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Almost 10 years ago, I graduated from Lecanto High School and reluctantly left Citrus County for college. After four years at Florida State University and short-term visits to nearly 30 countries, I completed a three-year stint of nonprofit work in India.
Promptly upon my return to the states, I moved to San Francisco for my graduate studies. With my freshly printed graduate degree in hand, I applied for a teaching internship in the most reclusive nation in the world — North Korea.
To be honest, I was fairly certain there was no way an American female with degrees in political science, international affairs and intercultural studies would ever set foot into a nation whose ideology has kept its people from any type of cross-cultural interaction for more than 50 years.
I was wrong.
The same enigmatic regime that has successfully kept the Internet and most other technological advances from infiltrating its borders issued me a single-entry visa for a one-month stay. So on June 27, 2012, I found myself behind enemy lines.
I had been to places before where the U.S. was not the most favored nation in the world. I had even been to other Communist countries. But I knew I was in for a different kind of adventure altogether when I arrived at the Beijing airport and received my Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) — or North Korean — visa.
Trip to nowhere
Because we have no diplomatic relations with the country, my visa was attached to my passport by a paperclip. Upon arrival at the Pyongyang airport, the immigration officer stamped my visa, not my passport, and sent me on my way.
As I left Pyongyang, the immigration officer unclipped my visa, handed me my passport and waved me through. They never stamped me in or out.
I stamped out of China on the 26th of June and stamped back into China on the 27th of July. According to my passport, between those two dates, I was nowhere.
Pyongyang is like no other city in the world. It is late 1950s Soviet bloc country meets the novel “1984” meets Asia. It’s almost impossible to wrap your mind around. On the bus ride from the airport, my eyes were glued to the window. I thought for sure I would see some of the mass poverty I had seen in India or the filthy streets and buildings of rural Vietnam. Pyongyang was quite the opposite.
The streets were pristine. Hundreds of people walked the streets in suits and women in nice skirts and blouses. There was a nice skyline of relatively modern-looking buildings. Yet there were few cars on the roads, and most driven exclusively by military personnel. The cable cars for public transportation were ancient, and while there seemed to be many buildings perched along the road, no one seemed to be going in or out of them. I was more confused than ever.
My internship was at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the only international university in the country. In 1992, an ambitious South Korean businessman, Dr. James Kim, launched an international university in Yanji, China, near the northern border of North Korea. The school was incredibly successful, employing more than 200 faculty members from 13 countries.
Miraculously, Dr. Kim was approached by officials from the North Korean education sector about starting a school like this in Pyongyang. After almost a decade of planning and construction, and of course, receiving loads of approvals from the government, PUST opened its doors in 2010.
I was an English lecturer for incoming freshmen — a class of 25 of the nation’s best and brightest boys. I was their first professor at PUST and the first foreign professor they had ever had. Needless to say, it was a somewhat rocky and stilted beginning. In each class there is a “monitor” — a student whose job is to report everything the foreign teachers teach, say and do to the school administration.
That first week, I was a nervous wreck.
I would scan the students’ faces to get a clue as to whether or not I had made a misstep or said something I shouldn’t have. It was to no avail. I couldn’t read them one way or the other. But there weren’t a lot of smiles that week.
As that first week in the classroom dragged by and I began to think about just how difficult this task was proving to be, I began to think about those students.
How confusing for them?
They have grown up in a country where they have been emphatically made to believe all Americans are imperialist war-mongers who had aggressively and still continue to aggressively destroy their motherland. Their whole lives have been saturated in the concept of juche, or self-reliance. The very essence of their being is predicated on the idea they need no one else and interaction with the world at large is to the detriment of everything they hold dear.
They can never admit weakness or fault. They can never do anything to bring shame to the leaders of their nation.
Propaganda signs litter every area of the country, reminding them that their great leaders and fathers, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, are forever watching them. And because they are taught to believe with their whole lives that these two great men gave them everything they have, any deviation to the right or left of that thought is tantamount to treason.
And so in the middle of that, there I was — their enemy and their teacher — all wrapped into one.
What they believe
I could talk about their ideology for days. There are books upon books and yet we still don’t really have a firm grasp on the concept. It was created and is perpetuated on a foundation of lies and untruths.
For instance, the students truly believe the DPRK is the greatest nation in the world; that there is no hunger there and that capitalist nations send out the strong to kill and destroy the weak.
In fact, I read a piece of literature there at a bookstore in one of the hotels that said that capitalists in America wait in long lines for bread that is never received and that Americans might even be cannibals because of the depth of hunger the country faces.
So obvious are the lies, yet with no Internet access or interaction outside of the world created for them by their dear leaders, how could they possibly know any different?
The holes in the juche idea are so plentiful, yet the people fail to see the irony. For example, we were on a tour of the great monuments in Pyongyang. (On a side note, I would love to see the ledger sheet for how much money is spent on the construction, maintenance and upkeep of the thousands of statues and murals all dedicated to worship of the leaders.)
We were at the juche tower, a monument dedicated to the praise of the self-reliance idea. It was huge and beautiful. We went inside and I waited as some of the other teachers went to the top to get a view of the city. Our government-issued “minder” or “monitor,” who told us what we could and could not take pictures of and closely watched us anytime we were away from the school, came in to get reprieve from the heat. He walked up to the gift shop there inside the tower and promptly bought himself a Coca-Cola.
That’s right, friends — straight from Atlanta via China.
I sat in utter amazement. Here, at the very place dedicated to showing the world that they needed no one, you could buy the one item that screams globalization. I couldn’t believe it.
There are many places in the world where oppression reigns. I have to say, however, that I’m not sure any are as holistically oppressed as North Korea. It’s not just physical — but sociological, psychological and spiritual. We took a trip to the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea.
As we stood looking across the line to the freedom that reigned in the South, one thing caught my attention. The South Korean soldiers all stood with their backs to their own country, at the ready to defend its citizens from any danger that might come. The North Korean soldiers stood with their backs to the South, guns at attention.
It gave me the eerie feeling that their sole purpose was not to protect its citizens from the dangers without, but to prevent its citizens from escaping the world within.
I don’t know if I accomplished anything by going to North Korea.
My goal was to play a part in the role of diplomacy. These students will be in leadership positions someday.
They are chosen by their government to be the next generation to control the country.
That first week was rough, but as I interacted with my students — taught them, played soccer with them, ate with them — they began to thaw little by little. Their smiles came through; they laughed with me and joked with me. And when the summer was over, they were genuinely sad to see me go.
But I hope that when they look back on their time at PUST, they will remember their first foreign professor — that American girl — and somehow, that memory will elicit a positive emotion; they will remember a positive experience.
The chances for most of us to meet a North Korean in our lifetimes are pretty slim. But this experience gave me an opportunity to build bridges and to think about what it might be like to be them, and to realize that at the end of the day, most of them are just as confused about us as we are about them.
None of us can pretend to know the thoughts of their new mysterious leader, Kim Jong Un. Neither can Washington, for that matter. But there is hope.
I don’t believe there will ever be a utopian world — a peace like the kind that every Miss America contestant desires. But there is hope for some kind of peace somewhere in the future. I saw its spark in the eyes of my students playing soccer or using an iPad for the first time.
Hatred on their part and ignorance on ours is a far greater evil than Communism — and we all fear what we do not understand.
They may never embrace capitalism or run toward democracy. But perhaps when it comes time for both our generations to be decision-makers, this experience will propel us all to reach for love instead of hatred.
Cortney Stewart is a 2003 graduate of Lecanto High School and former Chronicle columnist and intern.