Culture

An Iron Education: Suki Kim and the Future Leaders of North Korea

North Korea, 2011. Suki Kim is sitting in the dining hall of Pyongyang’s most elite, all-boys university, talking birthday plans, when a student blurts out: I like singing rock ‘n’ roll. A hush fell over the table. The boy turned red, looked around, his fears confirmed by his classmates’ faces. Big mistake. Like blue jeans, religion, and the internet, interest in rock music is forbidden in North Korea.

Slips from the script of party slogans and anti-West rhetoric are rare, like a break in the fourth wall of some real-life theater of the absurd. They’re important because they help trace the fault lines of the hermit kingdom’s husk, but they also reveal a pulse, if faint and fearful, in the hearts of its people. It’s these human elements that lend the brutal power and emotional wreckage to Without You, There is No Us, Suki Kim’s paranoiac memoir of a semester spent teaching the future leaders of North Korea.

Kim, 44, first visited North Korea on assignment for Harper’s in 2002. Her Korean heritage and willing cooperation earned their trust. She was allowed back in 2008 to profile the New York Philharmonic’s cultural visit to the capital. Emboldened by her access, and wishing to lift the veil on the showroom farce of a typical tour through North Korea, Kim risked imprisonment to return in 2011, this time posing as an English teacher at PUST, Pyongyang’s University of Science and Technology.

Suki Kim teaching her students at PUST

There, under the blinkless gaze of ‘minders’ eyeing her every move, she navigates the alternate reality of education in an authoritarian state. Her students are devout believers in ‘His Solicitude.’ Her fellow teachers are closet missionaries in a country considered the ‘holy grail’ for Evangelical Christians. In between the curriculum and prayers, balancing her act as an undercover journalist in disguise as both a missionary and teacher, Kim gently searches for answers among people already satisfied with their own. Instead of God or the Great Leader for guidance, Kim is armed with questions and empty USB drives, hoping for glimpses of Oz behind the iron curtain.

Those glimpses are a precious thing. Media coverage of North Korea inevitably returns to the mania of its leader-worship and the bang-up brainwashing job that ensures Kim Il-Sung’s cult is never short of members. Without You looks past the caricatures, the NBA stars, and the violent, petty political hit jobs. Instead, Kim’s memoir amounts to a haunting profile of innocence lost, minds bent to the will of a political deity, raised to regard their country as infallible, and taught to parrot patriotic slogans to safeguard against a make-believe threat.

“That was the inherent contradiction,” writes Kim. “This was a nation backed into a corner. They had built the entire foundation of their country on isolationism and wanting to kill Americans and South Koreans, yet they needed to learn English and feed their children with foreign money.” Her students lived the contradiction each day. They were respectful but guarded; caring but deceitful; awash in the teachings of a sworn enemy, yet heartbroken to see her leave. Through all that — the delusions, the doubts, the fearing for her life — Suki Kim learned to love them.

Kim joins Signature to answer our questions on what it’s like to live under constant surveillance, the fraught relationship with her students, and her take on the future of North Korea. (To watch videos, read an excerpt and more, visit www.SukiKim.com)

Signature: What inspired you to take such a bold approach to journalism? Were there larger questions you had about North Korea you hoped this trip might answer?

Suki Kim: My goal was to write a book that humanizes North Koreans. I wanted to go beyond the almost comic images of the Great Leader—of a crazy man with a funny hairdo and outfits, whose hobby is threatening nuclear war. The truth is so much more dire and frightening. I wanted to help outsiders see North Koreans as real people, as people we can relate to, in the hope that readers would feel more invested in what happens to them.

Since my goal was to reveal the truth behind the façade, full immersion was my only choice. The challenge was how to achieve that. North Korea allows foreigners very little access, and too often the articles that emerge from those visits read more like press releases for the regime than journalistic truth. When I learned about PUST (Pyongyang University of Science & Technology), a university staffed only by foreigners, I realized this could be an unusual opportunity to get behind the curtain and stay there longer than a few days, so I applied for a job there. It seemed worth the risk. And the result was that I was embedded among real North Korean students, eating meals with them three times a day.

SIG: You kept daily notes on a USB drive that was never discovered. Were you surprised by this? Did you ever find yourself preparing an elaborate excuse in the event you might be outed?

