Suki Kim is a Korean American writer, a Guggenheim fellow and the author of the award-winning novel The Interpreter and a New York Times Bestselling literary nonfiction, Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite.
• Malcolm Gladwell (Malcolm T. Gladwell, CM is a Canadian journalist, bestselling author, and speaker. He has been a ...)
• Jono Bacon (Jono Bacon is a writer and software engineer, originally from the United Kingdom, but now based i...)
• Maria Konnikova (Maria Konnikova is a Russian-American writer and journalist, who primarily writes about psycholog...)» All Writer Interviews
My short bio: My short bio: Suki Kim is an investigative journalist, a novelist, and the only writer ever to go live undercover in North Korea, and the author of a New York Times bestselling literary nonfiction Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.
My Proof: https://twitter.com/sukisworld/status/871785730221244416
Were you ever in a situation where you had to act against your morals/beliefs to maintain your cover?
The premise of undercover journalism is a difficult one. Because you have to essentially "lie" to keep a cover. That is only used when the traditional methods cannot work, which is the case in some difficult topics such as investigating mafia or dictatorship etc. North Korea is one such place, there, traditional methods can even be collaborating in the regime's lie. So it's one exceptional circumstance where the undercover /embedded method can reveal the truth buried within lies. It was hard to be among the evangelicals however because I had to attend the sunday service (which was kept secret from students) at the dormitory, to keep my evangelical cover. The thing is, you have to set your own parameters. Within my capability, I tried to remain as truthful as I could. I know it sounds odd to say that, but there is no real rule in this kind of independent investigative journalism where you take all the task of finding sources / pursing it / jumping in there etc all on your own. So for me, I just tried as best as possible to be sincere despite the circumstances. But to be amongst such devout believers of fundamental Christianity, I found it difficult to maintain my pose, but I knew I had to, to be allowed to blend in. But I really struggled with it. It was very hard, I would say.
What wildly held belief among your students surprised you the most?
There were so many things. They just learn totally upside down information about most things. But one thing I think most people do not realize is that they learn that South Korea & US attacked North Korea in 1950, and that North Korea won the war due to the bravery of their Great Leader Kim Il Sung. So they celebrate Victory Day, which is a huge holiday there. So this complete lie about the past then makes everything quite illogical. Because how do you then explain the fact that Korea is divided still, if actually North Korea "won" the war? One would have to question that strange logic, which they do not. So it's not so much that they get taught lies as education, but that that second step of questioning what does not make sense, in general, does not happen, not because they are stupid but because they are forbidden and also their intelligence is destroyed at young age. There were many many examples of such.
What advice would you have for the general public regarding "how to understand the world, especially the "other" who we have not personally encountered?" Specifically, in the age of infinite information, fake news, and polarized sources, how does the public sift through and make meaning of their world?
This is really relevant. Fake news seems to dictate our world now, but I do believe due to the rise of fake news (or the method in which they can travel has grown tremendously due to the internet & the ease / speed of the internet publishing), the need for the real in-depth news has also risen. So if you were to look around, you will see so much more information on almost everything. I do think this means we have to just look more. And also I think because of the policing that happens as the result of the surplus of info, we can't get away with bogus information anymore the same way. North Korea is a perfect example of there being so much junk out there posing as info. So then you have to check who is saying that, who is writing it, what do they know etc etc. In the past, the story of the "other" belonged solely to Orientalists, who basically imposed their colonial view of the "other." Much of that still goes on, but I hope with all the policing, we are enforcing more quality control, perhaps. So that you can't just claim yourself "expert" when you don't speak the language, or hardly had been to the place, etc. So in fact, the general public can in fact inform themselves more thoroughly and resposibly these days, if they care to.
Hi Ms. Kim!
As someone who is in the middle of “Without You There Is No Us” I am thrilled that you are doing an AMA for us, so thank you!
