This is a story that I promised to do for Nightlake for winning my Story Premise Challenge that I held back in May. I apologize that it’s been so long. This story is similar to what she had asked for, although not exactly, so I hope it will be acceptable.
Interview with a Traitor
It wasn’t easy, but I finally got it: an interview with the UK’s most notorious defector, Steven T. Blacker, in his new home in Wonsan, North Korea. I had been to North Korea once before but had not been able to track him down. This time, I was told through government channels that he would agree to an interview. I flew to Pyongyang through Beijing and met my guides: the soft-spoken but sharp-eyed Miss Kang and the frequently-smiling, quiet Mr. Ryu. We drove to Wonsan the next day along a country highway sparsely filled with trucks, military vehicles and the occasional passenger car.
Steven Blacker’s apartment was on the tenth floor of one of the taller apartment buildings in the city and his living room window looked out over Wonsan harbor. He was a slim, red-haired man with an easy smile and a friendly nature. He introduced me to his wife, a North Korean woman named Kim Sun-Nam who bowed, but did not smile at me.
Wonsan, North Korea [*]
I had been hoping to interview Mr. Blacker in private, in order to get at some of the motivations he had for defecting, as well as some of the actual living conditions in North Korea—something he might not be comfortable talking about in front of government minders. I soon realized that privacy was going to be impossible. My guides not only insisted on staying during the interview, but also recording the conversation.
So, with their tape recorder and my digital recorder sitting on the table, we began. Mr. Blacker’s wife brought us beer and snacks but I was anxious to begin.
“Thank you for allowing me to meet with you,” I said, trying to get the formalities out of the way. He merely nodded. “So, how is life here?”
“It’s good,” he said. “Really good.” When I pressed him to elaborate, he said, “Life is much simpler here. I teach English to government officials and help them as they need it and besides that, I’m left alone to just live my life. I do some writing, photography. I have a car and we can travel more or less freely in the area. It’s a good life.”
I thought of the high price that good life had cost, but I decided to get into that later.
“I’ve heard bits and pieces of your story, Mr. Blacker—how you came here originally undercover and eventually defected. Do you mind telling me again, in your own words?”
“Not at all,” he said, taking a swig of beer. “As you probably know, I worked for MI-6 for ten years. I came here posing as a photojournalist. The idea was to pretend to make a documentary about rural North Korean life but actually try to recruit local contacts and slowly try to build a network of informants. I was here for about a month.”
“So what made you want to defect?” I asked.
“A lot of things, I guess,” he said. “For one thing, The DPRK is nothing like we’ve been told. We’ve been force-fed a diet of propaganda about the ‘Axis of Evil’. If you ask anyone in the West who the evilest people in the world are, they will probably say North Koreans. We have this mental image of a whole country working towards the downfall of the rest of the world.
“But when I got here, I saw through that in a second. They’re just people, like anyone else, and some of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever met. I have known people back in the West with more money and possessions than some people here could even dream of, and yet they hoard it all for themselves. I learned true generosity here.”
“So you made the decision after only a month?” I asked.
“No, although by the time the month was up and I returned home, the idea had been planted in my mind. It was a tiny seed of discontent with my life and the crazy, audacious idea of changing it. Haven’t you ever wanted to just leave it all behind? Forget the daily grind and bustle and stress and find a simpler life?”
“But you could have done that anywhere. Why didn’t you just retire honorably and move to Fiji or somewhere?”
He shrugged. “I fell in love with the culture and the people here. If you’ve never lived here, you think of the DPRK as a government, or an ideology, or a threat. I saw the people and the rich culture they have. It hooked me.”
“Do you ever regret the decision?” I asked.
For a moment, I thought I had caught him off guard. He hesitated and I could tell that he was debating what to say. So, he did have some regrets. After a few seconds, he said, “No. No, I don’t regret it. I might have done some things differently though, if I had to do it all again.” I asked what he meant, but he refused to elaborate.
