December 2009

Holding Hands in the Dark

The things that go bump in the night in North Korea are sometimes surprisingly sweet


If you look at satellite photographs of the Far East by night, you’ll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Next to this black hole, South Korea, Japan and now China gleam.

Even from hundreds of miles above, the billboards, headlights, streetlights and neon of the fast-food chains appear as tiny white dots signifying people going about their business as 21st-century energy consumers. Then in the middle of it all, a blackness nearly as large as England. It is baffling how a nation of 23 million can appear as vacant as the oceans. North Korea is simply a blank.

North Korea faded to black in the early 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up its old Communist ally with cheap fuel oil, North Korea’s creakily inefficient economy collapsed. Power stations rusted. The lights went out. Hungry people scaled utility poles to pilfer copper wire to swap for food.

Now, when the sun drops low, the landscape fades to gray and the squat little houses are swallowed up by the night. Entire villages vanish into the dusk. Even in parts of the showcase capital of Pyongyang, you can stroll the middle of a main street at night and not be able to see the buildings on either side.

When outsiders stare into the void of today’s North Korea, they think of remote villages of Africa or Southeast Asia, where the civilizing hand of electricity has not yet reached. But North Korea is not undeveloped; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world.

North Koreans beyond middle age remember well when they had more electricity (and food) than their pro-American cousins in South Korea, and that compounds the indignity of spending their nights sitting in the dark.

Back in the 1990s, the United States offered to help with North Korea’s energy needs if it gave up its nuclear weapons program. But the deal fell apart after the Bush administration accused the country of reneging on its promises. North Koreans are bitter about the darkness, which they still blame on the U.S. sanctions. They can’t read at night. They can’t watch television. “We have no culture without electricity,” a burly security guard once told me accusingly.

But the dark has advantages...especially if you are a teenager dating somebody you can’t be seen with.

When adults go to bed—sometimes as early as 7 p.m. in winter—it is easy to slip out of the house. The darkness confers measures of privacy as hard to come by in North Korea as electricity. Wrapped in a magic cloak of invisibility, you can do what you like without the prying eyes of parents, neighbors or secret police.

I met many North Koreans who told me how much they’ve learned to love the darkness, but it was the story of one teen and her boyfriend that impressed me most. She was 12 when she met a young man three years older from a neighboring town. Her family was low ranking in the byzantine system of North Korea’s social controls.

To be seen in public together would damage the boy’s career prospects and her reputation as virtuous. So their dates consisted of long walks in the dark. There was nothing else to do anyway; by the time they started dating in the early 1990s, no restaurants or cinemas were operating because of the lack of power.

They would meet after dinner. The girl had instructed her boyfriend not to knock on the door and risk questions from her older sisters or younger brother. The clatter of the neighbors masked the sound of his footsteps. He would wait hours for her. It didn’t matter.

The girl would emerge just as soon as she could extricate herself from the family. She would peer into the darkness, sensing his presence. She wouldn’t bother with makeup—no one needs it in the dark. At first, they would walk in silence, then their voices would gradually rise to normal conversational levels as they left the village. They maintained an arm’s-length distance from each other until they were sure they wouldn’t be spotted.

Just outside of town, the road headed into a thicket, to the grounds of an old hot-springs resort, where 130-degree waters once drew busloads of Chinese tourists in search of cures for arthritis and diabetes. The entrance featured a reflecting pond rimmed by a stone wall. The grounds were lined with pine trees, Japanese maples and, her favorites, the ginkgo trees that in autumn shed delicate mustard-yellow leaves in the shape of perfect Oriental fans.

Otherwise the grounds were poorly maintained. By the mid 1990s, nearly everything in North Korea was worn out, malfunctioning. But the imperfections were not so glaring at night. The hot-springs pool, choked with weeds, was luminous in the reflection of the sky.

The night sky in North Korea might be the most brilliant in Northeast Asia, the only place spared the coal dust, Gobi Desert sand and carbon monoxide choking the rest of the continent. No artificial lighting competes with the intensity of the stars.

As the young couple would walk through the ginkgo leaves, what would they talk about? Their families, classmates, books—whatever the topic, it was fascinating. Years later, when I asked the girl about the happiest memories of her life, she told me of those nights.

This is not the sort of thing that shows up in satellite photographs. Whether in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or in any East Asian Studies department, people analyze North Korea from afar. They don’t stop to think that in the middle of this bleak country where millions have died of starvation, there is love.