My question is, while you were exhausted by the lies your students had no hesitation in participating in, were there any students in particular whom you felt was less into the shade of the regime? Or any student who has slipped up and revealed something that shouldn’t have been reveal to you?
And I might as well: what was one of the most outrageous lies you remember your students telling you?
Thank you so much once again!
I guess the boys lying broke my heart because they were always so absurd. What was heartbreaking about it was because there was no logic to any of it. Once a smartest, savviest student pretended to go shopping within the campus (when there was no shop & he could not go outside) but he knew that I knew that there was no shopping happening. So why did he lie? It was the way very little children would lie to avoid the moment, not a 19 year old young man. Also the fact that very same young man was normally so bright & quick witted upset me more. What made it outrageous was not that they were lying but that they continued with these nonsensical lies that would be caught instantly. Why? That was complicated which I discussed in the book. What happens to human mind when you have been brought up inside outrageous lies for generations, where lies are encouraged, where lies have different weight or value, where lies become ways of a survival etc etc. . .I guess it was that disconnect that I found unacceptable and outrageous and horrible, because that disconnect was happening in my boys whom I loved and respected and adored. So I would have to say it was the disconnect that I found outrageous.
What kind of measures did you have to go through to make sure your notes or any other evidence of your actual work would never be discovered?
I kept them all on USB sticks which I kept on my body at all times. I erased the trace off my computer every single time I signed off. I also created a document within a document so that my notes looked like a school material. I also created a back up copy on SD card which I hid in secret places in the dark, with the light off, just in case there were camera in the room.
Are there any linguistic things/cultural habits that North Koreans do that the rest of us Koreans also do? Like the "aigoo" and the "oh moh moh" when surprised?
Generally it's the same. Yes, the accent is different & they have some phrasings and words that are different or feel quite old fashioned or war-related vocabularies, but in general the difference is almost regional where one has that in South Korea from region to region also, but when you are talking about the basic exclamation you cite, (when bumping into things or surprised) they are pretty much not that different.
What did you enjoy about NK?
"Enjoy" would not be the right word, I think. But I have great empathy for the place because they are suffering. I am American but I am also Korean, and as Korean, I feel for the less privileged half. Also as a human being, I find the existence of the place and the inhumane treatment of the people there unacceptable. So it's not that I enjoy North Korea -- which I do not, I find the place to be horrifying -- but I am drawn to North Korea. But joy is of course there. My students I met there and fell in love with were all full of joy, because they were young and sweet and adorable and innocent and there were some fun times we shared, but they were also full of darkness, because of their society.
Was the experience frightening in any way?
Yes, frightening every second. Not because I was in Pyongyang, but because I was taking notes / writing the book in secret. For average people who visit Pyongyang for whatever organizational reason (that is not a place for a personal curiosity visit since it's basically a gulag positing as a country), it would not be frightening since everything's so controlled.
Do people in North Korea really see Kim jong un, Kim jong il, and Kim il-sung as essentially a god, or is it an act?
What do the people high in the workers party think of the western world?
The difficulty of this question is that they are also human beings and complex. Sometimes it is possible to believe as well as not believe. They do see him as essentially a god, but some also don't. Sometimes these beliefs co-exist. My students were like this often with me. I was their enemy because I came from the western world as well as South Korea (which is their enemy) but then I was their teacher, the only one they saw everyday they relied on, so they loved me at the same time. And it is that conflict within their humanity vs the inhumanity of their world that makes North Korea exceptionally tragic. Also, imagine, they were brought up in that system for 3 generations. It is a bit like a cult religion, so even if you might have some doubts, it is literally the world they come from, the only world they know and are allowed to see and be in. So it's a bit like hating a father you also grew up to worship. It's as conflicted as that. Because they are not "brainwashed" or robots, the problem becomes far more complex. Yes, they view the western world as their enemy but a part of them might want to see it or feel a bit worshipping of it, but they live in a world that is not allowed so they cannot ever show it. So it's a combination of all those things.
