Encountering the DPRK in Beijing

The North Korean embassy is set on a leafy walled campus in Beijing’s wicked and rambling Chaoyang district.  It lies in close proximity to China’s Foreign Ministry, that grey monolith where I work each summer.  The North Koreans have a small fleet of cars, mostly old.  I have seen them driving Nissan sedans, circa 1986, repainted by hand in a dark blue; some of the affiliated businessmen drive minivans of somewhat newer vintage.  On the day Kim Jong-un was supposedly in town, I scoped out the DPRK embassy to find a black and quite possibly broken 1990 Honda civic with mismatched side panels double-parked out front.  Once a new car glided out of the front gate, probably the ambassador’s, a silver Honda hatchback, the driver calm while his superior confidently chatted into a cell phone while resting a black-socked foot up on the dashboard.   For a country that allegedly despises the Japanese, it is interesting how Japanese goods are not only prized, but they spare the same North Koreans the humiliation of driving South-Korea produced Hyundais or, worse, American Buicks. 

A North Korean flag flutters forlornly over a stone national seal, marking as Korean the three banks of dormitories which house maybe a thousand itinerants and their family members.  A handful of businesses in the area cater to their tastes in sunglasses, Gucci knockoffs, and, especially, suitcases.  Here, North Korean poverty and prosperity illuminate themselves.  (Yes!  North Korean prosperity exists for some.  If this notion seems foreign, read some Sheila Fitzpatrick’s work on everyday life of careerists under Stalin.)  Consumption and trade seem to characterize the lives of some of the DPRK diplomats: no self-respecting diplomat’s wife will return to Pyongyang without a couple of huge suitcases stuffed with Chinese or Russian goods.  North Korean kids suck on Coca-Cola bottles as big as their arms, boys play with toy trucks, teenage daughters bereft of Kim pins or self-consciousness stumble out of Sichuan restaurants holding hands and satisfied.  As the girls saunter back to the compound, arm and arm, a North Korean worker between the high brick wall and the flimsy green fence, visible to the street, plucks a certain type of weed which he is apparently intending to cook.  The girls and the omnipresent Chinese keep on walking, but a high class North Korean lady stops in horror, clutching her purse, looking at him with disdain, furious for the potential loss of face.  Society reproduces itself in all the strange expatriate ways.

On one day that “the successor” Kim Jong-un was supposedly in Beijing, two Korean ladies who appeared to be about 27 years old stood outside a Russian salon across the street from the embassy, smoking languidly and talking.  Their rapid awareness of my presence (not to be confused with the muteness which often attends admiration) produced silence as I walked by.  Yet their location, inherent suspicion, and posture told me they were DPRK, in a pose of strategic complaint.  And it seemed they had newly arrived.  North Korean ladies who have been around in China for a period of time tend to be more relaxed around Westerners, in my observations.  (This was made most clear to me a few days later as I entered a little French-style café around the corner from the Embassy and plopped down directly next to two middle-aged North Korean ladies.  Although they were the only other people in the place besides the bored but knowledgeable Chinese servers from Handan, their conversation paid me absolutely no heed and centered around – what else – their sons and how they needed to work harder in school.)  But this made me wonder, for all the reports on Kim Jong Un, why we have heard nothing about his wife or love interest.  If he is married, it is possible that in the long run she may in fact be the real power behind the throne…

From the North Korean embassy, it is not possible to ignore the wealth of China.  The area around the embassy is being progressively swallowed by development.  Chinese townhouses and upscale stores have just been completed on the one side, and a gargantuan and grotesque modernist hotel/international center is rising like some Tyrannosaurus on the other.  If intimidation were needed, the vision of Chinese power is total.  But the North Koreans take it with equanimity and participate in it.  Kim Jong-un does not need some damned tour of Shenzhen to understand how China is blasting off economically, he simply needs to circumambulate the district around his country’s embassy for about an hour.