SK: I kept several USB sticks on my body, and I hid a couple of them in my room. Strangely, I thought very little about what the consequences would be if they were found, so I didn’t have any prepared excuses. It is possible that I stopped myself from imagining it because if I had, I might have been too terrified to keep going. 

Pyongyang Airport

SIG: Minders and counterparts watched your every move. Was adapting to a state of constant surveillance harder than you’d prepared for?

SK: It felt almost unbearable, to be watched around the clock, to never be left alone. Many of the teachers found it very claustrophobic, not only infantilizing but paranoia-inducing. Even when I was physically alone, I knew that I was being watched and reported on. Each meal, each class, each conversation—there was never a private moment. Losing privacy so absolutely is an alien experience. In some ways, I was amazed by how quickly I adapted to it, because I had no choice. If I hadn’t been able to accept that reality, I would have had to leave. 

SIG: As a reader, one of the most unsettling aspects seemed to be not that you were being watched all the time, but that you didn’t know when and how you were being watched. Was this one of your biggest concerns?

SK: It’s true—you really don’t know who is watching, or when. That loss of control is palpable the minute you arrive at the airport and hand over your phone and passport. Since I’ve been back in New York, people have asked me: why didn’t you sneak off campus? Two people even said to me that they were such free-spirited rebels that their minders wouldn’t know what to do with them if they bolted while touring Pyongyang. The surprising thing is that these were highly educated Americans. I think many Americans live lives of such privilege and freedom that the stark reality of life in North Korea is simply unfathomable. North Korea is a gulag nation, and being a rebel is only a feasible choice in a free society or a Hollywood film. If you ran away from your minder in North Korea, not only would you be punished immediately, you’d endanger everyone around you. In North Korea, you do what you are told. You don’t let yourself wonder exactly how they are watching you, because you have no control, so even wondering about it is a pointless, dangerous exercise.

SIG: There were hints of rebellion in North Korea: Students would say Every day is the same and I am fed up. Drivers secretly played Simon & Garfunkel when no one was around. How far can one interpret these moments as signs of hope or change?

SK: I don’t see a lot of reason to be optimistic. The North Korean drivers who played the Western pop songs were guarding Chinese tourist groups. North Koreans who have been assigned to deal with foreigners are a unique minority, since they are exposed to Western culture. Most North Koreans never hear such music. As for a few students admitting to me that they were fed up with the sameness of each day, I’m not sure that I see that as a sign of hope and change so much as a sign that they are people with feelings much like us. By the end of my stay, several students had indeed let down their guard a little to reveal some details of their lives outside PUST. But this was only because they were young, lonely, and isolated from their families, and also because this was a troubled time in North Korea, with rumors of an impending regime change.

My hope is pinned more on the United States government, and on my readers. I hope that foreigners will do everything they can to encourage change in that prison state.

SIG: With censorship and misinformation engrained in the education system, what’s the most vivid memory you have when a student or some other civilian let their guard down and spoke frankly?

SK: In all my visits to North Korea, I don’t recall a single moment when someone truly let down his or her guard entirely and spoke openly and without fear. Most of the time, students repeated propagandistic catch-phrases, such as “powerful and prosperous nation.” Once, some workers at the market who heard me speaking Korean told me that my Seoul accent was beautiful. Since they weren’t allowed to praise anything South Korean in public, this was surprising and perhaps revealed their real attitude. Another time, one of my students admitted that he played rock ’n’roll, even though my students had told me earlier in the semester that they sang only songs about the Great Leader. He quickly realized his mistake and seemed terrified. Those were slips, which are different from speaking frankly.

North Korean girls outside Kumsusan Palace

SIG: Like all students, yours were very inquisitive, and you had to be careful where questions might lead. What was the most surprising – and surprisingly difficult – question you were asked?

SK: One of the most difficult questions was a seemingly harmless one: “Do you find our city beautiful?” My students looked at me so expectantly and earnestly, not only because I was their teacher but also because—unlike them—I had been to other countries. If I declared their city the most beautiful, their faces said to me, perhaps it was okay that they never got to see the outside world, perhaps they weren’t missing out after all. I didn’t want to disappoint them, but I also didn’t want to lie. Yet I couldn’t tell them that I found Pyongyang as unattractive and bleak as a block of concrete. It was not only that I found it ugly to look at, but also that I found it an ugly symbol of inequality— North Koreans elsewhere in the country slaved to feed the elite in Pyongyang. All I could bring myself to say was “Well, some parts,” which was more lukewarm than my students would have liked. One of them quickly changed the topic.

