Home PoliticsAfrica News From one dictator dad to another: Monica’s lost childhood in North Korea

From one dictator dad to another: Monica’s lost childhood in North Korea

by Julia Llewellyn Smith

Monica Macias was just seven when her African despot father left her with another feared leader, Kim Il-sung.

On the dust jacket of Monica Macias’s memoir, Black Girl from Pyongyang, there’s an extraordinary photograph of her – then aged 5, in a white, frilly dress – flanked by the two men she considers her fathers. To her right, in a suit and tie and leaning on a cane, is her biological father, Francisco Macias Nguema, known as Macias, the first president of Equatorial Guinea, whose entry in Wikipedia describes him as “one of the most brutal dictators in history”.

On her left in a Mao jacket is the man who effectively, though distantly, brought her up: Kim Il-sung, then the “Great Leader” of North Korea, whose human rights record was deemed “catastrophic” by Amnesty. “I also consider Kim Il-sung my adoptive father,” she says. “He raised me. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have had an education. Who knows what would have happened to me?”

Today, Monica Macias lives in a south London suburb and works on the shop floor of a well-known clothes chain. No customer could even begin to guess her extraordinary childhood divided between two countries that were among the worst in terms of political rights and civil liberties, effectively parentless from the age of 7 and brought up in a military boarding school.

Monica Macias (centre) with her family and the first couple of North Korea in 1977. On her right: her biological father, Equatorial Guinea’s then president Macias. On her left: the North Korean founder Kim Il-sung.

Monica Macias (centre) with her family and the first couple of North Korea in 1977. On her right: her biological father, Equatorial Guinea’s then president Macias. On her left: the North Korean founder Kim Il-sung.

his first visit to North Korea took place in 1977 when Monica, her older sister, Maribel, brother, Fran, and her parents were on a state visit. Francisco Macias was trying to strengthen the ties of his nation – newly independent from Spain – to the communist bloc. “I remember arriving at the airport,” says Monica, 51. “There was a crowd shouting and waving, a red carpet. It took my breath away. That is my first real memory.”

She had no idea two years later that she would return to Pyongyang, this time just with her two siblings and her mother. She would never see her father again. At first, the family stayed together in a flat in an upmarket district, but out of the blue her mother announced she was returning to Equatorial Guinea without her children. Monica spent the next 15 years of her life in North Korea, forgetting her native Spanish and Fang languages, to this day dreaming and thinking in Korean, which, despite having lived all over the world, she considers her identity.

From one dictator dad to another: Monica’s lost childhood in North Korea
Monica Macias was just seven when her African despot father left her with another feared leader, Kim Il-sung.

Knowing his life and family were in danger from his many enemies, Macias had entrusted his three youngest children to Kim Il-sung’s care. He had already sent his eldest son, Teo, to Cuba to become a ward of Fidel Castro. After Macias was overthrown in a coup by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang, and put on trial and executed, Castro sent Teo home “to the lions’ den” and Maribel rushed back to defend him. Monica could not fathom why her mother had abandoned her other children. “I don’t remember her leaving. My sister later told me she explained she had to go back to Guinea, but would try to come back. All I know is she disappeared suddenly from my life. I was angry. And sad.”

The siblings were all enrolled in the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School on the outskirts of Pyongyang, a boarding establishment for children of party members – all fatherless – where Kim’s nephew, who had a direct line to him, was deputy director. Another photo from the time shows the trio standing to attention in a uniform of peaked caps and belted, brass-buttoned blazers with epaulettes.

It was a boys’ school, so on Kim’s orders 20 girls were brought in to make the Macias sisters more comfortable. Monica learnt Korean rapidly, but she was bewildered by the institution’s rigidity, its 5am reveilles followed by an hour’s exercise and the way her classmates asked permission to go to the lavatory. When she complained to a teacher, the tiny child was told, “Remember, you’re a soldier.”

Macias with siblings Maribel and Fran at Mangyongdae Revolutionary School.

Initially, this effectively orphaned child cried herself to sleep. At one point she went on a hunger strike and ended up in hospital for a month. “I just wanted my mother,” she says.

