Memories of an African Student Forced to Study in North Korea During the 1980s

Aliou Niane was born in Guinea West Africa, but due to decisions he had no control over, he found himself in North Korea from 1982-87. He is currently writing his memoir in French about the years he spent there and generously agreed to an email interview. Niane’s story is interesting, if not for the insider’s look he can give into what life was like for a foreigner living in North Korea during the 1980s, but also for the information he can provide about the historical ties between Guinea West Africa and the DPRK, a relationship that has not been sufficiently documented in English.

Niane’s years north of the DMZ were the result of an agreement between his country’s first president, Ahmed Sekou Toure, and Kim Il Sung. For those unfamiliar with Ahmed Sekou Toure, he was a hardline communist who reigned with an iron fist using fear, hunger and a strong police state where trust did not even exist between friends, family members, students or the military. According to Niane, everybody feared for their lives during his reign as president.

Niane told me that in 1982, Toure attended Kim Il Sung’s 70th birthday celebration in Pyongyang. It was there that Kim offered Toure the opportunity to send 10 Guinean students to be educated in agricultural technologies at Wonsan Agricultural College. There, the students would learn juche ideology on shared community agricultural methods. Guinea had already adopted government controlled farming practices and food distribution in the 1970s but this would be the first time Guinean students would be instructed according to North Korea’s particular system based on juche.

Upon his return to Guinea, Toure asked his Minister of High Education to provide him with a list of his 10 best students from the country’s agriculture universities and faculties. These chosen 10 would be sent to North Korea.

Niane told me that at that time in Guinea, all scholarships were signed by the Ministry of High Education, thus making the scholarships for the 10 chosen students, which included himself, documents signed by a presidential decree. “To be honest, I was excited as many of my age would have been back then,” he wrote to me via email. “Many Guineans were ignorant about the reality of North Korea as there was propaganda about North Korean diplomacy within my country. Niane said that despite his efforts of learning as much as he could about his future host country, all he could find on North Korea in French were magazines and a few propaganda books on Korean socialism or “successes” achieved under Kim Il Sung.

“Does that mean I would not have gone had I known the reality of North Korean life? No. Did I have the choice not to go? No. Could my family have interceded on my behalf with the request that I study in another country? No. So what could I do? Nothing but go study for my country, for the socialist system that nurtured me for 20 plus years. That is what we called “˜communism democracy,’ or the right of the establishment over the right of an individual,” he said. “It is also known as the power of the politburo over the citizen. Having no choice, the only thing that remained was to go and study and get the best out of it.

Toward the end of the 1982, Niane and nine other Guinean students found themselves at Wonsan Nongop Daihak (Wonsan Agricultural College). “I spent months and even years crying whenever I was alone during my time there,” he wrote. “But despite the difficulties I endured, I am very grateful for the level of education offered to me by my great Korean professors. When Westerners show a bias toward North Korea’s education system, I always tell them how North Korea has one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Almost everyone can read and write hangul. I think one of the reasons I am still interested in North Korea is that I wish to see my former professors and North Korean citizens live in a free world like the one I am enjoying today.

After five years, which included one year of Korean language study and four years in agricultural management economics, Niane graduated with excellence from the college and was decorated as one of the best graduating students. He was even offered the opportunity to teach juche idealism in his home country of Guinea, but he declined. He had a better idea. “My goal was to escape to Japan, which I did when the DPRK Education Ministry officially released me to the Guinean embassy authorities in Beijing where it was expected that I’d return to Guinea.

Niane said that from Beijing, he went to Hong Kong and from there to Tokyo where he lived for 13 years.

“When talking about North Korea, I have to let people know that I have a passion for the country, but I feel pain for the wonderful professors I left there.

“If it was not for North Korea’s totalitarian regime, I believe the people there would have the creativity to really develop their country,” he wrote. “But that would first mean the collapse of Kim’s Communist dynasty and the ultimate reunification of the country.

“I have no shame today in telling people that North Korea gave me the last part of my college education. But I also tell people how my time there shaped my conviction that all people should live free from any form of dictatorship.

