It was a sunny December day in one of the most closed countries in the world, North Korea. I was walking down the street of a suburb of Pyongyang together with “Onni”. Onni means big sister in Korean and it’s a term of respect. It’s what I used to call her, even if I knew she was way younger than me.
During my trip to North Korea, we became good friends. She was a part of the North Korean elite, she had just finished her university studies and her dream was to one day become a diplomat.
That day I told her how kids in Sweden start practicing critical thinking and source criticism in kinder garden. How we learn to question things from a very early age.
– Questioning a source, what does it mean?” she asked me.
She stared out over the street stretching kilometers ahead of us with only two cars in sight. It ended with a mountain that had a political message on the top.
You’re always surrounded by political messages in North Korea. They are everywhere; on buildings, on billboards, on statues, in factories, in workplaces, in schools, even on mountaintops.
– Is it like brainstorming? She then asked me.
Brainstorming, I wondered.
– Hmm… Not really. Since brainstorming is a sort of a group activity, I said.
I didn’t reflect upon how strange it was that she knew this term. Brainstorming, something you do in a group, in order to solve a problem by spontaneously sharing ideas.
Definitely not a common activity in North Korea, where thinking is supposed to be done only one way, the way that is taught by the state.
But Onni had a mind of her own. She had humor, she was witty and she was curious. She used to listen for a very long time and then she asked questions.
She also dressed really nicely. Her style was a mixture of a 1950s film star and a modern old lady. She also had one of those old mobile phones with a lid, but without a screen.
Mental illness in North Korea
We started talking about South Korea, the country where I used to live, and how high the suicide rates are there.
It was then Onni told me that in North Korea suicide does not exist. She also explained that there is no mental illness in the country either. I asked her if there is any sexual harassment in North Korea.
– No. Nothing, she said.
When we got back on the bus we sat down together with a few guys from England and Australia. The bus rolled out of the town, and after we passed a car with speakers blasting out messages to encourage people to work hard, we got back into the conversation.
I told Onni and the guys that now there is at least one person with mental illness in North Korea since I am visiting.
I explained that I am bipolar and that that means that sometimes I am very happy and sometimes I’m very sad. And that I take medicine every day.
Onni looked at me very surprised, telling me I don’t mentally ill at all and we all laughed.
– Different, but not mentally ill, she joked.
They all thought that I was different. I could speak Korean, I was often all over the place and I had pink hair.
Also at Pyongyang airport, I met a lot of people, a Korean choir and some western tourists, so all over Pyongyang, we kept on bumping into people that were happy to see me.
This became a huge mystery for my North Korean friends which eventually turned into the joke that I was the most famous person in North Korea, AFTER THE LEADERS. It was very important to add the part AFTER THE LEADERS when making this joke. And so we did.
Then the oldest man in the group started speaking and told Onni that many times mental illness and depression is something you can’t see, something that people often hide.
– It’s like being sick on the inside, he explained.
She looked at him and I added,
– I used to feel ashamed for having this illness. Today I don’t. I try to talk about it a lot to support others.
By now, we had driven out of the city and onto the empty road leading back to Pyongyang. In the fields, we could see people working, wearing not enough clothes. I wondered what they were working with since it was December and the ground was frozen.
That’s when the guy from Australia joined in.
– Did you ever hear about metoo? he asked her.
– No, what is that? she asked.It was a global movement against sexual harassment that started in 2017, he replied.
I was thinking, how on earth are we going to explain something that took place on the internet for a person that doesn’t know what the internet is?
But the guys started to explain to her how the metoo movement connected women from all over the world online, how they shared their personal experience openly, and created a global protest against sexual harassment.
Then they added that sexual harassment, sexual abuse and rape is a huge problem in all countries and that it probably happens in North Korea too.
She looked at me and I understood that I had to explain more in-depth what sexual harassment and sexual abuse are. When I finished, she asked if it ever happened to me.
– Yes. Many times. Ever since I was a child, I said.
And I explained that I have met thousands of women from all over the world who share similar experiences as me.
She didn’t really understand, but when I explained what sexual abuse is with some examples from my life she suddenly said,
– Is that why you are sick?