In her teens, her class spent a month living in tents in the hills, scaling walls, learning to shoot pistols and dismantle Kalashnikovs and surviving on rations. Monica was always acutely aware of her place in such a homogeneous society. “I struggled because I wanted to become Korean,” she says. “Sometimes I felt like an animal in the zoo. In school, the kids called me ‘sheep wife’ after a cartoon character with curly hair. They weren’t unkind. They had just never seen a black person before.”

The regime was harsh and she rebelled. Once, missing her siblings, who by now had moved to university halls, she ran away in the night, walking for hours to find them, which resulted in a huge dressing-down. “I was very lonely,” she says. She was banned from spending time outside school with her friends. It took years before Kim Il-sung granted her a special permit to leave school at weekends to visit her siblings and two former schoolmates, the sons of the president of Benin, who by then were living in a hostel for foreign students along with the handful of Russians, Chinese and Syrians studying in Pyongyang.

With time, however, Monica began to consider herself Korean. Today, sitting in her publisher’s London offices, what’s noticeable is her gentle manner, avoidance of eye contact and soft Korean accent.

With time, however, Monica began to consider herself Korean. Today, sitting in her publisher’s London offices, what’s noticeable is her gentle manner, avoidance of eye contact and soft Korean accent. (The book will be published in Australia in May.) “I remember once when she’d been understated about something, just exclaiming, ‘You’re so Korean!’ ” says a British friend who has accompanied her and previously lived in the South Korean capital, Seoul.

By the time her mother returned for a visit to Pyongyang, when Monica was about 10, the two had no common language. “My memory had blocked all the trauma and my life before Korea. I just saw a beautiful lady, but one who had nothing to do with me. I didn’t want to hug her. My sister had to mediate and translate. My mother was crying, but I was angry because she’d left, and I didn’t want to speak to her. Now I can understand how she felt, but then …” Tears start to run down her face and her voice quivers. “Sorry,” she gulps. Relations remained strained until her mother died in 2014.

Not long after that encounter, the siblings were summoned to meet an African man. Monica couldn’t understand the conversation, but witnessed a heated exchange between him and her sister, which culminated in her dragging Monica and Fran out. She learnt they had just met an envoy of their cousin, who had overthrown their father and was now Equatorial Guinea’s president. He remains so to this day, which makes him the longest-serving leader in the world. He wanted to bring the children “home”. They refused.

“Before that, I’d assumed my father wasn’t alive because my classmates were fatherless as well, and I’d invented a reason why: natural causes. But I never asked until that moment when I saw my sister look so severe – she never raised her voice. Now I was in shock. I thought families didn’t kill each other. From that point, I was full of hate towards them. It went on for years until I learnt to forgive.”

Macias with a school director during military training in North Korea.

Gradually, Monica discovered that her brother Teo (and later Fran when he returned to Equatorial Guinea) was incarcerated in the country’s notorious Black Beach prison on numerous occasions. “Kim Il-sung could have done the same and sent me back, like Castro sent Teo, but he kept his promise to my father, even though it had no advantage for him.”

How often did Monica see Kim? “At the beginning, quite often. He was charismatic. He would nag me to study hard, like a typical Korean grandfather. He’d say, ‘The best weapon you have is education.’ ” Although his nephew monitored Monica day to day, Kim observed her progress, encouraging her to drop one dream of becoming a pianist and instead to study textile engineering to help her country’s fledgling economy.

“That’s what your father wanted. Study for Guinea,” he told her.

So Monica enrolled in North Korea’s University of Light Industry, where she shared a hall with other foreign students. She began to have inklings of how limited her environment was and that not all the world might be like North Korea. She was shaken when a man she realised must be a surveillance agent – a concept she’d heard of but previously dismissed as a fantasy – harshly told her as a Korean she could not spend time with a Syrian friend. “I started wondering.”

“He was charismatic. He would nag me to study hard, like a typical Korean grandfather.”

Afterwards, that same friend sat on a copy of the official party newspaper bearing the sacrosanct image of Kim Il-sung. Horrified, Monica berated him. “He said, ‘You think that way because you grew up in Pyongyang.’ I was like, ‘What’s wrong with growing up in North Korea?’ I couldn’t believe how he ignored the rules I’d been trained to follow since childhood. But that triggered a new thinking. I began to see Pyongyang with new eyes.”

