Beyond the World news headlines
The kinder, gentler side of North Korean communists
By Jack Kim
North and South Koreans have been divided for more than 50 years by one of the world’s most heavily fortified borders. When we come into contact, it is almost always in small and carefully arranged visits.
I was a part of a South Korean group that recently spent four days in the North. Over the course of countless hours of contact with the North Korean minders assigned to our group, conversation turned from heated discussion over international politics and inter-Korean troubles to nationalism and sports.
We had been told by the officials from the group in the South that arranged the trip to avoid any discussion of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il because this highly sensitive subject would invariably lead to awkward discussions and raise tension.
But there was enough time to get a glimpse of the softer, human side of North Korean officials who were supposed to be tough, propaganda-conscious apparatchiks armed with skills to respond to any kind of challenge to the communist state’s leadership or its ideology.
The minders, usually mid-level cadres in the bureaucracy, would invariably break into warm smiles when we raised the subject of family, either ours or theirs, just to change the subject after a tense discussion on politics. They willingly talked about life at home.
“You have experience keeping a living?” a North Korean “guide” asked, using an expression that was not immediately clear in meaning, to ask whether I had a family. When I said I had a wife and a one-year-old daughter at home, he broke into a grin and said the girl would be “at an age when they are so adorable” and that I must sorely miss her.
He said he himself had a boy and a girl “all grown up,” meaning they were in primary school. Later on, as I prepared to head home, he said he had to meet another group of South Koreans who were arriving later in the day. He would be staying with them at their hotel. And that would make it eight straight days away from home, he said.