“It was reported that you defected in Beijing, at the North Korean embassy. Why didn’t you do it here, when you in the country?”
“I came here with a team—if I had declared my intention to defect here, my teammates would have been imprisoned. It was just easier out of the country.”
I thought it was time to get into some of the deeper issues, or at least poke at them and see how Mr. Blacker would respond. “How would you respond to people who call you a traitor?”
He leaned forward and set his beer bottle down heavily on the table. “Look,” he said, pointing a finger at me. “I didn’t come here to sell out my country. This was a personal choice, and it reflected a change I wanted to make in my own life. That’s all.”
I thought his use of the phrase “personal choice” was highly ironic, considering we were in a country where personal freedom was severely limited. “Did you give top secret intelligence to North Korea?” I asked.
He looked annoyed and I thought he was going to refuse to answer, but then he just glanced off to the side and shrugged slightly. “I didn’t bring intelligence with me, if that’s what you mean. I answered their questions—that’s all.”
“But surely, you must have given them classified information—”
“Do you have any other questions?” he asked, cutting me off.
Hundreds, I thought. “What do you think of North Korea’s human rights abuses?”
“Western propaganda,” he said, although I thought I saw his gaze flick momentarily to my guides. “You want to talk about human rights abuses? What about the US? You’re an American, right? Sure, they imprison people here for plotting against the government, but what country doesn’t? The DPRK has never attacked another country ever. Can you say that about the US or the UK? The US is currently engaged in conflicts in over seventy countries, either officially or unofficially. A lot of them were ones they started.”
“That’s debatable,” I said, “but what about the Korean War?” I asked. “The North invaded South Korea first.”
“That was a civil war though,” Mr. Black countered. “Even today, both the North and South consider Korea to be one, temporarily divided country. During the war, the North was not invading a foreign country; it was merely attempting to put down rebellious factions in its own country. No one asked any other country to get involved.”
“Still, do you deny that there are concentration camps here where they torture political prisoners and their families?” I glanced over at the government officials. I could tell they were getting a little restless and Miss Kang looked on the edge of jumping in to stop the interview.
“What about Guantanamo Bay, or the other secret prisons the US and NATO have scattered around the world? The public doesn’t know about all of them, but trust me, they’re there. Is that any worse?”
“So you don’t deny the North has concentration camps?” I asked. Miss Kang stood up but I waved for her to sit back down. “Fine, fine. I take back the question.” I sensed that the interview was going to end soon, but if I asked any of the tough questions I wanted to, I feared that Miss Kang would step in. “Is there anything you miss from back home?”
“Of course,” Mr. Blacker said. “Life is never perfect. I miss my family and I miss the foods I grew up with. I miss Christmas.”
“One last question,” I said. “How do you see yourself, Mr. Blacker? What do you see when you look in the mirror?”
“I see an ordinary man who was brave enough to follow his convictions,” he said. “I wouldn’t expect anyone else to do what I did, or at least not many. As for myself, I think I did the right thing.”
“Even though you betrayed the trust of your country to do it?”
“You have to be true to yourself first,” he said.
“Even when you have to break oaths that you have sworn?”
“People break their oaths all the time when they get divorced,” he said. “It’s painful, but sometimes it’s necessary. My situation is not ideal, but we each have to live life as we see best.”
After we left the Blackers’ apartment, my guides and I had dinner in Wonsan and then drove back to Pyongyang as it was getting dark.
“Are you satisfied with your interview?” Miss Kang asked.
“I think it went okay,” I said. I had not gotten what I’d expected, but now, looking back, I wasn’t entirely sure what I had been expecting.
“He is a good man,” she said. “He has a strong spirit.”
“Would you think that of someone who betrayed your country and gave its secrets to your enemies?” I asked. She did not answer.
I thought about Steven Blacker all the way back to New York. He had made some good points, but I still could not make myself agree with him. In my mind, he was still a traitor—someone who had betrayed the trust of his country. Still, he had made me think. The world is not as black and white as we might believe, or wish it to be.