In North Korea: Wonder & Terror

The northeast of China used to be called Manchuria. Another name was “the cockpit of Asia.” Many wars were fought there. A French priest who traveled through the region in the 1920s wrote: “Although it is uncertain where God created paradise, we can be sure He chose some other place than this.” The quote is from Michael Meyer’s splendid book In Manchuria.

Manchuria must be one of the bleakest places on earth, hot and dusty in summer and freezing in the long winter months. Although perhaps not quite as blood-soaked as some other places—Ukraine, say, or Poland—Manchuria has had more than its share of violence. On the southern tip lies Port Arthur, once a Russian town. Japanese troops massacred thousands of Chinese civilians there during the Sino-Japanese War in 1894. A vicious modern war—with trenches, bombs, machine guns—between Russia and Japan left about 170,000 men dead in 1905. When the Japanese clashed for three months with the Soviet Red Army on the Mongolian border in 1939, roughly 30,000 men were killed or maimed, most of them Japanese (the Soviets had tanks). And in 1948, during the Chinese civil war, more than 200,000 people were systematically starved to death in the siege of Changchun by the People’s Liberation Army.



The View from Wasteland

Michael Meyer
In winter the land is frozen and still. A cloudless sky shines off snow-covered rice paddies, reflecting light so bright, you have to shield your eyes. I lean into a stinging wind and trudge north up Red Flag Road, to a village named Wasteland.The...

Much of Manchuria is flat and rural, but heavy industry has polluted the skies for nearly a hundred years. The Japanese used Chinese slave labor to exploit vast strip mines of coal from the early twentieth century till the end of World War II; they also built aircraft and automobile factories and steel plants. Poppies were cultivated before the war to supply the opium trade in China monopolized by the Japanese. In Harbin, one of the main cities on the South Manchurian Railway line, White Russian thugs preyed on a large Jewish community (30,000 at its peak), and Japanese Imperial Army doctors performed gruesome experiments with deadly viruses on mostly Chinese prisoners.

After the Japanese defeat in 1945, the Red Army looted as much as it could from what the Japanese left behind. It even carted off to Russia the wooden ties from the tracks of the Manchurian railway. But under Chairman Mao’s rule, the northeast continued to be an industrial powerhouse, where model workers supposedly accomplished staggering feats of productivity. The most famous Maoist hero, known for his relentless self-sacrifice for the Revolution, was a fellow named Comrade Lei Feng, who died after being struck by a falling telephone pole at the age of twenty-one. He may in fact never have existed. But a gigantic Lei Feng Memorial Hall with vast marble-floored rooms was built near the old Japanese coal mines in Fushun to commemorate his exemplary life.

When I first saw Shenyang, the city that used to be known as Mukden, in the 1990s, the steelworks and a sooty cluster of workers’ tenements were still there, rusting away in the acid air like a more and more ghostly museum of heavy industry. Michael Meyer arrived there a few years later. Much of what I had seen was gone by then. Meyer found a place instead where wives of jobless workers sold their favors to other luckless survivors from failed state-owned enterprises:

Back in the darkened dance hall, faces were indistinguishable, and the room had become something felt rather than seen: a mass of laid-off people grasping each other tightly, moving in circles to a wordless song.

And yet, despite all this, despite the grime, the scars of an awful history, and the icy winters, Meyer writes with great feeling that he found Manchuria “beautiful and unique, a land worthy of its evocative names.”

I couldn’t agree more. Like Meyer, I am a Manchuphile. It is an acquired taste, to be sure, but there is a haunting romance to these borderlands, stretching to Siberia in the north, Mongolia in the west, and North Korea in the south, where empires clashed and bandits of many nationalities once roamed.



The Other China

Michael Meyer & Ian Buruma
Writers Michael Meyer and Ian Buruma engage in a discussion co-sponsored by The New York Review of Books centered on Meyer’s new book, In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China, which combines immersion...

If Manchuria seemed forsaken by God, it was also where men hatched some of the zaniest plans for paradise on earth. In 1932, the Japanese installed Henry Pu Yi, the hapless last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, already defunct in China since the revolution of 1911, on the throne of a sinister puppet state, supposed to be a modern Asian multiracial utopia known as Manchukuo. The future strongman of South Korea, Park Chung-hee, served as an officer in the Manchukuo Imperial Army under the Japanese name of Takagi Masao. Kim Il-sung became a member of the Chinese Communist Party in Manchuria, where he grew up, before being appointed by the Soviets in 1945 as the Great Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Park’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, is the current South Korean president. The dictator of North Korea is Kim Il-sung’s grandson. And Kishi Nobusuke, grandfather of the Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo, was once the industrial czar of Manchukuo. In many ways, then, today’s Northeast Asia was born in Manchuria.