Niane added that his time in the DPRK made him realize that the North Korean regime operated similar to Toure’s regime in his country Guinea. Both governments ruled by fear and public executions.

“I do not want it to appear that I am supporting North Korea over the South or the South over the North,” he said. “I just want to see a unified Korea like the one under the banner of Kokuryo

What follows is our lengthy interview about Niane’s years in North Korea. Due to the sensitivity of some of my questions, he did not answer everything I asked, but he did answer most, providing very interesting details about life as a foreign student in North Korea during the 1980s.

What was life like for you in North Korea? Could you describe a typical day?

I arrived in Pyongyang as one among 10 Guinean students on Monday morning, December 1982. I left in September 1987.

After a week in Pyongyang where we underwent screening and procedural paperwork by the [North] Korean Ministry of Education, we were sent to Wonsan Agricultural University in January 1983. There, we lived in a newly constructed four-story building which was on the campus reserved for foreign students.

By the time we arrived, students from Madagascar, Mali, Tanzania, Equatorial Guinea, Cambodia, Ethiopia, the Kingdom of Lesotho, and civilian and military scholarship students from Zambia were already studying the Korean language. In total, we were about 80 students from mainly African countries, however the Cambodians were later transferred to another university unknown to me.

In North Korea, the school year starts in September, but we Guinean students didn’t arrive until late December that year. All ten of us studied the Korean language for seven months (January ““ July 1983) and were in the same class from September 1983. Our Korean language teacher was a wonderful person, a very dedicated professional, however he was not a linguist and could barely speak French. The Korean-French dictionary available to us was old and not suitable for academia. We had to rely on Korean grammar books written for Korean students, not ones designed for foreigners. After seven months of intensive course study we were able to handle basic conversations.

So during the first year, we studied Korean language from 8:00 AM ““ 1:00 PM. In the afternoon, most students played soccer but I played basketball and also did some track & field. We had a very boring routine: School in the morning, sports in the afternoon and homework at night. We certainly did close to 1,000 hours of book reading, homework, research, etc. Every Saturday night we played cards (French belote). Our card group consisted mostly of Guineans (including myself), one Malian and one Malagasy (Madagascan) student.

However, we weren’t happy in our new surroundings.

In the summer of 1983, following a North Korean plane crash in Guinea, a high level Guinean delegation was sent to Pyongyang to present official government condolences to Kim Il Sung.

We students took this opportunity to meet the four visiting members of the Guinean government which included Mr. Mamady Keita, Minister of Higher Education and a member of the Politburo and the Party’s Central Committee; Mr. Louis Senainon Behanzin, Minister of Information and Ideology and also a member of the Party’s Central Committee; Mr. Habib Diallo, Ambassador of Guinea with residence in Beijing; and Mr. Mamoudou Toure, First Secretary at the Embassy of Guinea and also in residence in Beijing. (Even though Guinea had a diplomatic relationship with North Korea, it had no consulate in Pyongyang, so the ambassador and his staff all lived in Beijing.)

We students went to our meeting with the visiting delegation with one goal in mind: to get out of the DPRK. We thought the meeting would be our chance for transfer to another country, hopefully somewhere in Eastern Europe, or to return to Guinea. We were just innocent kids who did not know the meaning of la raison d’état, the right of the State over the individual citizen.

The day of our meeting with the Guinean authorities, we boarded our old Hino bus as usual (it was a bus reserved only for foreign students by the North Korean Ministry of Education), expecting it would take us to the meeting. But that day, North Korean officials told us that for security reasons the bus was not allowed in the vicinity of the foreign guest palace. After hours of fruitless discussions and arguments, we agreed to take the vehicles the Communist Party had sent to pick us up in — Mercedes Benzes — which were waiting for us in front of the Kumgansan Hotel in Pyongyang.

The five German luxury cars took two students each to the palace of the delegation. Judging by the name of the compound, it looked to be a government restricted area with well-trimmed lawns and the flag of the guest country in the front yard. It also seemed kind of like a working retreat for the Communist party leaders.

The Guinean government members were informed of our arrival and went on to witness “how well” Guinean students were being treated in North Korea. These ministers, along with the ambassador and his first secretary, looked through the windows and saw us getting out of luxurious Mercedes Benz cars.