By the time I met this girl, she was a woman of 31. Mi-ran (as I will call her) had defected six years earlier and was living in South Korea.

In 2004, I was in Seoul as Los Angeles Times bureau chief. My job was to cover the Korean Peninsula. South Korea was easy. It was the 13th-largest economic power, a thriving if raucous democracy, with one of Asia’s most aggressive press corps.

North Korea was at the other extreme, its communications with the outside world largely confined to tirades spat out by the Korean Central News Agency, nicknamed the Great Vituperator for its bombast about the “imperialist Yankee bastards.” The U.S. had fought on South Korea’s behalf in the Korean War, the first great conflagration of the Cold War, and still had 40,000 troops stationed there. For North Korea, the animus remained raw and fresh.

When I finally got a visa to visit Pyongyang in 2005, I and a colleague were led along a well-worn path of monuments to the glorious leadership of Kim Jong-il and his late father, Kim Il-sung. We were chaperoned by two skinny men in dark suits, both named Mr. Park. (North Korea assigns two “minders” to foreigners, one to watch the other so they can’t be bribed.)

They spoke the same stilted rhetoric of the official news service. What were they really thinking? Did they love their leader as much as they claimed? Did they have enough food? What did they do after work? What was it like to live in the world’s most repressive regime?

If I wanted answers, it was clear I wasn’t going to get them inside North Korea. I had to talk to people who had left—defectors.

In 2004, Mi-ran was in Suwon, 20 miles south of Seoul—bright and chaotic, home to Samsung and a cluster of manufacturing complexes producing objects that would stump most North Koreans—computer monitors, CD-ROMs, digital TVs, flash-memory sticks. (A statistic one often sees is that the economic disparity between the Koreas is at least four times greater than that between East and West Germany at the time of German reunification in 1990.)

At first I didn’t spot Mi-ran. There were by that time some 6,000 defectors living in South Korea, and there were usually telltale signs of their difficulty in assimilating—skirts too short, labels still attached to new clothes. But Mi-ran wore a chic brown sweater set and matching knit trousers. It gave me the impression (which would prove wrong) that she was rather demure.

I had asked Mi-ran to lunch in order to learn more about North Korea’s school system. In the years before her defection, she had taught kindergarten in a mining town. The food on our table went uneaten as she described watching her five- and six-year-old pupils die of starvation. As they were dying, she was supposed to be teaching them that they were blessed to be North Korean.

After an hour or two, we veered into what might be disparaged as girl talk. Mi-ran’s self-possession and her candor somehow allowed me to ask personal questions. What did young North Koreans do for fun? Were there any happy moments in her life? Did she have a boyfriend there?

“Funny you ask,” she said. “I had a dream about him the other night.”

She described the boy as tall and limber, with shaggy hair flopping over his forehead. He was smart, a future scientist studying at one of the best universities in Pyongyang. That was one of the reasons they could not be seen in public.

I pried gently about how far the relationship went. “It took us three years to hold hands. Another six to kiss,” she said. “I would never have dreamed of doing anything more. At the time I left North Korea, I was 26 and a schoolteacher, but I didn’t know how babies were conceived.”

Mi-ran admitted she frequently thought about her first love and felt pangs of remorse over the way she left. He had been her best friend, the person in whom she confided her dreams and the secrets of her family. But she had withheld from him the biggest secret of her life. She never told him how disgusted she was with North Korea, how she didn’t believe the propaganda she passed on to her pupils.

And she never told him her family was hatching a plan to defect. Not that she didn’t trust him, but in North Korea, you could never be too careful. If he told somebody who told somebody...well, there were spies everywhere. If the secret police had learned of their plans, her entire family would have been carted away to a labor camp in the mountains.

“I couldn’t risk it,” she told me. “I couldn’t even say goodbye.”

“What happened to him?” I asked.

She shrugged. Fifty years after the end of the Korean War, North and South Koreans still have no proper communication. In this regard, it is nothing like East and West Germany. There is no telephone service between North and South Korea, no postal service, no email.

Mi-ran herself had many unanswered questions. Was he married? Did he still think of her? Did he hate her for leaving without saying good-bye? Would he consider Mi-ran a traitor to the motherland?

“Somehow I think he’d understand, but I have no way, really, of knowing,” she answered.

BARBARA DEMICK is the Los Angeles Times Beijing Bureau Chief. This is an excerpt from her book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.