Monica resolved to visit another of her cousins, now Equatorial Guinea’s ambassador in Beijing. Arriving in the Chinese capital, using her Equatorial Guinean passport, she could find no one who spoke English (which she’d studied at school). A white man approached her and asked if she needed help. Monica, hearing his US accent, was petrified and ran away. “My reaction was normal. It was how I’d been brought up. The West was evil, especially Americans. There couldn’t have been any other way. That was the consequence of being brainwashed.”

The trip sowed more doubt, not least after she ended up singing karaoke with tourists from South Korea, people she’d been brought up to pity as American puppets. She returned to Pyongyang, but was questioning her hermetic society even further. “It was as if I had walked onto a movie set and was reciting my lines of dialogue from an approved script.”

On graduating, she resolved to visit her maternal grandfather’s country, Spain. Kim Il-sung’s verdict via his envoy was, “Monica, are you strong enough to live in that harsh capitalist world?” She decided to leave her “sheltered, counterfeit existence”.

In her naivety, Monica had no idea that arriving in Spain with no visa meant immediate deportation to Equatorial Guinea, a country she had no memory of, where her family were under daily threat from their cousins, who now held power, and Obiang was reported to be pocketing tens of millions a day of his country’s oil revenues while the population lived in fear and poverty.

“I went back so full of fear. I thought they might kill me. The culture was so different, so loud. People were so brash. And I was shocked by the poverty.” Relations with her brother Teo were cold. “I just locked myself in a room until I had my Spanish visa and could leave.”

In Spain, for the first time, she heard people badmouth her two father figures. She heard Macias described as “the dictator of dictators, a despicable human being”. “It was the most difficult thing to think my father was a killer. I never said my full name to people.” One man followed her on the street. He said he knew who she was and would kill her.

Slowly her life improved. Monica spent 10 years in Zaragoza, a city in north-eastern Spain, and Madrid, working in shops and as a nanny. In 2004, she returned to Pyongyang with an organised tour. “It was like going back home, but Pyongyang was stuck in a time warp.”

In Beijing, singing karaoke with South Koreans, people she’d been taught to view as US puppets. Such meetings made her question the society in which she’d been raised.

She moved to New York. US president George W. Bush had named Iran, Iraq and North Korea the “axis of evil” and many Americans were horrified to learn of her origins. She was distressed by friends’ comments about the country’s famine from 1994 and 1999, estimated to have killed between 2.5 million and 3.5 million people. “They were talking about it as if North Koreans deserved it because they had a different system,” she says.

Although Monica liked New York, she was uneasy about living in “the quintessence of capitalism”. “Everything was just about money, money.” After three years she moved to Seoul, then China, then back to Equatorial Guinea before arriving in London in 2016, where she worked as a maid in a hotel in Park Lane.

The following year, she began a master’s degree in international studies and diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. In her thesis, published in 2019, after interviewing more than 3000 people who knew Macias, she argued he was not guilty of “the heinous crimes of which he was accused: of mass murder, of the orchestration of massacres, including at Black Beach jail, torture, forced labour, burning of villages and embezzlement of public funds”.

Instead, she concluded, Macias’s reputation was the result of a powerful campaign by his enemies. She maintains that if her father had stolen his country’s oil wealth, her mother would not have sold plantains on the streets to survive, and she, his daughter, would not have had to support herself through low-paid jobs. “I am able to say my full name now.”

Many have tried to make Monica denounce both Macias and Kim Il-sung, but she refuses. To her, she insists, Kim Il-sung was her saviour, of whose abuses of human rights she was obviously oblivious. More broadly, she contends no country is intrinsically “good” or “evil”. “I have long wondered whether any nation has earned the moral authority to lecture others.”

She would love to go back to North Korea, but knows that’s virtually impossible. For now, she’ll stay in London. “I don’t know if anywhere can ever be my home.”

This is an edited extract of a story that first appeared in The Times magazine (UK).


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