Jour­nal­ist of­fers in­sights on North Korea

Suki Kim in­fil­trated the se­cre­tive na­tion three times over nine years

The Southern Berks News - - LOCAL NEWS - By Evan Brandt ebrandt@21st-cen­tu­ry­media. com @PottstownNews on Twit­ter

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.

This satel­lite im­age of North Korea at night, dis­played dur­ing Suki Kim’s talk, shows the near com­plete lack of elec­tri­cal in­fra­struc­ture in the iso­lated coun­try.

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