At our meeting, we looked around and quickly realized that the highest ranked person in the room was Mamady Keita, the Minister of Education who at that time, was a member of the Politburo and Central Committee of the Guinean Unique Party. He had supreme responsibility of the Guinean education system.

After only five minutes, (the time it took us to read the manifesto we prepared against North Korea’s political system, the provision of rudimentary equipment and the juche-based education system), our list of complaints was long enough for our ministers to let a bunch of crazy kids lament on their difficult conditions without a slap on the face. We were interrupted by Senainon Behanzin, the Minister of Information and Ideology who said, quote: “You are extremely dangerous to the Socialist system you are supposed to defend. Turning his head toward the Minister of Education and the ambassador, he said that we were the lost kids of the Guinean education system. “This is worrying,” he had said. “What if their manifesto is leaked to the enemies?” (South Korea, Japan, the U.S. or Western Europe). We would be an embarrassment to the Guinean government and its people.

The Minister of Education, Mamady Keita, then stated that Guinea had lost many of its children in the past and losing a few more would not change a damn thing in the course of the Socialist agenda. Then he turned to us and said that he was offering us two choices: Stay in North Korea and study for the country and the Guinean revolution, or take the flight with them back to Guinea. But he quickly warned us. Quote: “I have enough seats for 10 students, but mind you, if you get onto my aircraft your fathers and mothers will never hear about you again. He once again asked: “Who wants to study and who wants to get onto the airplane?”

We all responded that we would go back to school and study. I guess we were immature in thinking that we would be immune from government anger with our request. But before we were dismissed from the meeting, the Minister of Education instructed Ambassador Habib Diallo and the first secretary of the embassy to give us a blank sheet of paper and have each student write a motion of fidelity to the Guinean government, the country and the Socialist regime which was erroneously called the Guinean Revolution in comparison to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. We were also to fill out a separate document with the names of our parents and their professions. I did the paperwork and completed it with the sentence, “Prêt Pour La Revolution,” or “Ready for the revolution,” a popular slogan that was required to be on any official document.

I was 23 years old and knew that my chance of getting out of North Korea was over. I believed my fellow students also felt the same way. It was then that I vowed to study hard and get out of the country.

For the record, Mamady Keita was known by most Guinean politicians and military insiders for his taste for blood. He was a cold-blooded killer. He once said he shot a former female minister until smoke came out her nose.

Just to emphasize how lucky we were, Keita had the power to terminate our scholarships right there and have us executed for treason. He could have easily sent 10 new students to Wonsan just to maintain a good diplomatic relationship with Pyongyang. But luckily, history decided otherwise.

In less than a year after that meeting, on April 4, 1984, the first Guinean president, Ahmed Sekou Toure, died from a heart attack while on the operating table in Cleveland, Ohio where he had been urgently transported due to serious heart problems. One week later, his bodyguard took over power through a military coup. In September of that same year, Mamady Keita, along with many of his fellow ministers, was executed by firing squad without accusation or any judicial procedure, just the way he used to do to others. As the French proverb says, “He who uses the sword will perish by the sword.

A few years later I read a memoir called “La verite du ministre. In English, “The Truth of the Minister,” written by Abdoulaye Portos Diallo, a former Guinean Minister of Sport, Art and Culture, who spent 10 years of his valuable life in the Guinean concentration camp where he was tortured by his fellow ministers — again Mamady Keita’s name was among the interrogators. According to many accounts and memoirs, Mamady Keita enjoyed killing. This was the dark side of my country. I am grateful I survived it.

Could you move about freely within North Korea?

No, movement between cities was restricted. This law applied to both North Koreans and foreign students. We were not to leave campus alone without prior authorization. Needless to say we didn’t always obey that rule. But we were not allowed to go to the next village for snacks or to meet the people who lived there. The university was 6-8 kilometers away from the city so a Hino bus owned by the DPRK Ministry of Education used solely by the foreign students traveled twice a week between the university and Wonsan city.

