Locked Up in North Korea: The Strange Case of Chantal S.

As seen on NKNews.org:

As 85 year-old Merrill Newman of Palo Alto, California begins his fourth week as a North Korean detainee, the reason for his arrest–as he sat on a plane, about to leave the country, reportedly–is still unknown.

On the other hand, when Chantal Sobkowicz was locked up in Pyongyang, the reasons were a bit more clear-cut.

In July 1989, a 40 year-old Sobkowicz went to North Korea for the first time. Part of a three-person delegation, Sobkowicz, a Polish national who lives in France, left Paris for Pyongyang to spend a short stretch working as a translator for a reinsurance congress of what she describes as “renegade’ countries.”

“We stayed there for two weeks, at the Koryo Hotel,” Sobkowicz tells NK News in an exclusive interview. “It was a big showcase, very fancy, international and all that. They still had food, no famine, things were still kind of running well for them.”

“That’s when I got my calling,” she continues. “I never touched their luxury meals and fasted for 10 days. When I came back [to France], I was doing everything I could to be able to return [to North Korea].”

Without a North Korean embassy to contact in Paris, Sobkowicz, an evangelical Christian, got in touch with the DPRK’s representative office and begged for a job.

“I told them I wanted to go and work in North Korea, which was a crazy thing to do, but still I did it,” she says. “I told them I wanted to go to North Korea because I liked the country. Although I did not say I liked communists, it was inferred by the fact that I stressed my Polish origins. I said that I wanted to take my children there because I had liked the way my older daughter had been raised in Poland. About 15 months later, they said they had a job for me as a re-writer of French articles. So, I was certain that this was God’s will.”

Hired to work for North Korea’s state-run press as a proofreader and rewriter of FrLockench-language news articles to be distributed throughout sympathetic parts of the Francophone world, Sobkowicz arrived in Pyongyang for her assignment with her two young children, aged 6 and 7. Her daughter attended a local North Korean school, where she quickly became fluent in Korean. Pay was 600 dollars a month, and room-and-board was free. However, Sobkowicz didn’t find the work particularly enriching.

“The news was reprocessed, so it felt like reading the same stuff over several times, very tedious,” she says.

The other proofreaders were a varied bunch with broadly different backgrounds. There were Jordanian-based Palestinians whom Sobkowicz describes as “real journalists, Cubans who had “come for money,” Chinese who were there “out of partisan duty or obligation,” and young Brits, in North Korea “for kicks.” (A Russian proofreader who was scheduled to arrive “never showed up, and then ‘the walls tumbled down.’”) The workers were together much of the time, and always under intense observation.

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Sobkowicz with her family at church in Pyongyang. The man in the foreground is a North Korean security agent.
Photo courtesy C. Sobkowicz

“We all lived in the same guarded house, with listening devices and chauffeurs chaperoning us everywhere,” Sobkowicz says. “Everybody seen speaking to a foreigner is later interrogated. Except for the rare case when I was able to secretly speak to someone, every conversation with a Korean person was reported almost verbatim to my place of work. On two occasions, a [Korean] person was specially sent to get information out of me.”

The only information Sobkowicz was interested in sharing was of the religious type. She says the Koryo was now fairly empty, save a handful of diplomats (she managed to slip Arabic Bibles to members of the Palestinian delegation). To spread the word among the populace, Sobkowic says she walked everywhere she was allowed, and hid “pieces of scripture” wherever she could. She buried Bibles and New Testaments in holes for North Koreans to find, hid them under paving stones, in trees, even in sewers. Sobkowicz says many of them were confiscated quickly by security agents that tailed her around town, but still managed to distribute a good portion of the “kilos” of Bibles she had brought into the country. She sewed Bible verses onto Korean handkerchiefs, and ‘lost’ them everywhere she could.

This being North Korea, where proselytizing is a serious crime, Sobkowicz needed to mute her uncontrollable fervor as much as possible. She says her favorite technique was to buy a bag of groceries, slip a New Testament inside, and leave it behind for someone to pick up. Sobkowicz was finally caught leaving Bibles in public garbage bins, and she was fired and told to pack up. Problem was, she couldn’t afford the airfare back to Paris for herself and both kids. They were forced to stay on for the time being, in an increasingly hostile environment.

“After they fired me, they cut off the heat in our rooms–it was winter,” says Sobkowicz. “They kept feeding us, but cut down our portions and threatened to stop providing food altogether. In order to get the heat back on for us, one of the [North Korean] officials got me another job proofreading the brand-new, several-volume autobiography written by the Great Leader.”

Sobkowicz had just finished proofreading “the 3rd or 4th volume” of Kim Il Sung’s memoir when she was busted again.

“Some people spying on me caught me trying to hand out New Testaments in Korean,” she says. “They locked me up and interrogated me in a shack by the river at night. I was let go to return to my lodging, but the next day a committee came to formally arrest me. My boss got them to let me stay in the building, but I was forced to leave the country. At least this time, they paid for the tickets.”

Sobkowicz says the worst part “was leaving the country, abandoning the Koreans. I really loved the people there. They just meant so much more to me than my life back in France.” However, she says she “can brag” about that fact that it took 20 or so “full-fledged military officers to keep watch over me and my two children during the three days we spent locked up waiting for expatriation, and even more at the airport.”

“I owe my safe escape to the selfless sacrifice of my husband who tried relentlessly to get me out of there safely,” she says. “Also to the Finnish embassy, which was the only one my husband could reach at the time, and who alerted the international media so the Koreans would be forced to use diplomatic channels to let me go.”

Once back home, Sobkowicz figured out a way to remain a fly in North Korea’s ointment. She had the fax number at a post office she had used to receive messages in Pyongyang, and this became her conduit back inside.

“When I got back to Paris, I could not help but send out Christian messages of love and redemption to those people at the post office,” she says. “I continued sending out faxes for one year, then stopped because it became too costly. I am sure this was to no avail, since the authorities must have removed all the personnel who had had any contact with me. I was doing it because of my broken heart and because of ego. It mostly helped me cope with the separation.”

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Sobkowicz back safely in Paris. Photo courtesy C. Sobkowicz

Sobkowicz, who found religion one short year before her first visit to the DPRK, now says “they were right in expelling me.”

“I was acting against their law, and it is only because I was a new convert, out of my wits, that I did it,” she says. “Not only did I know that I was acting against their law, I took pride in it. Moreover, I had lied to them in Paris when they hired me.”

Sobkowicz says people who “act in the name of God always feel that they are above the law.” But, she says, “This is not so.”

“If you go to an ungodly country, you will only demonstrate godliness by first abiding by its laws,” maintains Sobkowicz. “Otherwise, you have no business going to taunt the devil. If the law is unjust, imperfect, people have to change it by changing themselves, but a person outside the law is not following God at all. Anyway, that’s how I see it now.”

Today, Chantal Sobkowicz works as a “mind coach” in Paris. Her children are grown, and Sobkowicz, now 63, has a thoughtful perspective about the personal crusade that landed her under arrest.

“I made many mistakes whilst there,” she says. “You can also jeopardize the lives of people, North Korean people, by trying to talk to them about God, so it was pretty useless. But it’s God’s way to use his people while they are still irresponsible.”