When you’re not allowed to express anything in the open, you become good at reading what is unspoken. In one of their personal letters to me, a student wrote that he understood why I always called them gentlemen. It was because I was wishing them to be gentle in life, he said.
On my last day in December of 2011, the day Kim Jong-Il’s death was announced, their world shattered. I had to leave without a proper goodbye. But I think they knew how sad I was for them.
Once, toward the end of my stay, a student said to me, “Professor, we never think of you as being different from us. Our circumstances are different, but you’re the same as us. We want you to know that we truly think of you as being the same.”
Today, if I could respond to my students with a letter of my own, which is of course impossible, I would tell them this:
“My dear gentlemen, It’s been a bit over three years since I last saw you. And now, you must be 22 — maybe even as old as 23. At our final class, I asked you if there was anything you wanted. The only wish you expressed, the only thing you ever asked of me in all those months we spent together, was for me to speak to you in Korean. Just once. I was there to teach you English; you knew it wasn’t allowed. But I understood then, you wanted to share that bond of our mother tongue. I called you my gentlemen, but I don’t know if being gentle in Kim Jong-Un’s merciless North Korea is a good thing. I don’t want you to lead a revolution — let some other young person do it. The rest of the world might casually encourage or even expect some sort of North Korean Spring, but I don’t want you to do anything risky, because I know in your world, someone is always watching. I don’t want to imagine what might happen to you. If my attempts to reach you have inspired something new in you, I would rather you forget me. Become soldiers of your Great Leader, and live long, safe lives. You once asked me if I thought your city of Pyongyang was beautiful, and I could not answer truthfully then. But I know why you asked. I know that it was important for you to hear that I, your teacher, the one who has seen the world that you are forbidden from, declare your city as the most beautiful. I know hearing that would make your lives there a bit more bearable, but no, I don’t find your capital beautiful. Not because it’s monotone and concrete, but because of what it symbolizes: a monster that feeds off the rest of the country, where citizens are soldiers and slaves. All I see there is darkness. But it’s your home, so I cannot hate it. And I hope instead that you, my lovely young gentlemen, will one day help make it beautiful.