I must say it’s not very often people surprise me, but at this moment, I was lost for words. After thinking for a while, I said,
– I don’t really know. Bipolar disorder is thought to be something genetic – something you’re born with. But a trauma, a terrible event in life – such as sexual abuse, the death of a family member, or some other hurtful or stressful experience – can be a trigger, something that starts the illness. It’s very hard to know these things.
She looked at me in a troubling way and said she was sorry that bad things happened to me.
I said bad things happen to people all over the world and many people are suffering even if we can’t see it. That’s why we need to be nice to each other. She agreed.
The Juche Tower
A few moments later we were standing on the top of the Juche tower, 170 meters up in the sky, overlooking Pyongyang.
It must have been below -30°C and it looked like a thin layer of ice was covering the entire city, resting peacefully on the many different colors of the pastel-painted houses.
On the other side of the Taedong river, you could see trucks driving around on Kim Ill Sung square, the square you always see on tv. There we had been some days earlier passing by the workers preparing ice statues for the big New Year’s Ice Festival.
At the top of the tower, we were taking photos and filming, messing up, re-recording, and laughing. Suddenly the other people had gone down with the elevator and we were left alone up there.
Onni got a little stressed, but I didn’t mind. It was the most spectacular view and when we didn’t laugh or talk, I could hear quiet sounds from a far traveling across the motionless river.
What is an ATM?
Another day this was our conversation. I mentioned something about ATMs and she asked me:
– What is an ATM?
– It’s like a machine in a wall where you put in a plastic card and a code and out comes money.
– Money from the wall?
I took her to a wall and showed her how it works pretending to put my code in and taking out money and she studied my movements closely.
The Last Party
My last evening in Pyongyang was New Year’s Day and we had a dinner party at a beautiful venue. After a few hours the curtain went up and a North Korean girl band started performing. During the performance, I left the table with my western friends and went to sit with the Koreans.
Just as I sat down beside Onni and the men started pouring me drinks, the band started playing “Happy New Year” by ABBA.
– Onni! This is a song from my country! I can’t believe they know this song!
– Really? Is it from Sweden?
– Yes. It’s a song by a group named ABBA.
– Yes. I promise!
I become so emotional I started crying and she made room for me on her chair. There we sat close together, holding hands, laughing, drinking, and when I started singing the chorus of the song the old Korean men at the table started singing with me, even if they didn’t know the words. Onni laughed and tried to sing a bit too.
For days in North Korea, I didn’t have any contact with the outside world. I lived as isolated as they have done their entire lives, but during those 3 minutes, through a small tiny crack, unexpectedly and with so much power, my world poured into hers.
The rest of the night we acted like we were just two girls at a party, but deep down we both knew that when the music would stop and I would leave North Korea, my world would slowly pour back through the cracks to never again pour back into hers.
That night she promised me that night that she would never give up her dream of becoming a diplomat and that she would never stop believing in peace.
She also made me promise that I would come down to the lobby 8 am in the morning to say goodbye to her. Later, when I got back to the room, I set 20 alarms on my phone.
8.02 am I woke up in a panic. I didn’t have time to get dressed so I just ran down to the lobby in my pyjamas, but when I got down there she was gone.
They told me that she had already left, and quickly I decided to take a chance. I didn’t ask for anyone’s permission to leave the hotel, I just started running. I ran through the huge lobby, through the revolving glass doors, and out in the freezing January morning.
The snow was so cold under my bare feet and I had no idea of where to even start looking for her. I ran down a hill towards a big parking lot full of people.
– Onni! Onni! I yelled.
Then I finally saw her through the glass of one bus that was just about to leave. I pounded on the bus and she saw me. She got out of the bus, so surprised to see me standing there in my pyjamas.
We hugged quickly and I handed over a huge bag full of makeup, beauty products, clothes and gifts from Sweden that I brought with me. For a few seconds we said our final words and then the doors closed and she waved to me through the window.
Then the bus disappeared and so did Onni.
Coming back from North Korea I have thought about Onni many times.
When I was in Onni’s age, in my early 20s, I was not as open-minded as her. I knew much more about the world, but I had a lot of intellectual prestige.
Many times, I was desperately clinging onto my ideas, defending my beliefs, and focusing on convincing others.
I talked too much and listened too little.
Many times, I found it more important to make other people see the world from my perspective, instead of trying to do the opposite.
Today I’m trying to be more like Onni from North Korea.