Once upon a time, some North Korean students seized the opportunity of exchange programmes with the GDR to defect to the West. Today Germany is ironically providing South Koreans with the passport they need to enter the closed-off country.
According to polls Germans have among the most negative views of North Korea in all of Europe. But until the dissolution of the GDR, East Germans and North Koreans were bound by their countries’ strong ties: both were on the communist side of the ideological divide that followed the end of World War II and defined the world until 1989. They also shared the fate of being part of a divided country, separated in two halves by increasingly armed and monitored borders. However, these similarities start to look superficial when the realities of Korean history sink in. For Korea, the tensions of the Cold War were quickly and horrifyingly realised. The conflict between the North and South between 1950 and 1953 was among the most devastating of the modern era, resulting in four million deaths. North Korea suffered the majority of the casualties, losing up to 15 percent of its population to US-led bombing: by the armistice of 1953 (technically no peace treaty was ever signed), 80 percent of the North’s major cities had been flattened. Pyongyang signed a series of exchange agreements with Eastern Bloc countries, aiming to send students there to acquire the scientific and engineering skills needed to rebuild the devastated country. Between 1952 and 1956, some 900 North Korean students were sent to allied East Germany.
The first North Koreans to come to East Germany did so while the war was still raging, in 1953. “They learned about the truce when they were on their way to Germany – they celebrated on the train,” says Liana Kang, whose father was one of a small group of North Korean students selected to study in the GDR programme. They took a train through China and Mongolia, stayed briefly in Moscow, continued on through what was then Czechoslovakia and Poland before eventually arriving at Berlin’s Ostbahnhof. “They all came without any notion of the German language,” said Kang, whose interest in her own family history led her to complete a doctoral thesis on the relationship between East Germany and North Korea. “And there were no teachers who spoke Korean, or German-Korean textbooks or dictionaries.” Despite the initial language difficulties, by 1956 there were around 350 North Korean students registered in the GDR. In the monoracial, monocultural world of East Germany, the first wave of Korean students stood out. And by all accounts they enjoyed their time – GDR monitors even reported concern about their “decadent” spending, socialising and taste for Western styles – and were very popular, not least among the female students. Soon this group of young, unmarried men, sent far from home, were falling in love and starting families of their own. However, concerns about the liberal lifestyles of these students, along with splits between Soviet-influenced East German values and North Korea’s hardline Juche (self-reliance) form of communism, would forever change their lives. The idea that their students could be developing a pro-Soviet, peaceful co-existence worldview could not be tolerated by Pyongyang. In 1961, the North Korean government suddenly ordered their students to return – breaking off state-sponsored internships and work placements, as well as marriages and families – giving them only a matter of days to prepare for the long train ride home. The student exchange programme continued after this but, as Kang explains, there was never again a generation of North Koreans so free to engage with and explore German culture. “They kept sending students right up until the collapse of East Germany. But the government was afraid of defections, so they only sent PhD students who were already married with families of their own. You can’t defect if you know your wife and children are basically being held hostage.”
But for some, returning was simply not an option. “My father couldn’t go back,” explains Kang. “He came from a quite well-to-do family who owned rice farms and factories. They had collaborated with the Japanese during the occupation in order to keep their wealth, and when the communists came to power they had to go into hiding.” When the first students were selected and sent to Germany, the ongoing war and the desperate need for skilled labour outweighed the regime’s desire for ideological purity. But a few years later, the government began to take a closer look into the students’ backgrounds. In 1958, they were offered free trips home to visit their families – something Kang says was a front for checking up on the background of each student. “My father was doing an internship in Czechoslovakia at the time, so he couldn’t go home – and he was very sad that he couldn’t.” But in fact, he was lucky: only 60 percent of the Koreans who had been brought home were allowed to return to Germany. “As for the rest, the stories they had told about their backgrounds turned out to be false. They were immediately sent to labour camps. So in 1959, when they were starting to recall Korean students, my father knew he couldn’t go back. He was studying in Dresden at the time; he took a train to Berlin, then took the S-Bahn to West Berlin. There was no Wall then, so that was it. Easy.”