SIG: North Korean rules operate in Orwellian dimensions. Jeans are forbidden because they’re “American.” Were there other bizarre or unexpected bans you were faced with?

SK: I was warned by PUST administrators never to say the names of the Leaders: Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un. They are considered deities, so it’s disrespectful to refer to them by name or point at their images. I was reminded of this on my flight out of North Korea, which departed the day after Kim Jong-il’s death was publicly announced. That day, the main newspaper in North Korea featured a full-page photo of Kim Jong-il on the front page. I wanted to save it, but it was too big and unwieldy to carry flat, so I folded it. Immediately, the stewardess came over and scolded me. So I unfolded it (although as soon as she turned away I put it in my backpack).

SIG: What surprised you most about the young men you taught?

SK: They were so easy to love, and yet also impossible to trust. They were innocent and yet corrupt. They were sincere, but they also lied so casually. They were the future leaders of North Korea, mostly from Pyongyang, and yet they were so clueless and sheltered in their upbringing that they sounded like children from a small village. It took a while for me to understand and accept these paradoxes, but ultimately, living in a walled compound with them and sharing so much—from eating meals together and playing basketball to laughing at inside jokes—I fell in love with them all.  

SIG: In 2011 a missionary teacher rattled PUST with a revealing article in the Washington Post, and you mention in your afterword that your book will likely offend the DPRK and the PUST faculty. Should you be concerned about your safety?

SK: Had my notes been found while I was at PUST, I would likely have been accused of spying, but luckily they were never discovered. Since I’ve safely returned, what has scared me most is the thought of getting my students in trouble. We developed a real bond over time, and I was afraid I would instill doubts in their minds about the regime. Even teaching them to write an essay turned out to be dangerous, since the idea of coming up with your own thesis and making an evidence-based argument doesn’t exist in North Korea. They are simply told what to think, and no proof is required. Critical thinking is very dangerous.

When James Kim, the founder and president of PUST, found out about my book, he sent me angry and distressed emails. Two of my former colleagues at PUST wrote to me as well. They all wanted me not to publish the book, or to send them a copy of the manuscript before publication so that they could screen the content. They were concerned that the book would cause the government of North Korea to close PUST. This is a real possibility. I feel terrible for causing them distress, but all I can say is that I believe that revealing to the world as much as possible about the lives of 25 million North Koreans is more important than the continued operation of PUST.

Statue of Kim Il-Sung at PUST

SIG: What was it like to be in North Korea on the day that Kim Jong-il’s death was announced? How did the students react?

SK: It was my next-to-last day in North Korea, December 19, 2011, and I was packing for the flight home when I found out. That was the one day when we teachers were invited inside the building where our students had daily propaganda classes with their North Korean professors. It was their holy building, honoring the spirit of Kim Il-sung, the one they literally guarded day and night. Inside, there was a wake of sorts, with a few students greeting mourners in front of a large portrait of Kim Jong-il in the center of the lobby. I didn’t see any of them crying, but their faces were ghostly, as though the sky had fallen. For the rest of the day, the campus remained eerily empty. Dinner was canceled, and the few students I passed did not meet my eyes. I saw my students for the last time at breakfast the next morning. They looked as though they’d been crying all night, as though their souls had been sucked out of them, as though they’d just lost a parent. Their sorrow seemed so absolute and irrevocable that I thought about the song lyric that ended up being the title of my book: Without you, there is no us.

SIG: After two semesters, endless paranoia, an emotionally draining relationship with your students, and the death of Kim Jong-il… given your newfound perspective, have you become more or less hopeful for the future of North Korea?

SK: I am not hopeful about the future of North Korea. To ensure the survival of the army of henchmen who rule North Korea, the myth of the Great Leader must be maintained, and that’s possible only if the people remain ignorant and powerless. Becoming a more open society would be suicide for the Kim Jong-un regime. We have already seen the ruthless side of this young leader. Five of the seven key figures who walked alongside Kim Jong-il’s hearse at his state funeral in December 2011 have since been stripped of their titles, sent to labor camps, or executed. The two superpowers – China and the United States – that could put pressure on North Korea have done virtually nothing to bring about a change. Meanwhile, the inhuman suffering of North Koreans continues.