In '92-93 I taught English in Prague in the Czech Republic. Eastern Europe had just been opened up from the communists. The sense of euphoria among the people was palpable. Hope exuded from everyone.
I taught businessmen and women who for the first time in their lives had freedom for their entrepreneurial spirit. They came to me every day with hopes and bottles of champagne.
I'm curious about the demeanor of your students. I cannot imagine 'hope' was anywhere around. How can one teach without hope? Thx and best wishes.
I wasn't there to teach, so that was not what I was looking for. My students were so busy, every hour of their day was mapped out, so it leaves no time for thinking. I found that world to be without hope. That does not mean that there is no joy in moments. There are because human beings are resilient, and my students were very, incredibly humane and lovely and their youthful spirit was sparklingly beautiful. But there was no real time for them to celebrate any of it. They would relax a bit but the immediately hauled off to their many duties that all had to do with regime & great leader. There was no hope there. So I wrote down what I saw. But I do not know about other teachers who were there to teach, but if you read my book, you will see that the other teachers weren't mostly there to teach but there as a part of their fundamental evangelical missionary purpose.
Hi Suki! I read your book this spring - thank you for writing your experiences; truly enlightening, and also, empathy-invoking. Would you ever go back to DPRK? Do you think you'd be allowed to? Any plans for more books?
Hi, for now at least, I would not be allowed to go back, but more than that, even if I were allowed, which I could be in the future, I would probably not go because it would be too dangerous (in a different way than when I was there undercover for the book) and also because I would not feel that I would learn anything new, unless it could be under a different setting, which would be nearly impossible to find for the moment. And yes, there are more books at work:) Thanks for reading.
Hello Ms. Kim.
I enjoy your Twitter posts and found your Guardian piece comparing the political chaos in Korea to the U.S. very enlightening. In your experience, what are the biggest misconceptions Americans have about either North or South Korea?
I think the biggest misconception goes back to the basic premise. Most Americans have no idea why there are two Koreas, or why there are 30,000 US soldiers in South Korea and why North Korea hates America so much. That very basic fact has been sort of written out of the American consciousness. By repackaging the Korean War as a civil war, it has now created decades of a total misconception. The fact that the US had actually drawn the 38th Parallel that cut up the Korean peninsula, not in 1950 (the start of the war) but in 1945 at the liberation of Korea from Japan is something that no Korean has forgotten -- that was the beginning of the modern Korean tragedy. That the first Great Leader (the grandfather of the current Great Leader) was the creation of the Soviet Union (along with the US participation) is another horrible puzzle piece that Americans have conveniently forgotten.
How long did it take between the time you had this idea and actually going through with it? (Apologies if you covered that in the book, it's been a while since I read it.)
The whole idea for the literary nonfiction on North Korea came in February 2002 when I first went to Pyongyang for the 60th Birthday celebration of Kim Jong Il & wrote the NYRB cover essay. I realized then that an essay was just not enough, and there was just so much more I felt about this topic, also given my family background etc. From then on, it was trying to study the topic as thoroughly as I could, by literally researching it from afar and close, i.e. following defectors through the defection route, interviewing separated families, and situating myself in places where I could either go to North Korea or learn more in-depth stuff about it. Even my Fulbright research grant which allowed me to live in Seoul for 14 months in 2009 was for this book. As well as each visit that allowed me to get a different perspective. Understanding it from all sides was a key, and I felt that I had exhausted that by the time I lived there in 2011. So all in all, I would say about a decade.
Which do you like writing more? Nonfiction or fiction? Do you consider yourself a writer of "Korean-American" literature or does that tag/category bother you?
I thought The Interpreter was a great novel; one of my favorites.
