I first met Kim Jong Il in October 1959. He was a senior at the elite Namsan Senior High School, and I was a 27-year-old professor of Russian at the Pyongyang University of Education. I also happened to have been chosen as a private tutor for the family of North Korean President Kim Il Sung. One day, the Great Leader remarked that he found his son's Russian to be very poor and told me to go to his school and evaluate both Kim Jong Il's proficiency and the quality of Russian education there. Handpicked by Joseph Stalin to rule over North Korea and a fluent Russian speaker himself, Kim Il Sung deemed study of the language essential to relations with the Soviet Union, North Korea's biggest political, economic, and military patron. At the school, I attended every Russian class, made evaluations, and then summoned the 17-year-old Kim Jong Il into the principal's office. The principal, one of the school's Russian teachers, and I, in accordance with Kim Il Sung's orders, jointly administered an oral Russian exam for Kim Jong Il.
Just a young student at the time, the examinee appeared to be extremely nervous sitting alone for an oral exam before the three of us -- especially one arranged at his father's behest. The shy boy with puffy, red cheeks responded meekly to each question I posed.
"Please open the book, Ri Su Bok, the North Korean Matrosov, and translate it," I told Kim.
He proceeded to read passages slowly from the book and translate them into Korean. His translations were not outstanding, but he managed to read and translate the text without making an error.
After a while I said, "Please summarize the contents of the book."
"You mean in Korean?" Kim asked.
"No. It should be in Russian, of course," I replied.
Looking a bit flustered, he began to speak in halting Russian. His spoken Russian seemed to lag behind his reading and translation.
"OK. Next I will test you on noun/adjective inflection, verb tense, and the first/second/third-person form."
When his father ordered me to evaluate Kim's Russian, he had praised his son's grammatical skills. He was right. When I rapidly threw out words at him, he replied without the slightest hesitation.
"Finally, I will test you on Russian conversation. Please listen to my questions and remarks and respond accordingly." I asked Kim Jong Il routine questions like his name and birthday, the date and day of the week, and the weather, yet he had a hard time responding. During the final conversation phase, he blushed and beads of sweat gathered on his forehead. Without ever boasting that he was the son of the Great Leader, Kim Jong Il patiently endured the exam.
My evaluation of Russian education at Namsan High School was that the instruction of spoken language had fallen behind that of grammar. When informed of my finding, Kim Il Sung became irate and demanded that any Russian teacher at Namsan High School who was not fluent in Russian be dismissed. I recommended a new, conversation-focused Russian program and suggested holding the annual nationwide Russian teachers' convention at Namsan the following year.
The following January, Russian teachers from across the nation convened at the high school. At the convention, Kim Jong Il showed off his new Russian skills with confidence. The combination of a new curriculum and the prodding by his father had paid off: Kim's nervous, diffident demeanor from the exam a few months back had disappeared. As an educator, I was quite gratified by his impressive progress.
Nearly 50 years have passed since the day I administered that test, but I still remember the questions I posed to Kim Jong Il, and the answers he gave in his amateur Russian: "I love and respect my father more than anyone else." "I plan to enroll in the Kim Il Sung University upon graduation from Namsan Senior High School." "I enjoy watching films more than playing sports."
It doesn't sound like an extraordinary moment. Just a teacher and a student behaving as they would anywhere. Of course, I've seen enough now to know just how far from ordinary anything about North Korea ever is.
Had I died fighting the Americans in the Korean War -- which I almost did -- I might not have ever come to know just how morally bankrupt were the ideals I was defending. But I survived. I went to college. I learned Russian. I was lucky enough to teach the language I loved to generations of students, some of whom went on to hold positions of power and influence throughout the country. I became dean of the foreign-language department. I wasn't particularly wealthy or privileged. But, through my travels beyond the Hermit Kingdom, and my contacts, and that special secret responsibility of tutoring Kim Il Sung's family for 20 years, I did have something most of my fellow citizens never did and still don't: a window through which to understand the dynasty that continues to terrorize North Korea.