Dear (American) Leader

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from South Korea. For more, click here.

Seoul - As a child Kwang Soo strolled through parks in Hongwan, North Korea, read novels about her Great Leader, and stitched yarn dolls in the likeness of U.S. soldiers. Then she and her friends tossed those stuffed Americans into the air and beat them apart with sticks.

United Nations troops patrol the North-South Korean border.
United Nations troops patrol the North-South Korean border.

Soo’s history teacher taught her that the United States launched the Korean War. In mathematics Soo learned that if you have seven Americans and kill four of them, only three are left. At assemblies, her teachers told her to fortify herself for another great war against the U.S. and South Korea. Within her lifetime, they said, war would reunite the peninsula, which America split apart.

Yet today Soo prays that America will help save her family in North Korea.

Soo was born in 1964 to a well-respected family. Her grandfather was a prominent lawyer for the Workers Party of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung; her father a distinguished professor; and her mother a party administrator.

But high status didn’t bring great wealth in this ‘Socialist Paradise.’ Her family of six all lived together in a one-room apartment. Ten other families shared one shower and one toilet. Though there were faucets, clean water didn’t run through them. Soo pulled water from the river. Electricity was always scarce.

As time passed, food grew scarce as well. At twenty-nine, Soo married a party administrator who had just left thirteen years of mandatory military service. She became entirely dependent on her new spouse. Her parents passed away and she says there were so few jobs in the country by the early 1990s that married women didn’t work. With crisis looming, the couple gave birth to a son.

By 1995 North Korea’s communist patrons had shriveled up. With them went food sold at friendly prices. The government dispensed less food day by day. From three meals to two to one. People began starving to death on the streets. Soo’s friends told one another they weren’t far behind.

As the situation deteriorated, the government increased its anti-American broadcasts. TV documentaries from North Korea and select old ones from Mainland China claimed that America was squeezing North Korea to force regime change. The U.S. sought world dominion at any cost, TV and radio said.

But Soo was less receptive to that talk now. Private conversations with close friends by 1996 were all about the failures of the government. State military and police agents were stealing food, extorting bribes, and executing civilians.

Then the summer of 1997 robbed Soo of all she loved. Dysentery swept across her town. Chronic diarrhea combined with poor nutrition caused her husband and newborn son to waste away in a matter of weeks.

With nothing left to lose, Soo traveled north to the Tumen River, clasped hands with five strangers, and waded into Mainland China. She contacted distant relatives there and got a job as a maid. At the night she listened through to South Korean broadcasts on TV. Over the next three years and seven months she slowly discovered all the North Korean regime had hidden.

But in 2001 and 2002, the China began cracking down on illegal North Korean immigrants. Soo feared that they would send her home to North Korea to die either of hunger or a bullet. No longer enamored by her Great Leader, hoping simply to survive, Soo sought asylum in South Korea.

Now Soo lives in Seoul with a new husband. The couple ekes out a living through entry-level office jobs. She recently gave birth to another son. Life is beginning again for Soo, but her sisters remain in Hunong.

She spoke to them last year. To stop famine, North Korea opened up slightly, allowing new ways of making contact across the border -- some legal, some not.

Soo contacted a ring of smugglers, supported by corrupt members of the North Korean military. They brought money to her relatives for a 70% commission, and allowed them a ten minute cell phone conversation.

“They were terrified by it,” Soo says, widening her black eyes and pressing her hands against her cheeks. “They had never seen anything like it.” She told them the North Korean regime was cruel; that the south was liberated; and that she had remarried and given birth again. Her family said little, afraid someone was listening. “At least they are not dead,” says Soo.

From a childhood spent detesting the U.S., Soo now prays it will help her sisters. "They need it,” she says, “One has a baby girl."

Soo's solution: U.S. and international aid organizations must demand direct access to real people like her sisters. "Watch the food be delivered to their mouths," Soo says. This can help widen cracks in the once airtight regime, allowing people like Soo to quietly reveal the brighter outside world to relatives -- a world that must stand with them and help them survive, with or without their Dear Leader.

South KoreaAmar Bakshi