There were 21 defectors in all. They all completed their studies in West Germany, and for many years they formed a small community of expat North Koreans. “When I was growing up, we’d meet up for vacations,” Kang recalls. While some eventually left Germany for the US, Canada or South Korea, her father stayed, married a German woman in Aachen and started his own family. Aachen had a considerable South Korean presence, thanks to a Gastarbeiter programme that welcomed South Korean mineworkers, but Kang had a strong sense of being different. “Growing up, my brother and I knew we were North Koreans. We actually liked the concept of being the bad guys. It’s silly, it really is, but it felt more rebellious to be of North Korean descent than of South Korean descent.” As for their father, he always feared that the South Korean secret service was keeping a close watch on him, and that many of the South Korean expats suspecting him of being a Northern spy. The situation resulted in him shutting down. “He never wanted to talk about North Korea or his past in East Germany,” his daughter says. “He was a typical asylum seeker, and even after he got his German citizenship he was told he shouldn’t visit eastern countries as the state couldn’t protect him.” Frustrated with her father’s reluctance to talk to her about that period of his life, Kang found a different way to approach the subject: “I said to him, ‘If I do scientific research about this time, a PhD thesis, will you then talk to me?’ He said yes, and he kept that promise. It has had a very nice impact on our relationship – we’ve become closer.” Her father is nearly 87. This year, he and his daughter made plans to visit North Korea for the first time since he left as a 19-year-old student, but eventually cancelled the trip. “At a certain point he said, ‘Listen, I can’t do it.’ And I can understand. Imagine returning home not knowing what happened to your family.”
A passport to North Korea
Paradoxically, while Germany provided one generation with a means of getting out of North Korea, it’s now providing another with a means of entering it. Born in Busan, South Korea, filmmaker Sung-Hyung Cho has lived in Germany since arriving to study in 1990. “I don’t feel like a South Korean,” she says. “I feel like a Korean. I feel like the two countries are the two halves of my land.” So when Sung- Hyung chose to pursue German citizenship in 2012, it was for a very specific purpose. “I was always interested in making a film in North Korea, but it was impossible. For a South Korean to go to North Korea, or to have any contact with North Korea, is considered treason – you can end up in prison for it.” Her documentary Verliebt, Verlobt, Verloren, released in 2015, tells the story of some of the North Koreans who came to the GDR and follows the journey of several families as they reunite in North Korea. Unable to enter the country and film there herself, Sung-Hyung gave cameras to her subjects to document their own journeys. In the process, a colleague suggested Sung-Hyung apply for a German passport, so that she could visit North Korea and film there herself. “It wasn’t originally my idea, but that’s what I wanted to do. I don’t want to be South Korean anymore.” Using her new citizenship status, Sung- Hyung has been able to film two documentaries in North Korea: Meine Brüder und Schwestern im Norden, which follows the everyday lives of several North Koreans; and Zwei Stimmen aus Korea, a comparative piece on two young sisters, one from the North and one from the South. While strict government controls are challenging, she is confident that viewers can “read between the lines” to see the reality of life in the North and, most importantly, see the average North Koreans as normal human beings. “As a child I saw images of North Koreans with red skin and horns, like devils. I really thought that they weren’t humans, more like monsters. But as soon as I arrived in North Korea, I saw they were people – just like you and me. And not only people – they were Koreans, whose language I could understand, and whose cultures and tradition I shared.” Kang agrees that “the distrust goes very deep for South Koreans. It’s very sad and it’s doing even more damage.” For Sung-Hyung, the legacy of the GDR and North Korea’s connection offers a different way of viewing North Korea – and a hope for peace. “It’s significant to me to be promoting peace in Korea from Germany. We have a shared history – Germany was divided too, but it managed to reunite without spilling blood. We can take inspiration from that.”
In bed with North Korea
After reunification, the North Korean embassy at Glinkastraße 5-7 in former East Berlin closed its doors, and didn’t reopen until 2001 when the EU resumed its diplomatic relations with Pyongyang. With much of its building complex unused, the revived embassy started renting out its surplus property to a private hostel business, the four-storey 440-bed Cityhostel Berlin. The hostel became the center of a legal battle: paying rent to the embargoed country – according to local press €38,000 a month between 2008 and 2017 – breaches UN/EU sanctions against the North Korean regime. The embassy has since claimed to have terminated its rental contract with Cityhostel. Yet dozens of thousands of tourists continue to spend their Berlin holiday on Glinkastraße – mostly unaware they’re nightly leaving the German sector… for North Korea!