Photo by Ed Kashi
Going undercover is no mean feat. Doing so in one of the most brutal and secretive nations on the planet is either knowingly foolish or heroically brave. In the case of Suki Kim it was the latter.
Having visited North Korea on a handful of occasions it didn’t take Suki long to realise that everything she saw on those trips was acutely controlled and staged. Deciding she’d need to embed herself to be able to uncover any real story – the truth – in 2011 Suki posed as an English teacher at a Pyongyang university. With every room monitored and every conversation under suspicion, Suki resorted to hiding USBs on her body. Four years on we chat about real life in the hermit kingdom.
Having been to North Korea before – as a writer – why do you think it was so easy to return?
There’s actually a couple of loopholes in my case. I’m not a staff writer anywhere, so that really makes any writing I’ve done into a freelance category. And the fact that my first book was actually a novel; they just didn’t think I was a dangerous writer.
You were teaching at a university that educates the sons of elite North Koreans. What was the surveillance like?
The minders lived in the same building – minders are the ones who are just watching you, that’s all they ever do – and also every classroom was bugged. Students are reporting on you and there was nowhere you could go and be alone.
How did that affect your ability to keep notes on what you were observing?
Because we were teachers we could have our laptops so I just worked in the early morning and at night. I tried to carry my laptop with me at all times, but even so every time I finished writing in the morning, I put everything onto a USB stick and erased everything from the computer. I kept those USB sticks on my body. I brought very, very tiny ones specifically for that purpose and I wore them as a necklace. I would actually hide one in the room, just in case. I also saved it on an SD card, the camera card, not usually where they would care to [look]. I wrote almost like a diary. I put my notes in the middle of a document; it began as something else and then page 200 is when I really began writing, so it would look like a note or something on a class.
It must be tempting to tell your students what life is like on the outside. How did you manage that feeling?
Well, it’s a system where you’re being watched 24/7, so with my interaction with the students I knew the classroom was being reported and recorded and I knew that when we ate meals, for example, three times a day it’s me and three students and I knew they were reporting on each other and on me. So what that means is that you’re just never alone, one-on-one, with anybody.
…It was a university of science and technology, but they didn’t even know the Internet. So you want to tell them but you know you can’t because everyone is watching. It’s such a system of fear, it’s such an abusive place, so you just can’t because you’re going to probably get deported right away or something terrible will happen to you… but also you’re going to get those students in trouble. I think when you’re responsible for someone else’s life then you do keep your mouth shut.
How is it possible to learn computer science but not have any understanding of the Internet?
Their television shows are only about The Great Leader, the newspapers are only about The Great Leader. They don’t have anything; in every room is a Great Leader portrait, every song is about The Great Leader. You can’t re-teach anything when you think about it; that wipes out the rest of the world [the Internet]. How can you teach history and not mention the rest of the world? Or geology, or science or literature? So media, it is just not possible.
Did you ever see students using Google?
I was shown kids sitting in front of Google – a select group of students. And it was very clear when you talk to them – and this is a really tricky thing about North Korea – if I were to interview students, they would say, ‘Yes, we surf the Internet all the time’, for example, but if you live with them the answer you get is something else. It doesn’t come from you asking that question, it comes from you living with them. And at some point they’ll ask things like, ‘Oh, so how many movies can you watch on the Internet?’ Or ‘How long are the movies that you can watch?’
But they did know some Western people, like Bill Gates?
There are random things like that. They almost hand-pick some things that they [allow]. Maybe some foreigner brought in, was allowed in, maybe mentioned it, who knows, it’s just completely random. Bill Gates they knew but they didn’t know Steven Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or anybody else. They knew Michael Jordan, the basketball player, but they couldn’t name anybody else. They didn’t know any western books except Gone with the Wind. When you think about it though, Gone with the Wind is about civil war where the North wins. But that’s it, they didn’t know anything else.
One of your student’s assignments was for them to write letters to themselves. What did you learn by reading those letters?
The letters was one way that I thought I could glimpse into what their lives were and it took a while but by the end they were writing to their girlfriends. In the beginning they pretended they all didn’t have any girlfriends because they only serve their Great Leader. What was amazing was these were not real letters, the letters were not meant to reach the recipients… because they couldn’t actually send real letters or actually be in touch with their family so instead they actually wrote some of their real feelings. Their feelings were so tender and so afraid, they were sick of the sameness of everything and they were afraid that they were only learning English although they were science students. The normal humanity of what it might be like to be 19, missing their mum, missing their girlfriends, but they had no power to either call them or see them. All of that was in the letters, which was really heartbreaking.
You wrote the book Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite based on your semester in North Korea. What do you want people to take away from your work?
It’s the most abusive nation in the world; North Koreans can’t even travel between towns in their own country, never mind leave the country. But I think that we also have a problem with the outside world because we don’t have any information – there is no real portrait coming out of North Korea, we just don’t know anything about them. So I think we either see them as the ‘other’ because we get the stories of hunger and defecting… it became such a faraway thing that people can’t relate to. Or they make Great Leader jokes, Kim Jong-un jokes, and I think what’s missing is actually humanity – if we could see that they are people like us. The UN calls them the most brutal nation in the contemporary world. There are 25 million human beings in there.
Elite or not elite they are actual human beings having to live in that system which is only really serving one man so I wanted to bring that humanity, or describe it as vividly as I can, so we can see them as real people, begin to care about them and then hopefully do something from [the] outside.
Suki Kim is in Australia for the Melbourne Writers Festival and the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House. For more information about the program click here.