As a child, Yosef Teklemariam lived with his family in the oppressed state of North Korea.
As a child, Yosef Teklemariam lived with his family in the oppressed state of North Korea. His mother worked for the United Nations and was invited to be a representative of the Ethiopian government, a socialist country at the time. He spent several years there, learning from the people that lived there and seeing firsthand the way the North Korean government controlled them. After several late night conversations about his experiences, I thought I should get this on tape.
R. Anthony Harris: Sitting here with Yosef, and I don’t want to slaughter your last name man… (laughs). Can you pronounce that for me?
Yosef Teklemariam: Teklemariam
Yosef has spent some time in North Korea as a child, and I thought it’d be interesting to sit down and ask him a few questions about that. Can you tell me a little bit about why or how you got there? Did you go straight from Ethiopia? You also lived in Madison, WI… how’d you get there? And possibly why were you there?
This was back in 1989. I was 10, just about to turn 11 that year, and my mom was working with the United Nations Development Program at the time. She specialized in the Asia Bureau since she began working with the UN back home in Ethiopia in the ‘70s, up until we moved to New York City in ’83. So, the move to North Korea happened straight from Queens, NY, back in 1989 because of my mom’s job. She took myself and my twin brother, and my older sister took a semester off from college at the time to get used to the transition; I think also she just wanted to take a semester off from college. So, she came up there with us for the first three months, and it was the four of us up there.
And how old were you when you went over to North Korea?
I was 10. This was February of 1989, so I had just turned 10 a few months before that.
So, it was a little bit of a culture shock to go from Queens to North Korea? (laughs)
Well, it’s funny. I always joke ‘cause two of my closest friends were actually South Koreans, but our neighborhood in Queens was very, very mixed, and there was a strong Chinese population; this was in Flushing, Queens. There was a growing Korean population when I left, and since I’ve been back to New York and in that area, there’s a Korean bank, a Korean mall; the Korean community has pretty much just taken over. So I always joke, it’s just kind of funny from that neighborhood to North Korea. But it was very much culture shock. I think it’s easier when you move at a younger age. You know, so at that age, being 10 and in fourth grade at the time… for myself and my twin, we had a lot more kids our age whose parents were working at different embassies. The UN didn’t really have any kids around, so we were known in North Korea as the UN Mom’s Kids. Anywhere, shopping around town, people just knew ‘cause we were only two of four UN kids. The other kids had been living there year round. We had moved there in February ’89, and had lived there straight without ever leaving North Korea except to go to Beijing a couple times for like two years straight almost.
So, a little bit of a culture shock.
And no one can see you (through this interview), but you’re obviously African-American. Were there any African-Americans in North Korea when you went there?
There were Africans. I mean that was the big change. We were going through the culture shock of living in Queens. I was so young. When we moved to the states from Ethiopia I was only 4. I experienced racism for the first time in those six years living in New York City and prejudice against other foreigners. So, I had already experienced this before I was 10. And then moving to another country where… race wasn’t so much a factor in North Korea. And abroad, I feel like it’s mostly ethnicity and what country you’re from. An idea of “if our countries are cool, then you’re cool with me” is kind of how it was. In some really remote areas of Korea I think definitely we were the first black people, dark-skinned people for them to see. Even in China, there were certain places where they’d go and look at us and…
Like in curiosity? Awe?
Yeah, like not negatively, but they had no shame in staring either. So, they’re just staring right at you. Me and my twin just joked with my mom like we’re just going to stare back. You know, after a few weeks of this and then realizing this is where we’re going to be living, a couple times we would just stare right back. One thing I can remember, just traveling through China, there was a store we went in to, and we were just looking at stuff and touching. People were literally following us aisle by aisle and kept looking down. Adults with their kids, came down by the aisle and touched whatever we touched. Like did they think black would come off if they touched it or something? (laughs) They actually touched it after we did. But we were able to laugh it off.
You were like figures out of a book or something.
Yeah, it was different. And in North Korea there wasn’t much of unsupervised interaction with other North Koreans. It was always the foreigners in their gated communities that lived together, and the North Koreans and their communities that lived together. So, you went to the countryside and there was always a guide, a translator and a driver. And even if you ended up having a car there they’d be like, no, they know the roads better. There was always some excuse made to have some type of supervision, basically to just keep and eye on what you’re doing; what’s going on, ya know?
We had talked a little bit before, and you said even in your home you had a constant maid that reported to your supervisor.
