Journalist offers insights on North Korea
Suki Kim infiltrated the secretive nation three times over nine years
Three times a day, Suki Kim’s students, the sons of North Korea’s elite, marched in lockstep to the dining hall singing songs about the great leader.
They were enrolled in a university from which they were not allowed to leave, and where the curriculum consisted largely of studying the country’s “great leaders” who had led the nation since the 1948 division of the peninsula along the 38th parallel.
Kim, a native South Korean journalist and author who slipped into the county several times under different guises, feels sympathy for the students.
“They were lovely young men,” she says, arguing they cannot be held responsible for the behavior of their nation when, as the third generation to be raised in the country under the current system, they know so little of the outside world.
“People forget human beings live there,” she said of a nation so cut off from the outside world, there is no internet, little heat and so little electricity that the nation literally looks dark from space.
Her remarks came at The Hill School’s Center for the Arts, where she was the inaugural speaker in the school’s new Thomas G. Ruth Speaker Series, named for a longtime history teacher at the school who died last year.
And her insights are particularly timely given the nuclear brinksmanship and war of works now underway between President Donald J. Trump and the North Korean regime.
Kim is the author of The New York Times best-selling book of investigative literary nonfiction, “Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korean Elite.”
Kim pulled no punches in describing the conditions under which North Koreans live — famine, education based around the cult of the “great leader,” scarce heat or electricity and being under surveillance 24 hours a day — which is perhaps why she has no patience for jokes about North Korean leaders. “I don’t see what’s funny about a gulag nation of 25 million people,” she said, having just shown a slide of a nation with nearly 20 known political prisons.
Kim grew up with her grandmother waiting for her uncle to some day make it across from North Korea. Her grandmother died disappointed and a curiosity grew in Kim to learn more about the world’s most secretive state.
She first arrived in North Korea in 2002, after a great famine, and “I was shocked at the complete lack of everything. Food, electricity, freedom,” said Kim.
It was also the 60th birthday of Kim Jong-il and she quickly discovered that everything about North Korean culture is now centered around the cult of the “great leader,” to the point that even their calendar begins on the birthday of the first one, former guerilla leader Kim Il sung.
“All the books are either by a great leader, or about him. All the people wear pins with his face on them. They have one TV station that works regularly and it is about the great leader. There is one newspaper, six pages long, that only writes about the great leader,” she said.
Even the flowers have been renamed after the great leaders.
The reverence comes from an inculcated hatred of the United States, and the fact that the “great leader” protects the people from the U.S. Absence of knowledge about the outside world, or even how to think critically, “infantilizes the people,” said Kim. “They believe very strange things, like playing basketball makes you taller.”
In 2008, she again returned this time covering the New York Philharmonic’s performance there but “everything was so staged, you couldn’t find out anything.”
Finally, she was able to get in as a teacher for a fundamentalist Christian organization that was funding a university.
“They were allowed because they pretended they would not proselytize and I was allowed because I pretended I was a fundamentalist Christian, so there were two layers of deception going on,” she said.
There, she found all young men of the elite class, who were required to go everywhere in twos so they could report on each other. Once a week, there was a meeting where transgressions were reported and Kim had a minder who followed her 24 hours a day.
All lesson plans had to be pre-approved and all lessons were recorded. “It’s a system of total surveillance. You cannot talk about the outside world. You had computer science students who had never heard of the internet,” she said.
Kim wrote at night and at dawn on a laptop, moving the files which she buried inside other files, onto a thumb drive which she wore around her neck, then deleting everything she had written in the laptop. If any of this had been discovered, she would have been imprisoned as a spy.
The year was 2011 and not only was it “year 100,” the birthday of the first great leader, it was also the year Kim Jong-il died “and I saw real sorrow among their students, which is what you would expect in a cult. He was their god.”
Living under conditions like this, means the current tensions between North Korea and the United States mean little to the population of North Korea.
First, with no knowledge of the outside world, they don’t know it’s going on. Second, “for them, after three generations have grown up in this environment where everything is about a constant threat of war, this would be nothing new for them, they’ve always lived this way” said Kim. “Their word for the workplace means ‘battlefield.’”
But even as the threat of a nuclear confrontation looms here, “As real as the nuclear threat is, there is a human rights aspect to this as well,” said Kim.
This article first appeared as a post in The Digital Notebook blog.
Investigative journalist and best-selling author Suki Kim is the inaugural speaker for the new Thomas G. Ruth Speaker Series at The Hill School and spoke about her experiences inside North Korea.