I remember my first phone call from the FBI clearly. It was mid-May 2015. I was sitting in my dreary Midtown cubicle, chugging iced coffee and trying to hold out for the end of the day as a lowly junior reporter. My eyelids were drooping when my wrist buzzed. Someone was calling me. My fitness band and phone were buzzing with a weird three-digit number.
“Hello,” I asked. “Who’s this?”
“Hello,” a man replied. He gave me his name, told me he was an FBI agent, and that he wanted to speak to me. Was I free later that week or possibly the next? Did I like Indian food? Yes? Well, he’d call back and give me a date and time. He asked me to keep my phone nearby and to pick up when he called.
I don’t recall who hung up first, but I wasn’t sleepy anymore. Hidden memories of my childhood—of ringing phones and white vans—were flooding my brain. I knew exactly what this FBI agent wanted to speak to me about.
A few days later, I was sitting in a mostly empty Indian restaurant in Midtown shaking hands with two FBI agents. One looked like a toothier version of Thomas Barrow from Downton Abbey. I think his name was Dan. The other looked like every disheveled stereotype of an overworked FBI agent you’ve ever seen on a cheesy crime show. His name I do remember. He was the one who’d called me. His name was Luke.
I don’t really recall what I ate. Some watery chicken tikka masala. I never thought lunch with the FBI would be a pale parody of the good-cop, bad-cop routine you see on Law & Order, but in a nutshell, that’s what it was. They lightly probed about my father’s health, asking questions they already knew the answer to just to see how I’d respond.
He’s not doing well is he? He’s not quite as sharp as he used to be right?
Well no. Parkinson’s, dementia, diabetes, and heart disease had chipped away at my father’s health over the years. They knew that. He used to tell me that he’d live to 100, and was religious about his daily health routine. One tall glass of skim milk, a brisk walk, and light calisthenics started off every morning. Despite his efforts, in 2015 he was a rough 86 years old. At the time I thought it’d be a miracle if he reached 90. His daily walks first necessitated a cane, then a walker, and then something as simple as walking unassisted from the recliner to the bathroom became impossible. Mentally, he went from being able to tell stories from pre-colonised North Korea to sometimes forgetting family members’ names. I didn’t say as much to Luke.
Instead, I told them to cut to the chase. What exactly did they want from me?
“Well,” Luke said, sitting straighter. “We’ve been told your father is travelling to South Korea. Is this true?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“We’ve heard so much about you from your father. He really loves you. He showed us your high school graduation photo,” Dan interjected. “Do you know how long he’ll be away for? He wasn’t very clear about that.”
“No,” I said.
My answer was technically true. Whenever we talked about his trip, my father always hedged. He’d told me he was moving to Korea because housing and health care costs in the United States were untenable on his roughly $US1,500 ($2,191) a month Social Security benefits. His symptoms were worsening. I was in my mid-twenties working a low-paying gig and could barely pay my bills, let alone afford him entry to a good nursing home. My stepmother told me in the U.S., his medications cost nearly $US400 ($584) a month. The same meds in South Korea would be $US12 ($18). They were going to Ganghwado, an island near the 48th parallel between North and South Korea. My father was unhappy about this—the plan had been to die in America, the land he’d called home for over four decades. He kept saying once he got better, maybe he’d come back to Bayside, Queens. Every week he’d ask if I’d like that, his eyes shining with unshed tears. My eyes would always sting when I said yes. I told the FBI it wasn’t clear when he was coming back. What I didn’t tell them was the sinking feeling in my gut that my father was going to South Korea to die more comfortably.
The facts may have pointed otherwise, but at the time, I wanted to believe there was a chance he’d come back.
“I see,” Luke said, picking up the conversation. “Well, if he mentions us on the phone, or his time consulting with us when he calls you, we want you to gently divert the conversation elsewhere.”
As far as I remember, Luke explained that my father was definitely a man of interest to the South Korean government. His name would most certainly be on their radar. Their intelligence agency would likely be listening in on his phone calls. Any mention of the FBI would be picked up, and they couldn’t have that. My father’s value was in his extensive knowledge of the North Korean community in America. His, as Luke called it, “unusual access.” My part, my tiny role in all this was easy. Just redirect the conversation. Did I think I could do that? Could I help them out?
