Mrs Kim and I

'Mrs Kim' always dressed well.
27 March 2014
'Mrs Kim' always dressed well.


After a recent tour to the 'Hermit Kingdom', EMMA CAMPBELL asks whether North Korean elites are responsible for the regime's atrocities.

Some details have been changed in this article to protect identities.

My tour guide, ‘Mrs Kim’, takes a call on her mobile phone.

At the end of the conversation she has a look of both happiness and exasperation on her face. It was her teenage daughter on the other end, Mrs Kim explains.

Her daughter is very bright but needs to work harder in school if she wants to get into a good university. This would be a normal scenario for any worried mother, except for the fact that Mrs Kim is my tour guide in North Korea and therefore a member of the country’s elite.

The phone call and a number of other conversations that I have with Mrs Kim highlight the contradictions and complexities in the politics and humanity of dealing with terms such as elite, regime and party inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

Mrs Kim is certainly part of an elite. She is a party member trusted to take care of visiting foreigners – viewed by many as a grave threat to the country and the regime. She lives in Rajin-Sonbong, named in a recent survey of North Korean refugees as one of the country’s most desired addresses.

One of her brothers is a government official in Kimchaek and the other is a government official living in Pyongyang.

Mrs Kim is well dressed and does not like me talking to the street children or to the old ladies who come up to me on the street.  The latter are hunched and dark skinned from their years of working in the fields.

I suspect from her way of speaking to them that this is as much to do with issues of class and snobbery as it is to do with trying to maintain political control.

However, to have made it to her position in the tourism department, I assume that her family must have close ties to the party and the regime apparatus.

It makes me wonder about Mrs Kim’s husband and family and their role in these ‘government’ jobs. What do they do? What kind of power do they have? How has she achieved such status?

I also wonder how families like Mrs Kim’s fit into the government and the 'elite’. What responsibility should they carry when the time comes to assess the horrors of the DPRK regime?

Yet there is another side to Mrs Kim.

She is from Chongjin, a city on the Northeast coast of the DPRK which was especially badly hit during the famine of the mid-1990s. I asked Mrs Kim about that time.

She looked me in the eyes and replied simply “it was very hard”; for a short moment I saw her relive the suffering. 

Even though she dressed well, Mrs Kim wore the same outfit every day. When we bumped into a North Korean female translator from Pyongyang accompanying a group from an NGO, Mrs Kim admiringly explained that this translator’s height, fair skin and fashionable dress reflected her Pyongyang origins.

Mrs Kim was extremely hard working – at the hotel early in the morning and with us until late in the evening carrying out the exhausting task of guiding, managing and translating for a group of demanding, curious and photo-taking foreigners.

The pressure was on her to provide us tourists with an interesting trip, while ensuring that we did not do anything illicit under North Korea’s tight rules controlling the movement and behaviour of visitors.

She was a kind lady and family was obviously very important to her. Despite the relative success of her siblings and family within the North Korean system, she rarely saw her family members.

One work trip to Pyongyang a year allowed her to meet with one of her brothers, and very occasionally she saw her mother in Chongjin. She explained to me, rather sadly, that it was not possible for her whole family to meet together in one location at the same time – travel in North Korea was just too expensive and complicated.

In the wake of the United Nations’ Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea, and details of the terrible atrocities that have taken place, thoughts are just beginning to turn to ideas of how those involved in these atrocities might be identified and punished.

Mrs Kim represents the complexity of this question.

Who are the elites and who is responsible? What knowledge did she and others like her have of the horrors that have taken place? And what responsibility does Mrs Kim and her family – and the many families like hers that make up the professional and government class of DPRK – carry for perpetuating the suffering of so many North Koreans?

South Korea and the international community – not to mention North Koreans – have barely begun to address these questions, yet there are already confessed prison guards from the DPRK living in the South. The release of the UN human rights report reminds us of the urgency of the issue.

It is now time to discuss how Mrs Kim and her family, and the many mid- and low-ranking officials in the DPRK regime, will account for their role in the North Korean system.

Dr Emma Campbell is the Korea Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre and was recently in North Korea for a study tour.

Updated:  16 October, 2013/Responsible Officer:  Web Communications Coordinator/Page Contact:  Web Communications Coordinator