In London, at least, Monica Macias can disappear into the crowd. When she arrived in the city in 2014 she found work as a hotel cleaner. The work was physically demanding, and her bosses made her life so stressful that her hair started to fall out. She sought legal advice and was told that as a black woman and an immigrant it would be prudent to stay quiet.
The other chambermaids were also mostly recent immigrants, and if they were curious about this quietly determined woman with a gentle, hard-to-place accent, they would never have guessed her background. The accent is Korean, her first language, via Spanish, her second. Her father was Francisco Macias Nguema, the first president of Equatorial Guinea, west Africa, but she spent most of her childhood in North Korea. In 1979, when she was seven, her father was deposed and executed by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, a kleptocratic dictator who is still president today. Macias and two of her siblings were left in the care of their father’s ally, the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang. (Her mother returned to Equatorial Guinea to protect Macias’s eldest brother, Teo.)
[See also: From the NS archive: North Korea]
Macias, 51 years old, dressed in a high-necked floral dress and cardigan, was friendly but circumspect when we met at a publishing house in Richmond upon Thames to discuss her memoir, Black Girl from Pyongyang. She finds that journalists often twist her story to fit into a narrative about the evils of North Korea or the sins of her fathers, but she cannot. She barely remembers her father, and she spoke to Kim, her adoptive father, only a few times – but she is grateful he kept his promise to educate Macias and her siblings. Macias’s book, which follows a Korean-language memoir published in 2013, is an attempt to describe her strange, peripatetic life, and her efforts to better understand her past. She told me she hoped people would finally see her life “how it is, without making it up or trying to find what is not there”.
The book offers a fascinating glimpse into life in North Korea where, after her father’s death, Macias and her siblings were sent to military boarding school. The school had been all boys, but on Kim’s orders around 20 girls, all also fatherless, were enrolled as companions for Macias and her sister. Macias’s classmates were two years older than her so that they would be roughly her height. Macias became so homesick that she stopped eating, and she was hospitalised for a month.
When I asked her for her fondest memories of North Korea she described returning from hospital and realising her classmates were happy to see her. “It created a special moment,” she said. And yet, because she was a foreigner, her friends needed special permission to socialise with her outside of classes. Once, her best friend requested permission for Macias to meet her mother in the visiting room – another fond memory. It was also bittersweet. Macias asked if she could visit her friend’s home, but this was not allowed.
Kim appointed his nephew to take care of Macias and her siblings, but when she finished school she received a rare phone call from the North Korean leader. He asked what she wanted to study at university, and she replied that she wanted to become a pianist. “He said no, basically,” Macias told me. “I need to study something useful for Guinea, because that’s what my father wanted.” Macias studied textiles instead.
At university she discovered literature. She mostly read the Russian classics but found Korean translations of Jane Austen and Shakespeare, too. She couldn’t finish reading Hamlet, because the parallels with her own life were too disturbing. “But what it showed me is my story isn’t the only one. It won’t be the first, nor the last one. It’s just one story of human society,” she said.
She mixed with other foreign students, who were mostly from China or Syria (and also befriended the children of the president of Benin). Once, her Syrian friend Ali sat on top of a newspaper that had a portrait of Kim on the cover. Macias panicked. The Great Leader’s portrait was sacrosanct, she explained. Ali laughed and said: you’re like this because you grew up in Pyongyang, which needled her. She realised she needed to see more of the world. Her first trip was to Beijing. Upon meeting her first American, she ran away. Having been raised on propaganda about the Korean War, she saw Americans as murderous and frightening.
After graduating, Macias decided to leave North Korea for good. When she announced her intentions, Kim replied via an aide: “Monica, are you strong enough to live in a harsh capitalist world?” She was. In Spain, her first destination, she lived in a brothel run by a friend of her mother. She later lived in South Korea, China, the United States and Equatorial Guinea. “Wherever I go, I feel is home,” she told me. She believes people often have a blinkered view of their own country: people in the UK quick to condemn the privations of North Korean society don’t think about the racism she faced as a hotel worker, while many in the West are unaware of the limits of their freedom and the fragility of their rights.
[See also: What Kim Jong Un really wants]
In 2017, keen to know more about politics and her own past, Macias left the hotel and enrolled in an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy at Soas, University of London. For her dissertation she interviewed over 300 people, many of them from Equatorial Guinea, about her father. Years ago, she had been furious when a journalist accused her of “struggling to condemn” the atrocities committed by her father and Kim. Francisco Macias Nguema is accused of killing 50,000 of his countrymen and forcing over 100,000 people into exile. But Macias was mistrustful of second-hand information and had only vague memories of the man: before she could condemn him, she needed to know the role he played in his country’s violent past.
Researching her dissertation was psychologically tough. “My imaginary father is very powerful, a hero to me, because I didn’t know him,” she said. She was “frustrated” when she discovered he had declared himself president for life. However, she concluded that there was a “huge discrepancy between the official narrative and what I found out”, she told me. She concedes he was flawed – not the hero she remembered – but is also adamant that “he wasn’t a killer”. He had been faced with impossible choices, she argued: Equatorial Guinea was lawless, closer to a Hobbesian state of nature than a modern state, and the history of his rule was written by his enemies.
Her siblings discouraged this research: “Just live your life,” they advised her. “But I couldn’t. I need to know.” Politics had ruptured her family in many ways. Her two brothers worked for the government of Equatorial Guinea but were both at various points jailed there. Her sister now lives in Germany. Macias had a very difficult relationship with her mother. As a child, Macias could not understand why her mother had abandoned her. By the time her mother visited Pyongyang again – she had bought a ticket using money she saved from selling fried plantain on the streets of the capital, Malabo – Macias had forgotten Spanish, and they could not communicate. Her mother felt she was being punished. She died while Macias was at Soas. “If you have a problem with your mother, solve it right now. Don’t leave it, don’t do what I did,” Macias told me.
Macias has spent more time in Equatorial Guinea in recent years. She has been thinking of setting up a charity for women and girls. When she returns to Malabo everyone knows who she is, but she’s wondering if that could turn out to be beneficial. “I’d like to turn the trauma, and all the negative that happened to me into a positive,” she said.
Monica Macias is the author of “Black Girl from Pyongyang: In Search of My Identity” (Duckworth)
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[See also: Richard Ingrams: “Journalism is a drug: you can’t give it up”]
This article appears in the 19 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Axis of Autocrats