Meyer’s Manchuphilia came from a personal romance; his Chinese wife, Frances, was born there, and Meyer observed the life and changes of a rural community by living among her relatives in a village named Wasteland. His book mixes the microcosm of his personal experiences in Wasteland with the macrocosm of his more general account of Manchurian history. He writes from the appealing perspective of an American outsider who can tell a Chinese story from the inside, as it were, by plunging into the private lives of people he came to know intimately.



The Lesser Wall

Michael Meyer
There is no such place as Manchuria, but the word still resonates like a bell struck a century before. The region is now more prosaically called dongbei—the northeast—yet its contemporary toponyms sing of its imperial past, when it was the homeland...

Like many Manchurians, Frances’ family migrated there from other parts of China, her father from as far away as Sichuan, in the south. For Han Chinese, Manchuria, with its immense empty spaces, was a land of opportunity, and a refuge from famine, at least since the nineteenth century. There are very few people left who can truly claim to be Manchus, the original inhabitants who founded the Qing Dynasty in seventeenth-century Beijing. Meyer traveled to a village named Three Families, to track down the last Manchu speakers. He found one man, who valiantly attempted to teach Manchu to a handful of children for a few hours a week. The teacher was under some pressure, for instruction in minority languages is not encouraged in China, unless it brings in tourist money.

When the Japanese founded Manchukuo as a puppet state, they claimed that the native population still consisted mostly of Manchus (Manjin), to prove that the region was not actually part of China, and thus a perfectly legitimate place for Japanese Lebensraum. But this, like everything else about Manchukuo, was just a pretense. The sacred authority of the last Qing emperor was a sham. Behind every “Manchu” official was the shadowy presence of a Japanese who called the shots. And the vaunted multiracial harmony of Manchus, Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians, and Japanese was a lie, since the latter ruled over the rest like a Herrenvolk.

The older people of Wasteland had seen it all: migrants from rural Japan displacing Chinese peasants in the 1930s, often with considerable brutality, Soviet soldiers rampaging through Manchuria in 1945, people’s communes and Red Guards in the 1960s, the restoration of private farming after that, and now the encroachment of large corporate interests gobbling up the small rice farms, moving people from their village homes to huge housing projects, plunked in the middle of nowhere, all in the name of progress and efficiency.



Desperately Seeking City

Michael Meyer
At the world’s only International Sister City Museum, located in far northeast China, a guide leads a group of Harbin middle school students past displays for each of their hometown’s twenty-seven “twins.” “Our government’s friendship with these...

In the latest twist of utopianism, an industrial farming company called Eastern Fortune Rice, together with the Chinese government, is doing in Wasteland what others are doing throughout China, bringing the big city to the countryside: soon there will be—so it is promised, at least—high-rise buildings, artificial lakes, golf courses, universities, theme parks. Once again the ordinary citizens will have no say in the matter, any more than they did when they were herded together in people’s communes.

Meyer’s landlord in Wasteland, a hardy farmer in his sixties who opens beer bottles with his teeth, put the situation succinctly as he pointed to the ceiling. “Someone up here,” he said, “is always telling us down here what to do.”

There are many other personal anecdotes in Meyer’s book, among them encounters with Chinese high and low, memories of his childhood in Minnesota, and his wife’s difficulties adjusting to American life. Perhaps this is just a matter of taste, but I prefer Meyer’s larger perspective to the more intimate approach, fascinating and telling though his vignettes on local life often are.

As a historian, and especially as a guide to Chinese museums, memorials, and monuments, Meyer is superb. He is absolutely correct when he writes:

All museums tell stories; China’s tell political ones. Often…the museum or historic site is posted as a “patriotic education base.” Such shrines—interpreted by the local propaganda department—present historical events as leading, inexorably, to the Communist Party’s victory in the Chinese civil war.

There is no shrine, needless to say, to the people who starved to death during the siege of Changchun in 1948.