Yeah, it was pretty much expected that that’s what they were there for. You’re just assigned one and you’d just call them “kim dong.” And they’re not supposed to give you their names necessarily. You’re not supposed to get close to them. They’re basically there to monitor and see who comes in and out of your apartment. When we first got there our kim dong was constantly asking certain questions. She knows, like our mom doesn’t smoke, and if she had a friend over that smoked she’d notice the ashtray or the makeshift ashtray, or two glasses of wine if we drank or something. You know casually, but constantly prodding and asking questions. Like, was such and such here last night? And we’re like, no (laughs). And at first, when we just got out there, we were like, so this is really just accepted? The other people that we knew, like friends and such who had been there for a couple years already, were like, yeah, this is kind of what goes on, this is how controlled everything is.
So everything was like… well, I can imagine those conversations being a little awkward? Maybe a little suspicious like you don’t want to say more than what they want to know.
Yeah. Again, we were 10, so I’m just freely saying, oh no, it was such and such [here last night]. But she’d be like, oh, but she doesn’t drink. So, it’s like whoa, they really know, and they’re paying attention. We ended up being really close to her. But we had to arrange secret meetings outside of work, because they got rid of her. She probably stopped reporting or wasn’t useful to them.
Gotcha. Well, did it feel like a prison there? Or, I guess compared to where you were maybe it did. I guess you get used to it.
Yeah, you get used to it; but I mean, for foreigners, as long as you’ve got nothing to hide… everything’s pretty cool. There’s no problem. But you can imagine the kind of stress and paranoia and controlled environment the North Koreans are living in. There were little vents that really didn’t blow air. There was no central air, just these little vents and stuff; and it was said there might be little microphones and in some people’s apartments they maybe had set up little cameras in there. And other friend’s apartments, who you think might not be paranoid… everyone had it picked up. Just in case. I mean, you’re not there to take over the government or do anything crazy, but you don’t like that kind of older brother is watching you kind of thing. So, there was like cardboard, wrapping paper and stuff in every room where the vents were. We covered ours up eventually.
Did you know anybody, that you know, was not for the government? You mentioned maybe a couple people that you knew that had spoken out against the government and disappeared.
There were some people that spoke out freely against the government, once you got to know them. They probably didn’t share it with everyone, and we were young. There was this one guy who worked at the… I can’t remember which of the embassies, but he was one of the Korean translators, so his English was pretty good. He would get inquisitive and ask about American culture, and he’d get really excited when we would talk about Bruce Lee and martial arts. Taekwando, being one of the Korean martial arts, they wouldn’t teach it to foreigners. We were trying to arrange for him to teach us, and he was going to do it but it had to be secretly done. And the tradeoff thing, he couldn’t really accept money, so we were just going to share knowledge and talk to him. But I guess, I mean I heard he was a little too talkative and probably said some things after some drinks or something like that at different events, and people would just tell him just calm it down a little bit. And he ended up getting relocated…they always say relocated or moved, but most of the time they were sent. Just like the three journalists in North Korea just found out; they were sent to harsh camps in the countryside.
They where stating that they were relocated?
Relocated, yeah. I mean you knew what happened. They know that you know what happened. But there’s no way you’re going to get information.
I mean, you’re 10 years old at the time. You had a sense that something was amiss?
Yeah, we talked about this. Growing up in New York I never got robbed. I knew one person who got robbed, mugged. And when we were there [N. Korea] at our apartment, the first apartment we got – I forget how soon, but it had to be within the first eight months of living there – we had an intruder like going through our stuff while we were home watching a movie. So, they obviously knew we were going to be in the living room first. It was an extended period of time before this guy came in. He was polite. He had put his sandals in my bedroom.
(laughs) Wait, wait, wait… a guy came in to rob your house, and he puts his sandals on the floor?
Well, snooping. It wasn’t even to rob. It was just an intrusion. It’s like we never dealt with any intrusions in our apartments in New York, and it wasn’t great in some neighborhoods in the ‘80s. But then we moved to North Korea. We eventually saw where he was leaving. He had like one of our mom’s knitting magazines and like a Cosmo magazine in his hand, and he was just rummaging through her office. And he kept saying, “shhh” and we were just learning the language. It was within, like I think the first six months. And we didn’t know what to do. My mom calls up this Ethiopian guy who became a good friend of ours and was one of the few who doesn’t work in any of the embassies, actually. The university had a number of – they were mostly Russian or Chinese – but there were three Ethiopian students and a few others from Cuba and so forth. But anyway, he was the one that spent a good amount of time… he was fluent in Korean. So, we called him up and my mom was just panicking. The guy just took off with the magazines, picked up his sandals from our room and was heading toward the kitchen, which is where discovered how he came in – he broke through the balcony door. My mom forced him out the front door and kicked him out.
But he didn’t have any weapons?
Didn’t have a weapon, he was smiling…
Trying to keep you calm, but at the same time like grabbing stuff?