Inside, I felt everything go numb. For years, I’d made fun of my mother for her paranoia. We’d be driving and suddenly, she’d swerve, her knuckles white as she gripped the steering wheel. She’d say outrageous things. Things like, “They’re following us again!” or “I hate the CIA! They won’t leave us alone.” Sometimes she’d yell at me to run downstairs and look outside the window, pointing to a white van with dark windows. She’d tell me it was the government, and yet again, we were being watched. Followed. Listened to. She’d scream that nothing we did in our home was truly private and then she’d break down and cry.
My father would scoff, lick his lips and give me a stern look. “Your mother,” he said, “is insane. Crazy.” That would set her off and they’d fight in Korean, a language I understood just enough of to know they were arguing yet again about North Korea, government surveillance, and my father’s inability to let go of his homeland.
Thinking about all this, I snapped.
I spent the next few minutes accusing Luke and Dan of destroying my childhood and my family. I asked if they were aware that, even though my parents had separated years earlier, my mother lived in daily, constant fear that the FBI or CIA was tracking her every move. That so many of our conversations were centered around me convincing her that she was not being monitored.
I asked them point-blank if there was any truth to my mother’s fears.
The FBI agents weren’t expecting this. Yes, they said, the FBI does sometimes wiretap people. That said, they had bigger fish to fry than my mother. I asked if they’d known all along about my father’s many trips to North Korea. Plenty of Westerners have gone to North Korea over the years, but my father had been going almost yearly at a time when it was “less common” and seemingly, not as part of tourist groups. Some of the pictures were in front of monuments, sure, but others were with groups of official-looking men. Often times, he’d take my old clothes, toys, books, and electronics as gifts for poor children there. (At least, that’s what he told me.) The agents said of course they knew. They knew about every single U.S. citizen who applies for a visa there. They’d told my father on multiple occasions that his safety couldn’t be guaranteed and advised against it.
So why, I asked, did they allow it?
The answer boiled down to the fact he was a free man. Again, they alluded to the access he provided to the North Korean community. My thoughts drifted to the strange friends my father often associated with. I can’t pick out most of them in a lineup, even though whenever I was introduced to one, they’d greet me with a “Hello, do you remember me? We’ve met before.”
Of all them, the only one I remember is a woman I’ll call Z.
It occurred to me that too much silence was probably suspicious. I shoved those memories back into the corner of my brain. A few more barbs and probing questions were exchanged. I sensed they were trying to see if I was anything like my father and if that could be leveraged. It certainly felt like I was being assessed. Needless to say, I wasn’t hungry or feeling particularly cooperative. I wanted to flip them off, but whatever shred of self-preservation I had left demanded I try to be civil. Before we parted ways, Luke had one last reminder for me.
“Remember, if your dad calls you and wants to talk about us…”
“Direct the conversation elsewhere. Yeah, I know.”
I stumbled back to my office. I’d just mouthed off to the FBI. If I’d checked my heart rate right then, it’d have been through the roof. I spent the next few hours beating myself up. I should’ve been harder on them. Demanded to see their badges. Secretly recorded the meeting on my phone. Asked for more proof. I wanted to call my mother, but it occurred to me that telling her would set off her paranoia. I wanted to call my father and yell at him for putting me in that situation. I fantasized about kicking down his front door and demanding he tell me the truth about everything, even if I knew half of what came out of his mouth would be a lie.
Mostly, I just wished none of it had ever happened.
Growing up, my father drilled into my head how important technology was. He always said it was our ticket to a better life; technical knowledge was the key to everything. We always had at least three computers at home. One for my dad, one for me, and one for my mum. I was sitting at a chunky old computer when I was four or five, learning how to use Windows 3.1 and DOS commands.
My father’s favourite dinner conversation was technology stocks fluctuating up and down on the Dow Jones and Nasdaq. His second favourite was long lectures on how nanotechnology would save the world. Nanobots, he said, would be the future of medical tech and if I was smart, I’d invest in it as soon as I had money of my own.
We had the internet as soon as AOL discs were a thing. The crackle of 56k dial-up is one of my earliest memories. The thing my father and I fought most often about was me clogging up the phone line with my internet addiction. See, he was always waiting for important phone calls in his room. He’d holler at me from his office to get off the computer. I’d sulkily log off. And like clockwork, seconds later the phone would ring.
