Suki Kim Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Suki Kim
Photo © Ed Kashi / VII

Suki Kim

An interview with Suki Kim

Suki Kim talks about her book Without You There Is No Us, why she loved her North Korean students and what she feared the most during her brief time in the country.

In 2011 you traveled to North Korea to teach at a school staffed entirely by foreigners and kept notes secretly the entire time. If your notes had been discovered, you could have been deported, or even imprisoned. What made you willing to take that risk?

I've been obsessed with North Korea all my life. I was born and raised in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. when I was 13 years old. Members of both sides of my family were taken to North Korea during the Korean War and never seen again. Beginning in 2002, I traveled there to report stories for various magazines. 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 I applied for a job there.

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, so that we can begin to care about what happens to them. That was my goal and it seemed worth the risk.

Can you paint a picture for us of what life is like there?

I can only paint a picture of life at PUST since teachers and students were hardly ever allowed out. The campus had a guardhouse and a gate, and the only times we were allowed to leave were during group outings, either to go sightseeing or grocery shopping. We were always accompanied by minders, whose job was to watch us and make sure we did nothing unauthorized. Sometimes they even followed us to the bathroom. The places we saw on our outings were the standard attractions that the regime allowed foreigners to see, so they were inevitably immaculate and unrevealing. Whether it was a mountain or a museum or a fruit farm or a subway, everything ran according to a script, and the script was always focused on the splendid achievements of the Great Leader, either Kim Jong-il or Kim Il-sung.

PUST was established and funded by evangelical Christian missionaries, so to get a job there you had to pose as both a missionary and a teacher. Did that pose an ethical dilemma for you?

Deliberately lying, especially when you know it might hurt other people, doesn't feel good, but I'm comfortable with the choices I made. I did feel guilty letting my Christian missionary believe I was one of them, but my priority was telling the story of my students' lives. And in truth my missionary colleagues also lied, since their greater goal was not to educate the students but to convert North Koreans to Christianity in the future. The other dilemma was knowing that publishing my book might negatively affect either my former students or the university.

Although none of the students did anything more than express curiosity, I changed all names and identifying details in order to protect them. I don't know whether there will be any negative consequences for PUST, but my allegiance is not to them.

Tell us a few of the ground rules the PUST administrators gave you ahead of time.

We were told never to discuss the outside world in detail. Never compare; do not hint in any way that life is better outside. Never talk about politics. Never say the names of the Leaders: Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un. They are considered deities, so it is disrespectful to refer to them by name or point at their images. Do not wear jeans; Kim Jong-il doesn't like them because they're a symbol of America. Never talk about Christianity—no uttering "Jesus" or "church" or "ministers." Since we knew our rooms were most likely bugged, the missionaries would simply mouth "M" when they wanted to say "minister."

What surprised you most about the young men you taught?

The duality of their personalities. They were the crème de la crème of North Korea, mostly from wealthy families in Pyongyang, and yet they were respectful, earnest, almost provincial. They could be sweet and boyish, yet they were fervent followers of the Great Leader, and when they were in that mode, they seemed one-dimensional and almost robotic. Three times a day, they marched to the cafeteria, in formation, chanting patriotic songs, like soldiers. They spoke in a way that was very scripted. There were phrases all my students repeated all the time, such as "powerful and prosperous nation," an expression I had already heard from other North Koreans on previous visits. Their songs were extremely violent and aggressive towards America – for example, the lyrics of one song were about hunting the heads of Americans – but at the same time they were incredibly excited for the chance to watch Harry Potter.

You say that you came to love your students. What did you love about them?

We were more or less trapped together in a walled compound, and in those circumstances love or understanding or camaraderie often develops. It was not possible not to love them. My students were very innocent, almost childlike, because they had been so sheltered from the world. They still had that old-world ethic of respecting their teachers and obeying their parents, and they were shy. Shyness is something I haven't seen much in young people of the same age in the United States. In this odd way, they seemed pure.

In the book you talk about how much the students lied. What did they lie about, and why?

They would lie about almost anything with an ease that I found unnerving. They would tell me they had slept very late on days when I had seen them doing their morning exercises at 6 AM. They would tell me they called their parents all the time, when in fact they were not allowed to at all. They told me they had partied with their friends during the summer break, when I knew that most of their friends at other universities had been assigned to work in construction fields that summer. Their lies seemed to be about their system and the restrictions that they were not allowed to reveal. For example, they all had guard duty. From evening until the following morning, no matter how severe the weather, six students took turns standing outside the empty building on campus known as Kimilsungism Study Hall, guarding the spirit of their dead Great Leader. But they wouldn't admit to doing it, and even when they did, they wouldn't talk about it.

Of course, lying and secrecy were all they had ever known. From the time they were born, my students had been told that the Korean War was started by South Korea and the United States, that their Great Leader Kim Jong-il was admired around the world, and that their nation was the most powerful and prosperous on the planet. In a country where the government invents its own truth, how could they be expected to do otherwise?

What were your students' knowledge of and attitudes toward the West?

They could be very naïve. One student asked me if people spoke Korean in the outside world and another asked whether it was true that naengmyun (their national dish) was hailed as the best in the world. Their lack of general knowledge astounded me. Many of them did not know what the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal was. They thought their intranet, a censored network of pre-downloaded information, was the same as the Internet. And although their majors were in science and technology, they didn't know when the first man walked on the moon. But all of them could recite exactly when and for how much Alaska was sold to America—a lesson on imperialism. And they all knew the book Gone with the Wind, although they called it Disappeared with the Wind. I always wondered whether they were allowed to read it because the book is about a war between North and South, and the North wins!

What were you most afraid of while you were at PUST?

I was afraid that my notes would be found and I'd be accused of spying. The punishment for that could easily have been hard labor in a gulag. What also scared me, every single day, was that I would get 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 argument based on evidence doesn't exist in North Korea. It was completely foreign to them. They are told what to think, and it requires no proof. Critical thinking is very dangerous.

Why did you title the book Without You, There Is No Us?

That's a line from a song I heard my students chanting as they marched to the cafeteria. I heard it so often that I memorized the tune and the lyrics. The "you" in the song is clearly Kim Jong-il, and from what I saw, the lyric accurately describes their world.

Life in Pyongyang was vastly different from life in the U.S. In your time there, what was the most difficult thing to get used to?

To never be left alone is extremely exhausting. The minders were always watching, the students were reporting on us; every meal, every conversation, every class was under scrutiny. Our rooms and offices were bugged. Each building on campus was connected by an enclosed walkway with windows on either side, so everything everywhere was visible. We had to get permission for everything as though we were children. Thinking was dangerous, but there was also no time for thinking. It sometimes felt as though "I" did not exist. This was a very foreign feeling—deeply claustrophobic and sometimes almost unbearable.

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?

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 the 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.

What do you think the young men who were your students are doing today?

Right now they are seniors in college. Under Kim Jong-un, there have been fresh rounds of executions and purges, mostly among the elite. In North Korea, when the parents are punished, the children are usually punished too. I worry about their fate.

Do you think North Korea will ever become a more open society?

I don't really see how that's possible as long as the current regime is in power. For their survival, North Korea must maintain the myth of the Great Leader, which is possible only if the people remain ignorant and powerless, so becoming a more open society would be suicide for the Kim Jong-un regime. Already we are seeing the ruthless side of this young leader. Most 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 the people of North Korea continues.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Without You, There Is No Us jacket
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