they said. There was no family who did not lose someone and, afterwards, came the plague, when many more died. After his parents died, Laughing Kim was found wandering, crying, in the street with no trousers and a torn shirt. A kind old man took pity on him and arranged for him to go to China, where he lived for three years with a solitary hunter in a remote village. He had had ten brothers and sisters. After the war the government helped him find what was left of his family. Three brothers and one sister had been killed in the fighting, and three others died of the plague. The important thing now, he said, was to go on.
And the one who tugged at my heart the most was Oldest Mr Kim, exactly the same age as I. He had seen his father killed by a bomb right in front of him. Along with his mother and three sisters, he spent the war in a mountain village. He and I figured out that we had each been seven years old when the war began. One evening at office hours, we described to each other the pictures we had each formed in our young minds of the other side. I had seen Korea as a field of slippery brown mud with American soldiers endlessly falling down under fire but always getting up again to fight under the U.S. flag, which was somehow constantly held aloft. He had seen the war as a skyful of planes raining down fire and hordes of evil-faced men jumping out of the air with guns pointed at him. To meet each other, all these years later, as friends, was, we agreed, one of life’s wonders.
At the end of the Koreans’ stay in the early spring, they had a farewell banquet for us teachers. Lots of kimchee, which, it turns out, comes in many forms, plus beef, which, unlike pork, was hard to get in China. Standing with our bowls of food in hand, Oldest Mr Kim and I said to each other sadly that we knew our governments wouldn’t let us keep in touch.
But we have. During the more than 30 years since, I have often thought of him and I am rather sure that he has thought of me.
Nancy E. Dollahite is the author of Field Notes from Sichuan: Learning to Be a Foreigner, to be published by Blue Ear Books.