Patriotic ideology replaced Maoism as the justification for the continuing monopoly on power of the Chinese Communist Party. Only the Party can make China strong enough to ensure that the nation will never be humiliated by foreign powers again, not by any Western power, and certainly not by Japan. Given Manchuria’s history, it is no wonder that the region is especially rich in patriotic museums.

Shenyang, for instance, has the 9.18 Historical Museum about the Japanese occupation that began on September 18, 1931. “Never forget our nation’s anger!” read the graceful Chinese characters on one wall. Another room is painted with Chinese eyes weeping tears of blood. Visitors can have themselves photographed dressed up as anti-Japanese guerrillas. And many pictures of Japanese atrocities warn the visitor of what will happen if the Party were to relax its vigilance.

Changchun, the former capital of Manchukuo, then known as Shinkyo, does not really need a patriotic museum. The whole city center is a kind of museum, planned and built in the 1930s as an urban monument to Japanese imperialism. As Meyer says, the main avenue, off the former Great Harmony Square, “is to fascist architecture what Havana is to classic American cars.” Here is the old Ministry of Justice, a gigantic quasi-Russian fortress with quasi-Chinese roofs, and there the former police HQ, like a quasi-Japanese castle piled on top of a massive modern brick building, and there the Manchukuo Military HQ.

The fascinating mishmash of Japanese modernism and traditional Asian features is grandiose, even a little ridiculous, and yet almost touching in its eagerness to impress. Even as pretty much everything historical in Chinese cities has been razed in the last fifty years, the old Manchukuo capital is still almost entirely intact. Where the Japanese once were, the Chinese Communist Party moved right in, with the same taste for authoritarian modernism.

Of all the main cities in Manchuria, Harbin has the most colorful history. A small fishing village turned into a railway town by Russians at the end of the nineteenth century, the “Paris of the East” was famous for its Orthodox onion domes, at least two synagogues, fine restaurants, nightclubs, gambling halls, hotels, and numerous brothels, with women from many nations, including well-bred Russians down on their luck. Harbin was also notorious for kidnappings, robberies, and spectacular murder cases. Meyer quotes a U.S. vice-consul, Nelson Fairchild, who said: “As nasty a place as you can imagine…. At night one walks in the middle of the street with revolver drawn.”

Peter Fleming, brother of Ian, creator of James Bond, spent some time there in 1934. He bathed in the Sungari River amid Russian women “sporting like hippopotomi in the shallows” and the “beauties from the nightclubs, heavily made up,” mincing “beside their potbellied escorts in costumes that were hardly more than a figure of speech.” But, Fleming continues, “what lent the scene its extra and redeeming touch of oddity was the presence, everywhere along this grotesquely decorated shore, of soldiers and police armed with rifles and automatics.”

Not much of old Harbin is left today. One of the two synagogues, Meyer writes, was restored in 2004 into a “Jewish history research center,” and the other, long used as a railway hostel, will be renovated, in the hope perhaps that tourists nostalgic for Jewish Harbin might come to chase old ghosts, as they do in Shanghai, Kraków, or Lvov. Saint Sophia, one of the few remaining Russian Orthodox churches, has been turned from a furniture storeroom into a patriotic museum showing the history of colonialism in Manchuria. But the main patriotic museum is located in the ruin of a camp outside Harbin used by the Japanese for their medical and germ warfare experiments. On most days, you will see groups of Chinese schoolchildren filing past the waxworks of grotesquely tortured bodies.

The allure of Manchuria, for me, is a bit like that of Southern California. Little is quite what it seems. So many fantasies and so many cultures have come and gone. Meyer is not only a connoisseur of patriotic monuments, but also a wonderful explorer of the relics of a past that is rubbed out, overlooked, or largely forgotten.

In search of Manchuria’s Russian history, he travels to an old railway town called Manchuli, now spelled Manzhouli, on the Russian border, where Peter Fleming, along with countless others, first entered the country. Meyer went to see whether he could find something of the faded atmosphere, an old train perhaps, where a British passenger once sat in the dining car “watching the French consul’s wife playing waltzes on the piano as the fat Russian conductor waved along with ‘his delicate pink handkerchief loaded with perfume.’”

