Chapter 4 of North Korean defector Kim Jong Ryul’s memoir is entitled “Im Wunderbare DDR [In the Marvelous German Democratic Republic],” and is probably in fact the most fascinating chapter in the book. Continuing now with the translation from Im Dienst des Diktators (previous episodes can be accessed here):
Chapter 4 “In the Marvelous German Democratic Republic”
Shrill and loud, the merchant on the train platform was hawking golden fruit, and Kim Jong Ryul’s interest was immediately awakened. He craved anything edible, even the unknown foods, as the feeling of satiation, of being full, was also rarely known to him. At the train station in Irkutsk, he was suddenly staring at ten golden fruits, the likes of which he had never seen before. Without delay he peeled the skin from the fruit and bit — under the anticipating gaze of his colleagues — into a grapefruit! It was a bitter suprise, the that famous fruit was in fact only sour. Angry that he wasted his worthy rubles, Kim Jong Ryul pitched all the fruits out the window as soon as they left the station for Moscow.
For days he and his North Korean student colleagues sat in a train car moving West. Increasingly, it was strange to understand that he, having been literate for 12 years, was going as one of only 20 students to the GDR to study mechanical engineering [Maschinebau, litterally “the building of machines'”]. In the previous three years he had, with an iron will and an unceasing hunger for knowledge, done what would have taken other students ten or more years. In July 1955, just a week after taking the national examinations, Kim Jong Ryul had been awarded a stipend for study abroad.
The authorities of the communist Education Ministry [where Kim had worked during the Korean War] had had problems even finding a building in which to stage the national exam, given that it was shortly after the war, the capital lay mainly in ruins and ashes, and more than 1000 students needed to take the test. They were the brightest minds in the country. These were the students in line to study outside of the DPRK, so as to learn the newest knowledge and return home with it so as to bring their country forward….[p. 52]
The costs for their study would be borne by the socialist brotherly states, giving student stipends in an act of solidarity with the reconstruction of postwar North Korea. Kim Jong Ryul took the exam without great stress and thought he would study consumer goods technology in Bulgaria. But his mentor at the Education Ministry, the man who had set him up with the print job during the war, had grabbed the young man and told him “You need to study to be a machinist. The best place for this is in East Germany. You are going to be an outstanding specialist [du wirst ein hervorragender Techniker werden]”.
And so, Kim Jong Ryul stood in front of the newly constructed railway station on Pyongyang, one of 64 students with the fortunate task of going to the brotherly socialist lands of Eastern Europe…[p. 53]