I hated phone calls. At our house, when the phone rang it was always one of two things. The first was people with gruff voices on the other end of the line, speaking broken English, asking for my father. Again, Z stuck out here. She spoke English better than the rest. Tried to be friendly she asked me to put my father on the phone.
The other type of call was more unsettling. I’d pick up the landline and all I would hear is static, or a faint popping sound. Every once in a while I thought I could hear someone breathing, but that could’ve been my childish imagination. Other times, our phone just wouldn’t work properly. Sometimes we had dial tones, other times we didn’t. The answering machine was sometimes just message after message of blank static. More than once, I remember hearing dial tones even though the phone was in its cradle. My mother dealt with it by spending increasing amounts of time at my aunt’s house. I chose to believe our old creaky English Tudor house was haunted.
It never occurred to me that these were possible signs of a wiretap. I just knew that’s what my mum thought, especially after one explosive fight between my parents that ended with my mum storming out of the house. Years later, after I worked up the nerve to tell her about my lunch with the FBI, she got a pensive look on her face.
That fight, she told me, was the result of her pestering my father for months about the white vans and his trips to North Korea. She told me that the first time he went to North Korea, he’d given her a card with the name of some government contact—someone to call in case he didn’t come back. That’s when she began to suspect something fishy was up. On the day of the fight, she was fed up. She nagged, and nagged, and nagged until he snapped and told her that yes, he was, in fact, working in some capacity for the CIA. The admission filled her with rage, and that’s why she’d left.
The next day, she said, he told her they knew about his outburst and that he’d been summarily let go for being unable to keep a secret. After that, he’d gone to consult for the FBI. She looked at me then and said very quietly, “Victoria, we’ve always been monitored.”
My insides hollowed. I knew she was going to say that. It’s what she said about everything from targeted Google ads to old CD players malfunctioning. Except this time, it was possibly true. My mind raced back to all the times I’d divulged secrets over the phone with my school friends. I wondered if some bored government agents had listened to it all. Nothing was quite the same after that. In quiet moments, I still find myself turning over old memories. Maybe if I look hard enough, I can find proof one way or the other. Maybe I can prove that this was all just a bad dream.
I left for college in 2006, and for a while, fell out of touch with my parents. My childhood distrust of phones had never left me, but my parents preferred it. I’d only pick up the phone once a month. Emails, my mother warned, were not private. Anybody could read them. My father also didn’t like emails and after my freshman year deleted all his accounts.
They were too insecure, he said.
Keeping in touch over social media was another no-go. My father started drawing away from technology as his health declined, though whenever I came back home for the holidays, his idea of quality time together was browsing the consumer tech section at our local PC Richards & Sons. Mum, however, never recovered from the idea that technology was ultimately a means of surveillance. One that she occasionally used to spy on me when I was in the habit of ignoring the phone. She’d peep at whatever I was posting on Facebook or Twitter through my cousin’s accounts whenever they were over. When I asked why she didn’t get an account of her own, she scoffed.
We lived for years in this limbo. There were unspoken rules. On the phone, you could talk about daily life and mundanities. I was never to exchange anything concrete in emails beyond flight itineraries. To this day, my mother won’t send me anything over text; not even a wifi password. She doesn’t even like relaying information over the phone unless it’s urgent. In those instances, she lowers her voice to a whisper and speaks quickly. She gets annoyed with me when I repeat it back to her loudly, slowly for clarification. If possible, she’d rather meet in person. She lives out in Queens, while I live in downtown Manhattan. She’d rather drive forty minutes to show me something written in a notebook than snap a picture and send it over text.
You never know, she says. You never know what anyone knows about you.
Sometimes I jokingly counter that “they” know everything about us. What’s the point in hiding anything about ourselves in this day and age? My father was like that too. He had no problem alluding to his North Korea, CIA, and FBI connections, though it was always in Korean and followed with a quick, “Don’t tell anyone.” Despite his warnings, I got the sense he wanted people to know.