This would have been on the old Chinese Eastern Railway, described by another British passenger as a “pantomime,” a “Potemkin Pullman.” Meyer takes a wild taxi ride along the border. He doesn’t find any old train, but does spot out of the car window what looks like a cathedral under construction. His taxi driver, Miss Sun, explains: “Actually, it’s a fake…. The tourism bureau is building it as a backdrop for wedding photos.”

* * *

Suki Kim

Suki Kim, teaching a class at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, North Korea, 2011.

In July 2011, in the North Korean capital Pyongyang, about one hundred miles southeast of the Yalu River on the old Manchurian border, the Korean-American journalist Suki Kim visited a run-down Christian church. The visit had been especially arranged by the official minders assigned to her in order to show how freedom of religion still flourished in North Korea. Inside were a number of beaming parishioners. One woman in traditional Korean dress prayed for the unification of the Korean people, and denounced the wicked imperialists who had divided them. The pastor gave a sermon denouncing the wicked imperialists and their South Korean lackeys. Photography was encouraged. It was all for show. Kim writes:

They were pretending to be Christians, and we were pretending to believe them. I remembered that we had been instructed to pray secretly, with our eyes open, while were at PUST.

PUST stands for Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, an elite institution, run by Western evangelical Christians, where Kim was employed to teach English to the sons of the North Korean political aristocracy. Since Christianity could not be openly promoted, and the Western staff was almost never out of sight of Korean overseers, Kim’s colleagues had to pretend that they were just regular teachers. And Kim, a secular person who simply wanted the opportunity to spend some time in North Korea, had to pretend to be a devout Christian to get the job.

One of the rules Kim had been told to follow by the Western evangelicals at PUST went: “Do not bow your head or fold your hands or close your eyes to pray at meals. Pray with your eyes open. Do not say anything about religion and do not use religious titles to address each other.” There were other rules: “When you talk to students, be very careful about the topic of conversation…. Never hint that there is something wrong with their country.” Or: “Everything you say and do will be watched…. Just get in the habit of not saying everything that is on your mind, not criticizing the government and things of that sort, so you won’t slip.”

No wonder Kim was often exhausted. As she says: “It takes tremendous energy to censor yourself all the time, to have to, in a sense, continually lie.” It was worth it, though, for her account is fascinating. Like Meyer, she is an outsider telling an inside story. She was forbidden to speak Korean to her students. But Kim was born in Seoul, and only came to the U.S. with her parents when she was thirteen. If Meyer’s wife was his romantic anchor in China, an elusive boyfriend in Brooklyn is Kim’s link to home in moments of loneliness at PUST. As in the case of Meyer’s book, a little bit of this goes quite a long way.

Kim’s relationship with her students is the most interesting part of her book. These men were all privileged members of North Korean society, relatively well fed, unlike the pale scrawny creatures Kim glimpsed from car windows on rare excursions outside Pyongyang (only the politically favored class is permitted to live in the capital city). And yet even they led such fearful and regimented lives that Kim describes them as “soldiers and slaves.” The Internet was but a distant rumor to the most highly educated students in North Korea, and they barely knew how to type on a computer.

Kim is good on the stultifying boredom of being stuck in a North Korean academy. What made it all much worse was her inability to ask her students a straight question, because it might get them into trouble. And they saw it as their duty to spout absurd propaganda at every opportunity. Here they were, the elite students of science, proudly telling Suki Kim about the “twelve wonders” that made their country into the envy of the world, wonders like sunrise over the sacred Mount Baekdu, where the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il supposedly was born on the same spot as Tangun, the son of a bear woman and founder of the first Korean Kingdom in 2333 BC. Or they talked of the echo of the Oolim Falls, which the Dear Leader likened to “the sound of a powerful and prosperous nation,” and of “the potato flowers from the field of Daehongdan, where Kim Il-sung had fought the Japanese imperialists and Kim Jong-il upheld his revolutionary spirit by starting the country’s biggest potato farm.”

Listening to this kind of thing made Kim think that her students were insane. It is tempting to treat the cult of the North Korean Kim dynasty as a grotesque joke, as the makers of The Interview, the recent Hollywood movie about an assassination plot against the current “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un, have done. Suki Kim, quite rightly, does not. The oppression and starvation of millions of people, and a gulag that enslaves up to 200,000 prisoners, many of them worked to death, is really not that funny.

