I Don’t Speak Korean

One evening, I had a very light, unusual conversation with the local project manager (visiting from Pyongyang) and my translator. Normally after dinner I am not allowed to wander outside the boundaries of my bungalow  and so are they. But that evening, we all decided to hang outside our houses – spring weather was really nice and talk about life in North Korea, how it is to be a translator and about why I am there, which was to work.

You see, North Korea is known for it being backwards, hermit and anything our country is not. Maybe the country is but not the people, especially those that knows better, those that had seen an alternative life(style). They are not behind, not hermit but secretive – yes.

When I had my orientation, I was told that I am not allowed to socialize with my handler (translator) and driver when out in the field. Including not inviting them to watch movies with me or share my books.(I think I talked a little bit about how is the life like in the Other Korea so go check it out) But when you’re with them all the time, you have no choice but to share a little bit of yourself, break the rules and not to expect anything in return.  Not in North Korea, they are very calculated – never share their feelings (not even smile), they report everything to the “higher powers”, they write everything and they have I think their own code.

Scary? yes but understandable. It was due to the kind of environment they have and the “propaganda” that bombards them everyday of their life. From the time they wake up to the time they sleep they have to relive everything in their Juche Principles even though I know some of them are rebelling (at least those that knows the difference) most have no choice, most it’s the only life they know.

That evening, we had fun. It was light moments of discussion, some laughter, and as the night progressed, I was surprised with a new topic Ro (the project manager) started talking about TRUST and their experience working with foreigners.

The main character in our discussion was my translator Yu. Lovely girl in her early twenties then (now she’s married and have a child). He was saying that I should trust my translator (maybe trying to convince me to put my guard down).  They talked about why it’s important to assign translator to us – there’s the sugar coated reasons and the most obvious one 나는 코란의 언어를 사용하지 않는 (I don’t speak Korean) and the real reason — we cannot be trusted! 😀 😀 😀 and the feeling was mutual (for the latter), at least in the beginning.

– we bring colonial ideals and we belong to the capitalist world (they are socialist for those who doesn’t know)

– we are bad influence (mainly evolving around our lifestyle choices — which I think was similar to theirs but they don’t want to admit to it)

– we watch movies, read books that gives bad influence (Gabriel Garcia Marquez a bad influence? K-pop maybe but they were not “in” yet that time)

– we are simply foreigners, we cannot be trusted (what can I do but at least I am not American)

The first 3 months (I only stayed for 7 months) I was paranoid with how I mingle with my local partners, including the cleaners in my house but overtime as the familiarity with each other becomes deeper it dissipated and I started to forget I am in North Korea and the two constant people in my life there are “spies”. I didn’t put my guard down  – I have no reason to be in the first place – guarded I mean. I am not there to be naughty only to be nice. I was there to be part of the foreign statistics who go there to help them (said without opening the mouth).

with my now friends -- Mr. Cha and Yu Sun at Bujon County. We are sitting on top of the remaining ice from the last winter

with my now friends — Mr. Cha and Yu Sun at Bujon County. We are sitting on top of the remaining ice from the last winter


The big revelation of the night was when they told me what they though of my boss, whose been there for a good 2 years when I arrived and I think stayed a total of 7 years (or maybe I am exaggerating).


“She’s like a submarine … she knows more than what she’s letting us know”

Hmmmm… what can I say? I didn’t know where that was that coming from but then again that was their opinion, I didn’t have to agree or disagree to it and in fact I didn’t discuss it with my boss — I think I forgot about it until now.

The last topic was forgotten (at least by me), we never talked about it again or had the chance to have a night out again :).

Life goes back to business as usual the following morning.

Towards the end of my stay, I stopped caring about their presence in my life, my translator Yu Sun and driver Mr. Cha became good friends and if she reported all my questions and all the things I said in my 7 months there, I am sure she would have completed several notebooks — I talk a lot and I am like a cat, always curious, the same for Mr. Cha.

I miss my time there and the people I met no doubt but whether I like working there again in the same situation maybe “I have to think about it”.

My take on my life there … I believe that everybody is free, you are free to do whatever you like, to think, to read what you fancy, to watch silly movies and express yourself. It is easy to be afraid of things you don’t know. The same for the people who have never been there – I don’t say I know any better, because 7 months of being there does not make me an expert but one thing I know they are no different than you and me, only the circumstances are. So no reason to be afraid.

Trust is all that matters next to LOVE of course!


6 thoughts on “I Don’t Speak Korean

    • D says:

      thank you very much Carol and thanks for the compliment (I take all positive thoughts to me and my stories compliment).

      I try to live up to what I said is my life (and career) and to carry with me the teachings of my parents which is to respect others and be respected in return 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • D says:

      the country carries with it its novelty but people are people, and I only lived there for short time so I made the most of my time knowing them — oh yes, was there for work 🙂


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