This is where my mother and I have split. My daily reality is steeped in gadgets, partly thanks to work, partly thanks to the path my father set me on from a young age. My mother avoids it at all costs. If you call her, nine out of ten times she won’t pick up. If she can, she prefers to leave her phone out of sight and out of reach. Whenever I see her, she often gives me newspaper clippings of articles about how Facebook, Google, and Apple are all bad. Last time we met, she asked me if it was possible for me to seek another line of work. She said she hates that so many companies know when I run, how many steps I take, when I have my periods, and when I have sex. She hates that I let apps access my location willy nilly. She says she couldn’t understand why I was ok being a lab rat for faceless corporations. She hates that I’m writing this.
I write this off as her particular quirk. After years of therapy, I know how to redirect the conversation when it goes down the same spiraling, catastrophising path of why technology will destroy us all. It took a while to realise it’s not necessarily technology that bothers her. It’s that she doesn’t believe there’s any way to prevent governments, companies, or people from abusing it.
People think of North Korea as some backwater place, devoid of any knowledge of what modern life is like. As if everyone there looks like the emaciated children you see in those TV commercials. There are extreme poverty and human rights violations, yes—but my father was always keen to point out to me that the perception of North Korea as a podunk technological wasteland wasn’t quite right.
Like any other American child, I scrunched my face in disbelief whenever he said that. I suspected the North Korea my father spoke of was little more than propaganda. I’d seen the occasional documentary on TV. I saw the photos of starving children, the random interview with defectors describing horrific living conditions. I told him as much. Occasionally, I called him a liar. That’s when he’d show me his “proof.”
One of my earliest memories is when I was a little girl in the early ‘90s. He took out these VHS tapes and popped them into the VCR. They were recordings of the Mass Games, one of the few things tourists to North Korea are allowed to see. I couldn’t have been older than first or second grade, but even then I knew he was showing me something that few Americans had the privilege of seeing first-hand. It was, perhaps, something he shouldn’t have shown to a child. Looking back, I think the point was to show me, “See, North Koreans have VHS too. See, North Koreans can be great too.”
He’d pull out photos from boxes stored in cabinets. You’d never find them in the photo albums my mother painstakingly put together. They were always buried elsewhere as if they were his secret treasure and my mother’s hidden shame. He’d take them out any time he sensed I didn’t believe his spiels about North Korea.
“That’s you,” he’d say, pointing to a photo of me as a baby. Then he’d point to an unfamiliar man holding baby me. “And that is a North Korean diplomat.” When I asked my mother about it later, she’d clam up and say she didn’t want to talk of such things. I’ve looked for this photo since he died. I can’t find it. Many photos were destroyed before he moved to South Korea. I have a feeling this was one of them.
There were other photos too. My father, standing in front of natural landmarks in the DPRK. Others of him, clearly somewhere in Asia, standing with groups of unfamiliar people. A photo of him in what appears to be a classroom of children seated in front of computers. More photos of officers in North Korean military attire.
I never liked seeing these. No one in my family did. But as a child, I was a captive audience. I wasn’t capable of articulating a complex emotion like, “When you show me these photos, all I can think of is how everyone else in our family hates them and I think this is possibly a bad thing you’re doing.” My father also had a violent temper. It was easier to just let him say his piece than risk setting him off. When I was older, my curiosity and desire to know the truth won out over my discomfort.
I finally drew the line when one day he handed me a DVD. My father had just finished telling me that he was a professor emeritus of computer science at Kim Il Sung University and that when he died, he would be interred at some famous cemetery for patriotic North Koreans. To me, it was laughable. My father spent less and less time on his computer due to his health. He couldn’t even set up the basic Dell desktop he’d bought on a whim at our last outing to PC Richards & Son. Bending over to connect cables wasn’t an option, and mentally, he wasn’t always there anyway. None of it added up.
“Watch it,” he said, tapping the DVD case. “You’ll see. Don’t do it while your mother is around.”
If I were wise, I would’ve refused. I would’ve handed it back to him a week later and pretended to have watched it.
Instead, I waited until my mother went to sleep and then popped it into my laptop’s DVD player. It was buggy. A few times the laptop spit it out as unreadable. It took a few tries but eventually, pompous Communist propaganda music played from my tinny speakers. There was grainy Korean text I couldn’t read, but I recognised the font as the one you see from occasional DPRK broadcasts. After a few moments, my father appeared in his customary blazer and khakis. He walked down a fancy aisle in the centre of an elegantly decorated room. Waiting for him was a group of people, clearly important by their dress and rigid stature. I also recognised Z in the video. She stood off to the side clapping, occasionally helping my father who had some difficulty walking. An official-looking man shook his hand. My father bowed. He was given a piece of paper. The group posed together for pictures. My stomach sank. I shut my laptop. I’d seen enough.
