Signs of hope for the Hermit Kingdom



Clarissa was one of the smartest students I ever taught at Tsinghua University. An English-literature major fluent in Chinese, Korean, and English, she could discuss at length issues as varied as gay marriage, the limits of Internet freedom, and the morality of terrorism. She was recently accepted to graduate programs in international relations at both Tsinghua and Peking University, China’s two best institutions, and hopes for a career in government service.

Believe it or not, when Clarissa goes home for the holidays, it’s not to family in China or Japan or Europe, but in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korean students studying in China rarely make headlines, but their bursting potential may augur profound consequences for the future of what is known as the Hermit Kingdom.

At Tsinghua, I taught and interacted with a number of North Korean students over the years. What I found most intriguing was how typical of international students they were. Contrary to the popular narrative of rabid xenophobia and virulent anti-Americanism, most of them were insatiably curious about other cultures, America’s most of all. I am friends with one on Facebook, another sat for my course “American Culture and Society.” Except for the occasional lapel pin bearing the likeness of Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder, they were generally indistinguishable from other international students.

Home, however, was never far away. Once a week, Tsinghua’s North Korean students are recalled to their nation’s city-block-sized embassy for evaluations and debriefing. Their classes and outside activities are reviewed, and they are expected to undergo a bizarre ritual of self-criticism in which they discuss how they have failed to live up to the spirit of their leader’s ideals.

When North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il died, in 2011, Clarissa came to my class dressed all in black. She was shaken, but a far cry from the much-caricatured video of sobbing North Korean citizens. While her grief was genuine, I suspected that underneath lay more-complicated feelings.

Another student, named Michael, was more forthcoming.

“Did you feel sad?” I asked him, several months afterward.

“I had to feel sad,” he noted, flashing a wry smile.

I am under no illusion about who these students are. A famine killed an estimated one million of their countrymen in the 1990s, but Tsinghua’s North Koreans seem accustomed to a lifestyle of conspicuous consumption. They would not be out of place in New York or Paris. Most wore stylish clothes and eschewed pedal bikes in favor of motor scooters. I sparked a fit of laughter in one when I asked if his sleek new iPad came from the Apple store in Pyongyang.

Their families are the cream of North Korean society. Many students said their fathers were “businessmen,” an increasingly common profession in the hive of quasi-legal private industry that has developed along the porous Chinese-North Korean border.

While these students aren’t representative, their very existence and study-abroad experience should be cause for hope.

In his recent book, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future, the academic and former National Security Council member Victor Cha argued that North Korea today is more isolated and less international than in previous generations. During the cold war, he noted, members of the North Korean elite traveled widely in the Communist world, and the leader, Kim Il Sung, was on good terms with the likes of East Germany’s Erich Honecker and Romania’s Nicolae Ceaușescu. Since Chinese reform and the fall of international Communism,, however, North Korea has experienced unprecedented isolation. The wealth of ideas and intercultural exchange offered by study abroad could be enormously consequential in any future opening.

In an excerpt from an essay by Clarissa, we can catch a glimpse of the country’s current dystopia.

“I grew up in a country which is prepared to fight a war at any time,” she writes. “When I was studying in Pyongyang, every semester schools held anti defense practices, in which every student and faculty member would go down to the basement of their school and have classes there in case of a sudden war.”

A North Korean transition from Stalinist introversion to a self-sufficient and responsible member of the international community may be one of the premier challenges of the 21st century. But if Clarissa and her cohort are any indication of the next generation of leadership, I believe there may be light at the end of that tunnel.

Author Bio: Jonathan is a freelance journalist and a former lecturer in American studies and English at Tsinghua University, in Beijing.