Monique Macias spent 15 years growing up as an exile in Pyongyang and her school days firing Kalashnikov rifles at the same prestigious military academy where North Korean leader Kim Jong-il earned his first stripes as heir to the nation’s seat of power.
“All my childhood memories start from when I arrived on that plane in Pyongyang,” said Macias, the youngest daughter of an African president-turned-dictator. “I know how Koreans think and how to talk to them because they taught me. They made me.”
Earlier in the week, state media in North Korea criticized a report by a US think tank on scenarios for the collapse of a reclusive country with a grim record of famine, prison camps and nuclear brinkmanship — an event that Macias sees as unlikely.
“There are people in North Korea who know that this is not the right way to live,” she said in Seoul. “I don’t think it’s going to collapse easily. What I’ll say is that it can open up like China, but very, very slowly.”
Chirpy, bubbly and now in her 40s, Macias has published her memoirs: I’m Monique, From Pyongyang in Korean about an unusual upbringing decided upon by her father Francisco Macias Nguema, whose reign in Equatorial Guinea ended with his trial and execution in the late 1970s.
Shortly before his death, and with few friends left, Macias Nguema turned to North Korea for help and sent his wife and children to Pyongyang, where they would spend the next decade and a half.
The relationship between the two fringe states was not unusual in the Cold War tension of the time.
North Korea strove to build ties with smaller nations stuck on the periphery of the splits that pitted the US and its allies against the Soviet Union, as well as China and other communist countries.
Being one of very few black people in Pyongyang and living in a strange country taught Macias to see the world differently. This, she said, is what inspired her to publish her memoirs now, with tensions between the Koreas high and relations at a low.
“Although North and South say they want unification, they don’t actually know each other as people,” she said. “If we want unification, we have to bury prejudice.”
Macias, who left North Korea in 1994 and spends time with family in Spain, still speaks Korean as her first language after those formative years in Pyongyang with children of the elite.
On social occasions, she said, the country’s founding leader, Kim Il-sung, would nag her to study hard, which made him seem like a “typical Korean grandfather.”
At the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School, the uniform worn by Macias and her sister and brother was a military-style jacket with officer’s pips on the epaulettes and a green cap emblazoned with a shiny red star.
Her education, which she speaks highly of, was peppered with survival courses and drills.
“The first week, all of us were so hungry after shooting, climbing and running every day that we ate our weekly rations in three days and, for the other four days, we were hungry,” she said.
“We learned. We learned we had to organize ourselves,” she added.
The school traditionally took only boys, but Macias said a class was created for girls so she and her sister could study together. Each girl was given a Kalashnikov to train with and had to learn how to strip, clean and reassemble it.
“Most people could shoot guns when they were 18 or 19. But because I was put in the only class with girls my sister’s age, I was able to shoot when I was 14,” Macias said. “I could probably still shoot it, but I don’t remember how to strip it.”
Macias recalls rumors in 1989 of the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and subsequent massacre in Beijing reaching the hallways of North Korean colleges.
“I felt university students in Pyongyang at the time were thinking about change too,” she said. “Although they [North Korean media] didn’t report it, a lot of people knew about it.”
Under the North Korean education system, anti-Americanism became a constant factor in her understanding of the world as a child, something that made meeting her first American a big shock on a rare trip to see relatives in Beijing.
“At that time no one there spoke English and I was lost. I saw a white guy passing and I asked him if he spoke English, but when he started talking he had an American accent,” Macias said. “I was so scared. I thought ‘Oh my god, it’s an American.’ My palms were sweating and I just started to run. He was shouting: ‘Hey, stop! I’m not going to eat you.’”