That was winter 2014, a few months before the FBI called. In the months before he left for South Korea, these confessionals, the random stories and photos my father would share with me, became more frequent. Maybe that’s because we both knew our time together was coming to an end. I think he knew I was desperate for answers, and that he was the only one who could give them.
The thing was, I could never tell which stories were true. There was too much evidence to write them off completely. I’ve entertained the idea my father hired two terrible actors to pretend they were FBI agents, but that’s an awful lot of effort for a broke, infirm man to do for the sake of ego. Maybe he’d just gone on a bunch of North Korean tours and that’s where all the photos came from, but that didn’t explain the stories my mum told or the DVD. The idea he faked it all my entire life would be convenient, but what’s more likely is that parts of each story were true. I just never knew which.
The last “proof” he ever showed me was a plaque. He took me into his bedroom and rummaged around in a drawer. Once he found it, he leaned over and told me I was about to see something important. I can picture it clearly; it had a wooden rim. He pointed to the words, made me read them aloud. It was a plaque commemorating his service to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, signed by a director figure of some sort. A man whose name started with a J, and who I googled later but couldn’t find. Again I wondered if my father was the sort of man who would get a fake plaque made for his ego. But again, that would require money, mental clarity, and independence that my father simply didn’t have. He’d have to be the world’s greatest conman to pull that off, or the rest of my family would have to be the world’s easiest marks.
As I was making these mental calculations, he asked me if I thought he was impressive. I knew he wanted me to say yes, so I did.
“See, Victoria,” he said. His mouth crooked into a knowing smile. “I told you I was important.”
My father left America in early July 2015. Z came with us to the airport and drove me back home after. She tried consoling me in the car that if my father didn’t like South Korea, he could always come back.
The reality is I only saw him twice, for a few days at a time, before he died on June 1, 2018. We spoke sometimes on KakaoTalk—the messaging app Koreans prefer to WhatsApp—but I admit to not picking up as often as I maybe should have. Ours was a complicated relationship and I couldn’t help thinking of Luke and his missive to redirect the conversation. I hated the idea that someone, either from the U.S. or South Korean governments, would have to listen to me console a man slowly losing his mind to dementia—just in case he mentioned something about North Korea. It was easier to not answer.
It didn’t help that his dementia rapidly progressed once he left. I’d get calls at 3 or 4 a.m. When I had the mental fortitude to pick up, he’d ask me when was I quitting my job. You see, Donald Trump had bought him a castle in Scotland. Former French Prime Minister Nikolas Sarkozy had also named him Ambassador and gave him a lifelong stipend of $US2 ($3) million. On those days, I thought the FBI silly for worrying. Anyone listening on those calls would know whoever my father was, he was a shell of the man he used to be.
When I got the news he was dying, part of me didn’t want to go. My half-brothers had decided not to. They were estranged, partly because of his North Korea obsession, partly because he wasn’t an easy man to get along with. In any case, I hadn’t seen either of them in years and he was someone they’d seemingly washed their hands of. After 72 hours of waffling, I decided to go but before I did, I asked a coworker for help securing a burner phone.
My father’s connections with the North Korean ex-pat community extended to me, but only in the sense they knew who I was and my father had been liberal in giving out my phone number, email, and address. For many years, it was a source of grief and, as my therapist said, a violation of boundaries. I’d get weird letters and phone calls from his friends, ones that I was never sure whether they were being tracked. I still have some unopened letters addressed to my father from North Korea, hidden at the bottom of a box that I kept out of sight.
Z, my dad’s friend from the video, was the worst of them. She was brazen about her connections to North Korea and my father. Before he left, she’d gone so far as to force me to attend a meeting where she filmed my father, stating that he was of sound mind (he absolutely was not) and that when he died a portion of his assets would be sent to North Korea. After he left, she tried to scam a cousin—posing as someone who didn’t know we were all related—into donating medical texts to the DPRK. The incident caused an uproar. My mother told me that once, the FBI had raided her home and she’d gone to my father for advice. Such a woman, my mother said, was best avoided.