Yeah. I mean, he was there, just kind of looking around, and we were probably the perfect spot. We were traveling from the U.S., and I think we knew only one other person who traveled from the U.S. Out of all the kids we met, all the families, we were like the closest thing to Americans living in North Korea at the time, even though we were Ethiopian citizens. I mean that was reason enough, but this happened to a lot of people when they first moved there.
Did that kind of make you scared?
We moved to the sixth floor right after that. (laughs)
Empty buildings used to impress visitors for the Socialist Games.
You and your brother…where you scared living there?
Nah. We weren’t scared. I mean, we weren’t scared for our lives or anything like that. But just the lengths that the government will go to monitor, protect and hold on to their power. I mean, we were obviously completely innocent, but it’s just like they still had to send someone. It was kind of like, even at the young age, absurdity. For weeks, we would check under the bed, we’d check cabinets before we went to bed. Just in case, you know? Like maybe there’s still someone out there.
Well, knowing you, I know you love hip-hop, and you know, Michael Jackson just died. You know, pop music…did you bring that with you over from America to North Korea? Did anybody in North Korea… I mean was it like normal for them to hear that kind of stuff? Or was that something new?
Well, Michael was there, especially at that time. You’re bringing it back now. A lot of the videos we were able to get… I think there were like two national channels in North Korea, and it’s mostly like dramas, depressing movies and stuff like that. For anything outside of the world, there were a few embassies that had satellite dishes and you picked up on MTV Asia. At that time MTV Asia was already up there. There were a couple other channels. So we’d get videotapes, and we still have collections of VHS tapes that we recorded off those channels.
It’s like making video mixtapes.
Yeah, we’d make it and we’d share it. Like, oh you got some new episodes of the Cosbys? Or my sisters and my families from the States would send us boxes of movies, and whenever anyone went to Beijing it’d be like, oh here’s a list. And it would just spread around the foreigner community.
(laughs) Spreadin’ the culture around.
Yeah. I mean, the thing was, that was already established. Out of the K-12 schools, there wasn’t that big a number of kids at all there. It was under 50 students all together from K-12, I believe. Mostly around middle school, like our age and stuff. But our friends were Palestinian, Iranian, Cuban, Nigerian, Indonesian, Egyptian – there was a large Egyptian population. We’d play soccer, like that was the common level. Michael Jackson was huge, and we didn’t have to export any of that, but they’d ask, “Did you ever see him in concert?” They’d ask about popular TV at the time; Kurt Cameron was what these Egyptian boys would try and dress as (laughs).
I remember my sisters Tiger Beat’s and stuff. (laughs)
Yeah, exactly. Yeah, that American pop culture was you know, before the Internet was pouring through TV shows, music and stuff. So, we just had a lot of questions about the States and stuff, but there was hardly anything they didn’t know that we knew, regarding music and stuff.
We were born before the Internet. (laughs)
Coordinated crowd display for the Socialist Games, the Olympics for socialist nations
How did we do stuff? I don’t know. Can you speak a little about what were your impressions of the actual people in the country? It’s portrayed here as an oppressed state where everybody lives on the edge of death and starvation and poverty. Is that truth? I mean, it’s different now than ’89.
Well, we were there while the famine was going on. I can’t remember the numbers, but I think it was like upwards of 1 million or 1.5 million malnourished children, and they were doing an amazing job of completely hiding that from foreigners. I was always interested in this kind of stuff while I was out there, and a few years after I was in high school and talking with my mom, I’d found out more and she’d share. I mean, even recently we’ve still had conversations. She’s told me stuff that I didn’t know was going on. That stuff is very hidden. And the children, you just feel for them. I mean, I understand a lot more now as an adult, but just looking back on it and thinking. Kids were still smiling, laughing, having a great time. Some of it was definitely when they’d do these huge performances and they just created all these holidays to celebrate their greatness, and at the same time pouring hatred for the U.S. They work it in to their textbooks. Math problems about U.S. ships sinking and geometry for how far a North Korean ship has to be for a certain range missile for it to knock it down or something. It’s just accepted, so you know that the brainwashing happens, and this is how many years now? Like 60 years of brainwashing, and you’ve got generations of kids that definitely, undoubtedly… why would they doubt their parents, you know?
Being 10 years old and a little older living there, what was your impression of Kim Jong-il? I mean, were there posters everywhere?
Well, Kim Il-sung was still in power, the father. And he was from the beginning, and we were there near the end. I was last there in 1992, and my mom moved out of there in 1993. But she was there at the end of it when the tanks were in the streets, and I remember we were in boarding school in upstate New York. I remember watching and hearing the news panicking like, ok, what’s going on out there? ‘Cause that was one of the first major… like they were showing their military power just having their soldiers march through the streets. My mom was telling me how scary that was, and one of my older sisters and my brother went back to help her pack up everything and move back to New York City. A couple years after that Kim Il-sung passed away. Every room has a painting, picture or a portrait of him hanging, and it has to be like certain walls facing East or West or whatever it is.
