Dreams of the North Koreans – no longer personal

I had dreams. Of becoming a teacher, because that was the only profession I was familiar with for the first 18 years of my life.
And later on, of becoming a lawyer or a doctor, because that’s the Singaporean dream – to be paid well and be established in society.

Those dreams didn’t come true for me. As I grew older, my aspirations changed.

Having had a chance of a lifetime to visit a country that has its door shut to the rest of the world, I wondered about the dreams of the North Koreans. I wondered since their fates are sealed and their lives planned for the moment they are born; be it housing, education, or their job.

And so my journey to discover their dreams began.

“I want to be a famous dancer.”

This is the dream for 9-year-old Kim Il Hyang, one of the lead performers in Pyongyang Primary School No. 4’s talent showcase. She astounded us, spinning like a top for minutes on end without so much of a pause. Before we were herded to the next stop, I grabbed the chance and got her to pen her dreams down on a scrapbook.

Perhaps it was difficult to put a dream in writing, especially in such a short, hurried moment. I was told by our minder and the teacher that it had a “spelling error”.

I began to wonder if it was an authentic dream, but I shoved these doubts to the back of my mind thereafter. Why would it not be?

Lee Song Hyuk was next to take over my scrapbook. The 23-year-old is studying in Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a privately funded university jointly planned and constructed by the two Koreas. Students here can surf the internet, and access information from the World Outside.

As we walked into the room filled with undergraduates using their computers, I walked towards Lee to see him reading an article on Wikipedia. Knowing that we would be herded off in a few minutes, I could hardly contain my curiosity and jumped onto my request just after exchanging a few sentences with him. There was no time for courtship.

He showed signs of awkwardness and reluctance, but eventually gave in.

“I want to be a famous scientist for my Fatherland,” he wrote in English.

After leaving the room, I wondered if he has read anything about his own country, written by the World Outside.
The doubts I had crept in again. Surely, that awkward smile and reluctance are good enough signs for me to doubt what they had written.

Could reading about the World Outside alter one’s dreams? If so, then what more would the impact of travelling be?

Kim Ok Chol, 22, and Jo Hyang Mi, 21, have just returned to Pyongyang not long ago from their study trip in Beijing, the big brother next door that had opened itself to the world over 30 years ago. Only the elite would have the opportunity of crossing the North Korean border-legally.

Both of them showed signs of awkwardness penning down their vision for the future, and they had to refer to the previous two aspirations.”I want to be a famous diplomat for my great nation,” Kim wrote in English, whereas Jo penned  in Chinese: “I want to be an outstanding interpreter.”

I went ahead with the photo taking, my repeated cues to smile ignored.

As someone from the World Outside, my guess is that like in any part of the world, dreams could very well become reality for the chosen youths like Ok Chol and Hyang Mi. They would just have to keep their dreams in closer reality check.

Kang Wei 


2 responses to “Dreams of the North Koreans – no longer personal

  1. What a fascinating post, and what a unique opportunity indeed! I How long were you there?

    I really appreciate what you’ve done in this post – great imagery, and an insightful exercise too.

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