The bus was made in Japan — a red and white striped Hino. However the Hino sign was removed and replaced by a rectangular metal piece with the inscription: 평양 버스 공장 (Pyongyang Bus Factory). We knew Hino buses, we had a few of them in Guinea.

In the city off campus, we were permitted to go to only three places in the summer and one in winter: An old hotel in Wonsan City called Songdowon Hotel, Wonsan Beach, and a national park called Songdowon Park. (You may recall the strategic location of Wonsan Beach during the Korean War.) We were under supervision all the time by a party member, as well as a person who was deemed responsible for our daily activities. Sometimes a university administrative clerk accompanied us. Basically, we were followed all the time by two or three Koreans from different institutions.

But I really did love Wonsan Agricultural College (원산농업대학) which was an old German church converted into a school following the World War in 1948. There is a mountain at the back of the foreign students’ campus very close to the building and separated by a large rice farm meticulously managed in the valley.

However, one thing I noticed off campus is that there were no pictures in most places except ones of Kim Il Sung, or monuments and bronze statues of his figure, and these were inside hotels or other authorized places.

Also, we were not to be served in any restaurant – only the student campus cafeteria or a designated hotel restaurant and no one was to be allowed in the cafeteria at the same time as the foreign students — not even professors or members of the Communist Party or higher authorities from Pyongyang’s Education Ministry.

We were not to mingle with other Korean students during our first year, but from the second year onward, we had Korean classmates sent to live with us in our dormitories with the pretext of helping us improve our Korean language skills and help us study. We complained that we were only one year from graduating from Guinea agricultural engineering, and therefore we did not need help with math and science. In fact we were far more advanced than the young Koreans in some subjects because we had the equivalent of a Master’s degree in our country prior to receiving the scholarship to study at Wonsan. (Because the Guinean government wanted to promote a good image by sending only its best students to study abroad, we were often 2-3 years older than our classmates and were in some cases learning in Korean what we already knew in French.)

We could not dissuade the Communist Party representative from putting Korean students among us in our dormitories. These students were carefully selected and kept a daily log on every good or “bad” thing we did. I finally understood that such actions were not limited to the foreign students; teachers were put under the same scrutiny as well as anyone who had access to the campus or classrooms.

Except the Korean students permitted to live and study with us, all other students avoided us. No doubt they avoided us out of fear of punishment. Of course, we made a few friends off campus in the neighboring villages and city, but those open-minded, nice people were always in danger of being arrested by the police or of being denounced. For North Koreans, meeting foreign students without prior authorization was considered treason, meaning that it was viewed as an act of passing sensitive information on to a foreign organization and therefore punishable by hard labor for the “offending” Korean and expulsion for the accused foreign student. However, no students were ever expelled during my five years in North Korea.

How did North Koreans treat people who were not Asian?

Officially we were all respected, we were all called Comrade _____ (Comrade and last name) as in Soviet style. Only Korean teachers and doctors were called (선생님) “mister,” “professor” or “doctor.

North Korean people were generally respectful to foreigners but that did not mean we were treated like residents. We understood they were curious to know more about us, but in a totalitarian state like the DPRK, we ultimately were not trusted. We were (secretly) under observation by civilians, the police and the military. And we knew it because we were told during the first meeting with the Ministry of Education of North Korea that we would have to adapt to our new life and environment which might be different from Africa.

In the city, a lone student would not have a quiet walk. For one reason or another someone (generally authorized people only) would come to us and offer to help guide us get back to campus with the pretext that we were lost, even if we said we were not. During that time (1982-1987), there was no public transportation between the university and Wonsan that could take us to or from the campus. Therefore, the only way to get back to the university was to walk 6 ““ 8 kilometers. As for the Hino bus we used, it only traveled twice a week to the three specific areas which we were allowed to visit.

Did you ever feel you were in danger?

Not once. I never felt I was in danger in the sense of the Western world. But we all knew we were valuable propaganda assets to the Communist Party in North Korea and to the Guinean government which was expecting aid from the North. To show people how wonderful North Korea was, the propaganda media would tell North Korean citizens that they had very good lives. As proof, they were told to just look at how many African students were living and studying in their country.

