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That night we drove around Pyongyang. It is impossible to describe is what it’s like to be in a capital city that doesn’t have much electricity. There were some lights on in the high-rises, and some electric signs for restaurants were lit up, but most of the streetlights were dark. Yet the streets were full of people walking and talking while kids darted by on bicycles and rollerblades. Despite the darkness, I felt safer than I would in New York.
Kim went to the front of the bus, fiddled with a microphone, and began to sing a cappella. The song was “Arirang,” a traditional anthem of the Korean people. Though I didn’t understand the words, the poignancy behind it came through. The dark streets provided an appropriate backdrop to her voice. I grew up poor. I understood what it’s like to have pride in what you have, even if you have very little. And I understood what it was like to know what your poverty looks like to others. The guides must have understood this better than most of their countrymen. They could see how the poorest young tourists were still dressed better than all but the richest in North Korea.
The guides are exposed to more outside information than 99 percent of their country’s population, and speak with foreigners every day. Thanks to the tips they get, they are quite well off. As a result, the positions they hold are very competitive, and their loyalty to the state must be absolute. Or at least, they must be able to convey that impression to their superiors (who themselves must be able to perform the same pantomime).
Kim worked seven days a week for at least 12 hours a day—maybe 14. But she will never be able to, for example, buy hand lotion in the store, no matter how much money she has. She will never be able to see the Internet. She will never be able to go on a trip and will never be able to drive—let alone own—a car. She was in a position to live the best life North Korea had to offer, but she also knew enough to know that her life seemed inadequate compared to the rest of the world.
When Ayn Rand fled the Soviet Union in 1926, her cousin pulled her aside at the going-away party. “When they ask you in America,” he said, “tell them that Russia is a huge cemetery and that we are all dying slowly.” Did Kim feel the same way? I wanted to find out, but wasn’t sure how to ask. The fact was, she had less freedom to speak her mind than someone in Stalinist Russia nearly a century ago. Song’s job was to report on her, and vice versa. Everyone in North Korea is under constant surveillance and must answer to their comrades in weekly criticism sessions.
“You know,” I told Kim on our last night, “I came here to see what my family went through. And thanks to speaking with you, I really have a better understanding of how my mother grew up. She must have been a lot like you when she was your age, and her life was a lot like yours.”
Kim looked at me and paused. “Then your mother must have hated Russia.” Kim couldn’t have been more explicit. But she didn’t really need to be.