North Korea's Real Hunger

My Time at an Elite Pyongyang Boarding School

North Korean students look out from behind cardboard used to form a background picture ahead of a mass gymnastic and artistic performance in Pyongyang, July 26, 2013. Jason Lee / Courtesy Reuters

In that relentless vacuum, nothing moved. No news came in or out. No phone calls, no emails, no letters, no ideas not prescribed by the regime. Thirty missionaries disguised as teachers and 270 male North Korean students and me, the sole writer disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher. Locked in the prison disguised as a campus in an empty Pyongyang suburb, heavily guarded around the clock, all we had was one another.

In July 2011, on my third day at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. The students collectively showed up at dinner around 7 p.m., far later than the scheduled 6:30 p.m. arrival. This was unusual since their timing had been exact until then. When I sat down with a few and asked why they were late, they looked nervous and hedged. Then I saw six students wearing khaki army uniforms rather than shirts and ties, and asked the others why. “They’re on duty,” one said. The rest lowered their heads and stared at their food. I asked them what kind of duty, but they would not answer. So I made a joke of it and said, “They look older in uniform, like fine young gentlemen!” At this, their faces softened, and they seemed to forget whatever they might have done that afternoon to make them so tense. The word gentleman always made them blush and giggle.

Teachers in this tiny, locked compound were like superstars. The students competed to sit with us at all three meals. For them, we seemed to be everything—walking English dictionaries, a window to the outside world. Although we were forbidden to tell them anything, they knew we had the answers. Some were bold enough to approach me directly and ask, “Professor, would you care to join me?” Others were so shy that we had to assign them to eat with us.

We had been warned against sitting with the same students more than once. We were told it was so that the

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