The North Korean theocracy—for that is what it most closely resembles—relies on a mixture of Stalinism, ethnic nationalism born from a history of domination by foreign powers, a version of Confucianism (the dynastic aspect), and Korean folk shamanism. Suki Kim got a close look at some of the cult’s manifestations. Every night, for example, even during the most severe weather, uniformed students had to stand guard in front of a concrete building on campus called the Kimilsungism Study Hall. Ostensibly a place where people go every day to study Kim Il-sung’s “Juche” idea of extreme autarky, these Study Halls are really shrines to the Kim dynasty. Every village, school, or army camp has one, just as every home and public place has portraits of the Great, Dear, or Supreme Leader on its walls.

Everything positive—a decent harvest, nice weather, victory in a sporting event, and so on—is ascribed to the beneficence and wisdom of the leader. As Suki Kim observes, he is everywhere. Nothing passes his notice. He is a scientific genius, a great artist (especially Kim Jong-il), and a stupendous general. His “on the spot guidance” guarantees “bumper harvests,” military glory, and the universal happiness of the Korean people. Libraries are stocked with little else but works on Juche philosophy and other brilliant ideas from the minds of the three great leaders. Any expression of doubt is out of the question. Suki Kim was warned by her PUST colleagues that she might get into serious trouble just by sitting by mistake on a magazine containing a picture of the Great Leader.

This is the only world that her students knew. Kim was horrified and yet oddly moved by their purity. She writes: “These young men were in many ways like children, with all their vulnerability and innocence intact, hanging on to my every move as though it would determine their destinies.”

Perhaps they really were innocent and believed everything they were told. But we can’t really know, because Kim was not able to challenge them. On the rare occasion of a personal conversation, she writes about one student: “We wanted to discover things about one another, yet if we stumbled across such information, we both froze.” When she spoke of her ability to visit different countries, the students suddenly went quiet, as though danger lurked even in the thought of such unimaginable freedom. And very near the surface of their regimented lives, there was terror. Kim saw her students stiffen at the mere sight of an authority figure who could send them off to the camps for the slightest hint of disobedience.

So innocence might not be the best way to describe intelligent people who are forced to stifle their minds. Kim is right to question whether it would have done her students any good to hear the truth from her. She wonders whether it would make them happier if they were told that “everything they were taught about the Great Leader was bogus….” She concludes: “Awakening was a luxury available only to those in the free world.”

But this still presumes that the students would have no misgivings if they were not being informed by an outsider like her. This may not always be so. Jang Jin-sun is a North Korean who escaped to China in 2003. He had worked in the psychological warfare department. One of his duties was to pretend to be a South Korean poet and write eulogies to the North for distribution in the South. His reaction to the movie The Interview is worth quoting in full:

It’s not that people really believe all this propaganda about Kim Jong-un, that he’s a God, and need someone to tell them otherwise or show them another way of thinking. North Koreans are people, and they aren’t stupid. In the North Korean system, you have to praise Kim and sing hymns about him and take it seriously, even if you think it’s only a shit narrative. That’s the block, you see? It’s not that people are brainwashed and think he’s God. These are things that people know, but that they don’t dare to challenge.*

Suki Kim’s frustration and rage about the waste of young lives and talent crushed by a horribly oppressive system is entirely justified. Being punished for dissent is bad enough. But to be forced to parrot lies and keenly applaud one’s enforcers is a form of constant mental torture. No doubt some of the scenes one sees of North Koreans hysterically cheering every utterance of the Supreme Leader, eyes rolling in ecstasy, are signs of genuine devotion. But this cannot always be the case.

Suki Kim, through no fault of her own, is unable to knock down the barriers between her students and herself. Only once does she make a little dent. In a subtle way, it is the most heartbreaking scene in her book.

One of her best students, named Sun-pil, is upset with her because she paid insufficient attention to one of his papers. He comes to see her together with another student (they always had to move in pairs). He asks her for permission to speak in Korean, and then expresses his anger and hurt. It is the first time he has ever had a conflict with a teacher, he declares, but adds that perhaps this has drawn them closer. Kim replies that such small conflicts are the natural result of cultural differences.

Then the other student, named Dong-hyun, speaks up: “But we never think of you as being different from us. Our circumstances are different. But you are the same as us. We want you to know that we truly think of you as being the same.”

  1. Christopher Richardson, “North Korea’s Kim Dynasty: The Making of a Personality Cult,” The Guardian, February 16, 2015.