She was the one I was thinking about when I asked for a burner.
It was unnecessary. I arrived in Ganghwado with just enough time to say goodbye and hold his hand when my father finally breathed his last. I cried uncontrollably for hours, grieving for my father and in some sense, my childhood. At the same time, I was also relieved. My father was dead, and soon, so would my family’s connection to North Korea. We would finally, finally, finally be free.
As we held a 48-hour vigil, my phone was the only thing that kept me tethered to reality. I was in a foreign country, where I didn’t speak the language and no one spoke English. Not for the first time, I wondered if my father explicitly forbade me from learning Korean to shield me. Give me plausible deniability if anything ever went down.
I texted my mother that my father had died. As I did, I wondered if the government read it. Definitely not, I thought. Like Luke had said, there were bigger fish to fry. But then I thought about how certain Luke the FBI Agent had been that my father was on government radars. On the off chance, I wondered how much I could say on social media about his death and still be “safe.” If I posted, would that be how the FBI and CIA found out? Or would that only happen once I reported it to the Social Security Administration? I was lonely, grieving, and wanted to post something, anything to mark that this in fact, had happened.
I wrote dozens of drafts and deleted most of them. What I eventually posted was milquetoast, scrubbed clean of any complex feelings. Let them read it, I thought. Let them read it, close their files. This part of my life was finally over.
There were things left to do. His death had to be reported to the U.S. government and Social Security benefits had to be sorted. But at least now, that could be taken care of without worrying about ambiguous North Korean forces. Or so I thought.
That illusion shattered the second I landed back in New York City. My phone blew up with calls and text messages from Z. Condolences from “the community” were pouring in and she said I had to receive them. This would sound reasonable under normal circumstances. However, I’d dealt with her enough to know that accepting condolences was just the first step in forcing open communications that would eventually lead back to North Korea. She called, and called, and called. She sent disturbing pictures of my father’s house before he died. I called my stepmother and asked what to do about Z. Her voice went cold. “No, no, no,” she said. “I no want anything from her.”
I took my cue and blocked her on every platform possible.
Still, the entire experience left me unsettled. I started to care more about who had my phone number and what I posted online. I became more discerning with who I friended on social media. The government may not be watching me, but that doesn’t mean no one is.
When I told my mother I was writing this story, she was against it. In her mind, there was no point. Even though my father’s been dead for over a year, she still believes the government monitors us. Nothing I say will ever convince her otherwise. Writing this would never free us from my father’s warped legacy. At the worst, it would possibly put us on some list somewhere and then we’d never be free. She asked me point-blank, what did I hope to gain from it?
Honestly, I had hoped writing this would help me make sense of my father, his strange attachment to the country of his birth, and what role the specter of constant surveillance played in making my family the way it is.
Instead, I’ve come to realise my mother was always right. We were constantly monitored. Maybe the government did monitor our house growing up, maybe it didn’t. But my parents believed we were, which meant we were always performing as if someone was watching. Everything had a secret, silent audience. The things we said in public, what we wore, what was documented in photos and what wasn’t, what photos were kept and which ones were destroyed.
It used to make me angry, and then incredibly sad. Now, I think perhaps my childhood made me better prepared for modern life. It’s not just my family. We are all constantly monitored. We are all watching each other. Our phones track where we go, who we’re in proximity to, what we search for, and who we talk to. Companies can read our work emails and our Slacks. We willingly offer up our photos, faces, health, thoughts, hopes, and memories for public consumption. Even if you think no one reads your social media posts, I guarantee someone has scrolled through your entire feed and thinks they know you.
I can google my father. Search back through my emails. Scroll through photos. Track down my half-brothers. I could call Z. Hire someone to investigate his digital trail. I did call the FBI to verify whether he consulted for them when he said he did. I got sent on a wild phone goose chase, where one department handed me off to another until someone said no, it was not possible to verify consultants for the FBI. It took a very long time to come to terms with the fact, nothing I find will tell me why he did the things he did, or why he was the way he was.
That’s the thing about other people. You can’t really know them, even if you spend your entire life watching them. I only knew the version of my father that he wanted me to see. He only told me the things about North Korea he wanted me to hear. I don’t know who he really was. I never will.