Journalist Who Posed As An English Teacher In North Korea Reveals What She Found.
Suki Kim is a South Korean-born journalist and author, and the only writer to have successfully lived undercover in the North Korean state. Her bestselling book Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korean Elite is based on her time posing as an English teacher.
She took to r/IAmA to answer some of the most pressing questions the internet has about the mysterious and disturbing dictatorship. Here we've collected some of the best. Enjoy!
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.
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 every day and 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.
Since so many people seem to be curious about this question, let me answer belated. I think perhaps it's that word "weird" that made me pause, which is why I could not answer immediately. I am trying to put this in a way that isn't sounding judgmental perhaps, but from our (Western) perspective, so many things just do not make sense, the Great Leader badges on each citizen they are required to wear at every waking moment, the empty highway devoid of human trace, the theatre set up where people suddenly appear to lay flowers to show respect to the Great Leader etc.
Once on an empty highway, I saw a perfectly dressed woman with a handbag wearing heels walking as though she were walking to an office in the city, but it was a farmland with nothing around, no bus stop anywhere near. (Story continues...)
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She looked like she had been photoshopped into the scenery. However, it wasn't that it was "weird." I felt this sinking feeling each time I saw things like that. Because it's unnatural, it's controlled, it's contrived, it just does not add up.
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 of decency and integrity. 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/risk of finding sources/pursuing 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.
I kept them all on USB sticks which I kept on my body at all times. I erased anything that could be traced 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 backup copies on SD card which I hid in secret places in the dark, with the light off, just in case there were cameras in the room I didn't know about.
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. (Story continues...)
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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.
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, and they didn't like to use English dictionaries for definition. They found different accents by the teachers (many were missionaries from deep South, with the Southern accent, or from New Zealand etc) 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.
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, it's more like a regional difference than a national one.
But when you are talking about the basic exclamation you cite, (when bumping into things or surprised) they are pretty much not that different.
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? (Story continues...)
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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? It was one of the things I discussed at length in my book. What happens to the 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. . .
I guess it was that disconnect that I found unacceptable and outrageous and horrible because that disconnect was happening in boys who I loved and respected and adored.
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, it would not be frightening since everything's so controlled.
"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 a 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.
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. (Story continues...)
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My students were the sons of the 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-stricken 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 on all level. Basically, they are all victims. The entire country is a web of abuse and control.
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.
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. (Story continues...)
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So then you have to check who is saying that, who is writing it, what do they know 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 responsibly these days, if they care to.
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 separations that happened to families, including my own - which is also true.
But the answer is a far more complicated one. 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. The most accurate answer would be that I jumped in there because it was the scariest place in the world for me.
If that makes any sense.
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.
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!
"It wasn't me!"
There's not much you can do when the righteous fist of the law comes down on you. Call it a mix-up, or call it a mistake, if someone's pegged you at the scene of a crime there's not much you can do but trust the justice system to prove you innocent. However, that's a gamble, and just because you've been given a "not guilty" doesn't mean the effects won't follow you for the rest of your life.
Reddit user, u/danbrownskin, wanted to hear about the times when it wasn't you, seriously, it was someone else, when they asked: