PYONGYANG, North Korea — 40-year-old author Monique Macias didn’t have a typical childhood. Her youth involved growing up in North Korea in exile.
Her father was Francisco Macias Nguema, the first President of Equatorial Guinea, who reigned from 1968 until his overthrow and execution in 1979. Shortly before his death, Macias Nguema turned to North Korea out of desperation. He didn’t have many options. He sent his wife and children to the capital of Pyongyang, where they would live out the next 15 years.
“All my childhood memories start from when I arrived on that plane in Pyongyang,” Macias said.
A few months later, her uncle, the new President of Guinea, came to Pyongyang to collect the family and bring them back home to Guinea. But Kim Il-sung would not allow him to take them.
Monique Macias said that Kim Il-sung told her uncle, “Francisco, who was like my brother, left the children with me, so they are my responsibility.” And so they stayed in North Korea.
Il-sung would often nag her to study harder. Monique Macias described him as a “typical Korean grandfather.”
Macias’ childhood did not consist of coloring books and sunny days on the playground; growing up in North Korea, Macias found herself attending the same military academy where heir apparent Kim Jong-il was educated.
Uniformed in a military-style jacket with officer’s pips on the epaulettes and a green cap with a shiny red star atop her head, Macias was put through survival courses and drills daily. The school traditionally only took boys but a special exception was made for Macias and her sister. This led to the creation of a class in which all girls were given a Kalashnikov automatic rifle. Each girl was then expected to learn how to strip, clean and reassemble it.
“Most people could shoot guns when they were 18 or 19,” she said. “But because I was put in the only class with girls my sister’s age, I was able to shoot when I was 14.”
The expectations were not easy to meet and led to exhaustion and intense hunger.
“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,” Macias said.
In October of last year, Macias finally published her memoirs of North Korea, “I’m Monique, From Pyongyang.”
Rising tensions between North and South Korea are what she claims inspired her to publish her memoirs at the time she did.
“Although North and South say they want unification, they don’t actually know each other as people,” Macias said. “If we want unification, we have to bury prejudice.”
February of this year brought a new outlet for Macias – her very own NK News column: “How I Unintentionally Ended Up Spending 15 Years of My Life in North Korea.”
First published on Feb. 21, the column begins with this statement from Macias:
“Hello, my name is Monique Macias and over the coming months I’m going to be sharing my experiences about living in North Korea with you from a very unique perspective: as a foreigner who lived in Pyongyang between 1979 to 1994.”
The insights of Macias and others like her have the ability to help tackle the problems in North Korea.
“I know how Koreans think and how to talk to them because they taught me. They made me,” Macias said.
Though riddled with famine, prison camps and nuclear brinkmanship, the country is not ignorant of these issues. Though recent reports claim a possible collapse on the horizon, Macias sees one as unlikely.
“There are people in North Korea who know that this is not the right way to live,” Macias told Reuters 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.”