The African President’s daughter who was adopted by a North Korean dictator

Monica Macias, Sightseeing in the Forbidden City in Beijing – Duckworth

In a brilliant comedy skit from 2008, David Mitchell and Robert Webb played two SS soldiers who noticed that their hats were decorated with skulls and began to suspect they might be “the bad guys”. In 1989, Monica Macias really experienced this uncomfortable feeling while she was at university in North Korea. Long taught to regard President Kim Il-sung as a godlike force, she was horrified to see a visiting Syrian student casually sit down on a newspaper with the face of the Great Leader printed on the front page . When she told him to stand up, he just laughed at her unconditional devotion to authority and sighed that a girl brainwashed by the North Korean regime would never be able to think independently.

But Macias proved him wrong. Despite the temptation we all feel to cling to traditional worldviews, she began to question what she had been taught and “saw fences in my head that were previously invisible to me.” And her extraordinary memoir, Black Girl from Pyonyang, prompts Western readers to ask similar questions. Because Macias, who has lived in Africa, America and Europe since leaving Pyongyang in 1990, thinks we are all equally guilty if we oversimplify the assumption that we are the good guys.

Her “unusual” life story certainly gives her a unique vantage point to comment on global divisions. Macias (who currently lives in London and works in a clothing store) was born in 1971, the fourth child of independent Equatorial Guinea’s first legitimate President, Francois Macias. Fearing for her safety and anxious to strengthen his country’s ties with the communist bloc, he sent her to North Korea, where she was raised by the man she calls her “adoptive father”: Kim Il-sung. Shortly after she arrived in Pyongyang at the age of eight, her father was accused of committing atrocities and executed by firing squad – although no one told her he was dead.

Young Monica felt abandoned by her family and struggled to fit into Korean society. At first she rebelled against military discipline, but eventually preferred Korean culture to her own. Their great leader had promised their father that he would raise them and send them home to serve their own country. So he hired a Spanish teacher to make sure she could keep up with her native language, but she refused to learn it and clung ever more closely to Kim’s dictatorial regime, until the incident involving the Syrian student and the newspaper.

After that, Macias decided to give up her “sheltered, fake existence” in Pyongyang and visit her maternal grandfather’s country, Spain. “Are you strong enough to live in this harsh capitalist world?” Kim Il-sung asked her. She felt it was her. But she experienced a series of destabilizing shifts in perspective as she began to travel the world. In Spain (where she worked as a nanny) she loved sexual freedom but struggled with racism. In China, she eventually spent time with Americans and South Koreans and realized they weren’t “evil,” as she had been taught. But a visit to Seoul taught her that South Koreans were as blind to the humanity of the people in the north as their northern friends were to those in the south. In New York (where she designed and sold jewelry), she was depressed by the American obsession with money and began to suspect that capitalism erected as many “fences in the head” as communism. In America, people struggled to pay for basic medical care, while a visit to Equatorial Guinea taught them that African superstitions are just as opposed to life-saving care. Her experiences made her wonder “whether any nation has acquired the moral authority to teach others.”

Monica Macias (center) with her family and North Korea's first couple, Kim Il-sung and Kim Song-ae - Duckworth

Monica Macias (center) with her family and North Korea’s first couple, Kim Il-sung and Kim Song-ae – Duckworth

London initially offered Macias a good balance between the American individualism she admired and a more Asian commitment to good manners. After being nicknamed ‘Sheep’ (because of her African hair) in Korea and facing much more abusive racism in Spain, she was pleased to find that people could identify as ‘Black Brits’ when applying for jobs in the UK. “This may not seem unusual to the aborigines,” she writes, “but it was both revolutionary and gratifying to me… It seemed like one could thrive in London regardless of one’s background.” Unfortunately, she taught a stint as a chambermaid in one Park Land Hotel that a woman with tan skin and a mop in her hand would not be treated with the respect she expected.

In doing so, she tried to tell her story and balance her personal experience of Francois Macias and Kim Il-sung as friendly men with their western reputation as brutal dictators. In Spain, she met a former advisor to her father, who told her her father was a decent man – although they split when her father insisted on making himself president for life. In London, Macias began an in-depth study of her father’s regime for a master’s degree in International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. She claims she was determined to find out the truth at all costs. She interviewed 3,000 witnesses to his regime and concluded that he was not directly responsible for the “heinous” crimes committed during his tenure. She argued that if he had embezzled funds, her mother would not have made a living selling plantains, nor would she have scrubbed toilets. While readers are free to draw their own conclusions, she is certainly correct in pointing out that it was not in the interest of either her father’s coasters or the expelled Spanish colonists to defend his honor.

She also continues to defend Kim Il-sung (whose human rights record Amnesty has condemned as “disastrous”), argues that life in North Korea was pretty good before the famines of the early 1990s, and cites defectors who now regret leaving south and want to return. However, she doesn’t really acknowledge that her own experience of Pyongyang was very privileged and did not reflect the general population. For one thing, she was able to leave when the food ran out.

But you don’t have to buy all of Macia’s conclusions to admire her poise. As social media algorithms propel us all into bubbles that “protect” us from the uneasiness of differing worldviews, we could all learn a lot from their lifelong quest to challenge their own prejudices. She remains open-minded and makes no claims to absolute truths. We can also apply their commitment to critical thinking on a smaller scale and always wonder who has a vested interest in spinning which stories. We could still decide that some people really are the bad guys. But we should all constantly question the symbols on our own hats.

Black Girl from Pyongyang is published by Duckworth for £18.99. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit us telegraph books

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