I am always torn between the two genres. But if I really had to choose, I guess my heart is with fiction. But nonfiction makes my brains flow perhaps in a really exciting way. And my nonfiction in general is literary that I get my fiction angst/fill through that way. I don't know which I "like" writing better. Writing is so torturous for me that it's only after finishing it or nearing the end that I can enjoy it:) No, I do not consider myself a Korean-American literature writer. That genre is an odd one for fiction writers. I guess one cannot help that in coming up with genres, but especially fiction, to be limited by my nationality or immigration history is uncomfortable. I guess I just want to be a "writer", period. Yes, The Interpreter -- so many years later, I myself still have a real soft spot for Suzy Park, so thank you.
What was the most unexpected thing you learned about the country? Positive or negative....something unexpected.
The most unexpected thing is that we are somehow conditioned to think of North Korea as very simple. As in people are hungry & poor & brianwashed. Then rich are like Kim Jong Un & his friends all partying and eating & drinking. NOT true. My students were the sons of elite, the creme de la creme of North Korea, but they were under the most strict control every second of the day. They had not been anywhere, outside their country certainly but also within their country, and they didn't know anything, their education thus far seemed to have been totally bogus and built only around the Great Leader. They had no freedom of any kind. Sure, they were of course better off than the rest of the country that suffers, famine-striken etc., but the elites also live under fear. What I am trying to say is that it's not black and white. The control / abuse happens in all level. Basically they are all victims. The entire country is a ladder / web of abuse and control.
What made you want to go undercover in North Korea considering all of the dangers?
You know. . .I don't really know. I could give all the usual answers how I was so tortured by the injustice there - which is true - and how I felt horrified watching so many separation that happened to families, including my own - which is also true. But the answer is a far more complicated one. So I recently wrote a long essay on this very topic for Lapham's Quarterly, which should be coming out any day now. So I will tweet that out when the piece comes out. I think it has something to do with fear. How that society is built on fear, and how fear can dictate us, and how we try to fight that fear in life. . .I know it's maybe a bit nonsensical in this AMA answer format, for which I apologyze. . .but the more accurate answer would be that I jumped in there because it was the most scary place in the world for me. . .if that makes any sense.
How did they feel about learning English? Resentful? Enthusiastic? Indifferent?
They had no choice. This was what they were ordered to do, and they studied so diligently because they were obedient. It is a culture where they have to listen to the authorities. But little by little, they would show some frustrations. They found it hard. Their dictionaries were outdated, which translated Korean words to English, and they didn't like to use English dictionaries for definition. They found different accents by teachers (many were missionaries so from deep South, with Southern accents, or from New Zealand) difficult to understand. But these were just practical difficulties. Their real feelings about having to learn them? They couldn't really show it. They just felt worried that they were spending all their time learning English when their majors were within the field of science and technology
Anyone know where can I find information regarding how the first great leader was a creation of the USA & soviets? I'd love to read about it
That would be taking it out of the context to claim that first Great Leader was "created" by US. He was a soldier (protege of the Soviet), while US participated in that set up handpicking the US educated South Korean first president. US had drawn the 38th Parallel, and that division was trumpeted by the Cold War, two separate gov't formed by 1948 & war broke out in 1950. That is a very simplified version of the history of the two Koreas which most Americans don't remember and now wonder why they are in South Korea today and why is North Korea mad at them. If you are genuinely curious, there are many many books on this topic by serious historians.
What ESL teaching methods and approaches were favoured by schools in North Korea? Additionally, what kind of resources/texts were available for you to use in the classroom?
Only those texts allowed in China. All that was pre-approved by the North Korean authority. I tried to install my own methods of essay writing and letter writing to investigate what they are really thinking, but that was not a part of the official text, but I insisted and got them approved by the North Korean authority called "counterpart".
How much did u make as a teacher? Easy thing to get into (teaching English in N Korea)? Last one - any dangers associated with just teaching in N. Korea?
It was an unpaid job. I believe every teacher was sponsored by their church. There is not a danger in teaching in North Korea, but this is a gulag nation, and America is their enemy, and there is no diplatic relations between them, so if you are a teacher from the US, then, yes you are in danger, as evidenced by the recent hostage crisis where two American detained by North Korea (currently still held there) are from the university where I taught.