[imText1]It was in Yanji where I met the 25-year-old defector, Kim Soo Mee. She was born and raised in the mountains that separated her village from larger towns in Hamkyung Province.
Because of her mother’s ferver for educating her children, Kim Soo Mee was able to attend the First Senior Middle School, a specialized school for gifted students, following her timely graduation from primary school.
When she was 12 years old, the national famine greatly affected her town. People scattered about the streets looking for food, and dead bodies could be seen everywhere. Many students stopped going to school and instead spent their days searching for food. However, Soo Mee’s mother urged her to continue with her studies. With her mother’s encouragement, Soo Mee gained acceptance into a prestigious university in North Korea.
She received good grades at the university and had high hopes of working in a well-established company in Pyongyang. However, due to her family background, she was forced to remain and work in the small rural town.
The living conditions in North Korea’s capitol are surprisingly different compared to the local cities.
Kim Soo Mee explained about the corruption surrounding university admissions in North Korea. “Only children who grow up in rich families can be admitted to the universities in Pyongyang, as huge sums of money are needed to bribe institution administrators. For example, if a student wants to attend Kim Il Sung University, often times a family will pay upwards of 1,000 dollars just to afford the child a chance of getting accepted. Pyongyang Medical College and Kim Hyong Jik College of Education usually require approximately 500 dollars in bribes.”
I was curious to ask, “Can a student bribe their way into a school even if he or she does not have good grades?”
She explained that such students are instructed to leave certain indicating marks on their test paper at the college entrance examination as a way for evaluators to discern whether the student offered a bribe or not. The evaluators rank the students by the amount in bribes their families have paid, and then rank them according to their family background.
Her college life was unbearable because she had no financial power or a strong family background to support her.
385 days out of her college years were spent practicing for the 40 seconds of the military parade it would take to pass by Kim Jong Il’s podium. The average student spends almost two and a half years preparing for national events such as military parades and agricultural support activities that take place in the Spring and Fall. These hardships led Soo Mee and many of her fellow students to dream of going abroad.
The most popular jobs after graduation include diplomatic posts and working in foreign currency-making companies. She went on to explain that it is now undesirable to work as a discharged soldier or a member of the Party.
As for the common perception of Kim Jong Il among North Korean youths, she maintained that “through propaganda, the people are made to believe that the General (Kim Jong Il) ‘s meals consist of only a few rice balls and salted radish. However, I was shocked to find out that preparation of the General’s meals costs 1,000 dollars.” This information was told to her by a researcher from Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il’s Longevity Institute.
Most of the intellectual students have an unfavorable opinion about Kim Jong Il, but the general public does not see the truth behind his lies.
“In the movie, ‘Geumjin River’ (2004), there is a line that states, ‘We are poor because the heavens took away our Supreme Leader (Kim Il Sung) in wrath because the people did not respectfully take care of him.’ The authorities are currently insisting that our country is now poor because of imperialistic pressures and economic sanctions imposed on us by America.”
I asked, “What do the Pyongyang citizens think about the future of North Korea?”
“Most think that we should open and reform our state, but they can never mention the words ‘open’ and ‘reform’ in public,” she replied. “The authorities often proclaim that we can attain wealth by properly following the Military-First Policy and by establishing a strong economic society. But the problem is they do not tell us how to do so. The only people not doing business in the jangmadang are cadres of the Party, generals of the Army and National Security or Safety Agents; they maintain favorable living conditions by collecting bribes from the citizens.”