Even in people’s homes?
In every home, every classroom, every public space has something. And every single citizen wears a pin, every adult, and even the kids have to wear a little pin with “Our Great Leader, Kim Il-sung,” and in most of the rooms you have to have Kim Jong-il, also. So, that’s how it was back then, and I’ve heard that it’s still the same. It’s both portraits. They still have great respect and celebrate Kim Il-sung, the father.
I wonder if like, every portrait had a video camera, like behind the eyes or something (laughs).
Yeah, there was a hotel that was like a joint program between Japan, some Japanese businessmen and North Korea, and that’s where all the foreigners hung out and stuff; I’m sure that there was stuff there. I mean, there’s a few stories here and there that come back, flashbacks, and we talk about it and it still trips me out, that experience and seeing such an… I don’t know… such an isolated country. I mean again, just talking about the people, it’s them you feel for more. They try and demonize an entire country, but it’s the ones controlling the people that I feel like need to…
How does that shape your worldview? In terms of like, we lived through the Bush era. Now that you’re in your late 20s… we talk politically sometimes, and I think that it seems like you are more suspicious of government than anybody that I know. You think that’s made an impression on you?
Living out there period, I mean the fact that it’s North Korea.
Yeah, it’s extreme.
Yeah, that’s the extreme, but at the same time actually getting to meet the people we met… like I was saying, most of the kids were either the children of the ambassador or their parents worked at an embassy. So, there was that exposure, too. I’m hanging out playing soccer every afternoon with Egyptian kids, and we were like 13 when we left. There were older kids that we became good friends with in their late teens. The Afghanistan ambassador’s kids were awesome. They were like three or four years older than us, but they were very involved in politics because of who their father was. And I remember talking to them and learning from them at age 12, from the ambassador of Afghanistan to North Korea, from his kids and hanging out with them. And at the same time you don’t learn a whole lot about North Korea from the North Koreans. You get the firsthand experience from meeting all these people from all these other countries. I feel like that was priceless. When we started going to the boarding school and we’d… we’d also met a bunch of kids from different countries. We’d go back to the States, so the entire time we’d go to upstate New York for school and then spend the summer in North Korea, and then we’d go back to the boarding school for two out of those three years. So that entire time period as a whole has been very large in shaping my political beliefs, because there’s way too much to learn about historical connections and relationships between countries, within the power structure of those specific countries and not to demonize an entire nation because what it’s leaders are doing.
Well, I think it’s interesting. You know, you guys run The Nile, the Ethiopian restaurant, which is amazing if anyone hasn’t been there. But when you walk in there, it’s like this complete mix of people, and topics range from politics to local, and knowing some back history it kind of makes sense now. You’ve always kind of been real open to when I first walked in there and making sure that I was comfortable and asking some real questions. Like, a genuine interest in who I was. In watching the news, to sort of tie it up a little bit, what are your thoughts about what’s happening with the build up? Is it just another show or do you really have a sense that they might be for real in terms of wanting to get into a conflict?
Umm, I worry about an extremely desperate North Korea. Having learned more after living there, reading into it and talking to other people a whole lot, it’s interesting like outside perspectives, but I feel like it’s been on the fence of really amending the ties with the South and with the U.S. way down the road. I feel like it’s just another show, but I don’t know what the state is exactly right now. If they’re getting desperate and for the hell of it just want to do something crazy, unfortunately, it’s going to be the people who suffer more than anything. I mean, the government leaders will drive around in a black Mercedes-Benz – and new models every year – and live off in the countryside in these huge estates completely blocked off from the commoner, and most of them have no idea. And there’s certain roads you go by in the countryside where you can see, and there were some people that got comfortable enough to tell us – foreigners, not North Koreans – they would find out and tell us like yeah, supposedly that’s one of those roads that if you go down far enough it’s heavily guarded. That’s where some government officials live, and they live like capitalists, know what I mean? And at the same time they preach something else to the people. I think when they stop having that luxury, if that gets cut off, if something happens where you just have a desperate leadership within the North, then I feel like there’ll be some danger. But for the most part, they’ve been shooting off and showing their military might for a long time. So, I just keep hoping that nothing will change and it’ll get crazier.
Well, yeah for a long time it seemed like – well I don’t want to say a long time – but I’m thirty years old, so for as long as I can remember it seemed like North and South have been trying to reconcile their differences, and in the last four years it seems like it has gotten a lot more desperate.