The main problem for North Koreans was that they could never admit that we could not be brainwashed at age 22 with a degree in college from Guinea. I would argue with most Koreans about Karl Marx and Lenin, but they would be surprised or offended that I did not mention Kim Il Sung because according to them, he developed the best philosophical theory ever thought by the greatest thinkers in the world. (When it came to class work, I soon realized that if I were to get a good grade, it’d be best to know when to argue and when to give people the answer they expected.)

How you would assess education in North Korea, back then at least, for agriculture students?

As I was in the faculty of agricultural management economics, I certainly had more juche courses than other students. I also had more hours of Korean history, mainly on the history of the Korean Labor Party (ie. Kim Il Sung), WWII and the Korean war, which was censored. For my classes, North Korean history books all started in 1945 – anything before that date was available only at the library and not accessible to all students. Only authorized people would have access to books considered sensitive. Most history books were classified and not part of the curriculum. I got the chance to read a few of those books, but I was often admonished for reading such old ideas (늙은 사상).

We had excellent professors who were well educated but limited by the Korean Labor Party on what they were allowed to teach and the way to teach it. As we studied with other young Korean students, the professors had to be careful what not to say and how to handle questions from foreign students.

At the Department of Agricultural Management Economics, we had (박사) PhD or 부 박사 (PhD Aspirants) lecturing. Most of the professors were in their 50s or early 60s and educated in Japan (Chongryong); they were called by the Japanese Zainichi Chosen Jin. Other professors were educated in one of the several Eastern Communist blocs of the Soviet Union.

Korea has a long history of education. I have no doubt I acquired quality education from those professors who were under tremendous pressure and doing the best they could. I know there are stereotypes about North Korean education, but it is a mistake to think their education is not as good as the rest of the world’s.

How did you access outside information about what was happening in the rest of the world?

My roommate bought a radio cassette on which we listened to Radio France International. Radio signals from foreign channels (SW) were scrambled and difficult to hear. Only North Korean channels were easily available but we soon learned what times to listen to foreign news. We often shared what we heard on the radio with one another over lunch or dinner.

Once I become fluent in Korean, I purchased a Sanyo music stereo which allowed me to listen to FM Chung cheun banson (Ch’unch eun radio FM) in South Korea. I got into trouble several times because the Korean student who lived with me opposed it. He would come and pull the plug out and would not listen to South Korean pop music or news. We were told that any news or music from South Korea was banned, but I guess French radio may have had little impact on Korean psychology.

Honestly, I never blamed my Korean roommate for his actions and the frequent conflicts I had with him, because I understood that in North Korea, there was no rationale, only emotions. The North Korean authorities could only admonish me for listening to foreign radio, but that was not the case for Korean nationals. If caught, my roommate could have been sentenced to years in prison or a concentration camp or hard labor in the coal mines for willingly listening to South Korean radio.

Needless to say, they never succeeded in stopping us (foreign students) from listening to South Korean radio, RFI (Radio France International) and BBC World News (for the English speaking students).

Did you ever meet any other foreigners while in North Korea besides your classmates? What were they doing there and how were they living?

I saw Charles Robert Jenkins once at the Foreign Diplomatic Shop in Pyongyang. He is the GI who deserted to North Korea. When I saw him, I did not speak English at the time so I had no chance to speak with him. He spoke with some Zambian students who told us he was an American. Jenkins’ story is well-known in Japan (where I later lived) because he married a Japanese woman who was kidnapped by the North Koreans in Niigata. He is now leaving on Sado Island in Japan.

We also met students from Togo (Africa) and at the University of Hamhun there were students from China, as well.

I also met the sons of living or dead African presidents who unfortunately I cannot disclose the names of for security reasons.

How did North Koreans your age live? What was life like for them?

Military service was mandatory in North Korea, so most Koreans my age were either students or serving in the military.

What was the biggest lesson you learned during your time there?

The human being is resilient, and if we put our mind to overcoming any obstacle in life, one day, we can certainly speak of that time in the past tense.

I therefore made it my mission to find the purpose of my life on earth during my five years in North Korea; I understood my tears would not solve my misery. My goal was to make my way to the free world and let everyone know what happened.