North Korea, is undeniably, the world’s most secretive country. The most alarming aspect about the country, perhaps, is just how little we know about it. Sealed off from the rest of the world for decades, it is difficult to comprehend the reality of living in a country divorced from under the shadow of a personality cult that intrudes on all aspects of life, and where internet and much of 21st century remain unknown. Few outsiders have had intimate contact with the country, and still, fewer have ever written about it.
Novelist and journalist Suki Kim is one of the few outsiders to have accomplished the rare feat, having seen the country from a close distance. In 2011, she secured the job of teaching English at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, an all-male university in North Korea, with about 270 students, all of whom were the sons of North Korean elites.
Kim spent six months at the college, recording notes for what would become her 2014 book, Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.
At this year’s Jaipur Literature Festival, Kim spoke in detail about the revelatory book she wrote on returning to the United States and the extent of fear, misinformation and propaganda that she encountered in her six months there.
YKA caught up with the award-winning journalist to get to know more about the book, her experience in North Korea and the future of journalism in the post-truth world.
Growing up, you only heard about the sorrow and the heartbreak of the North Korean people. My grandmother – her son was taken to North Korea when he was 17, during the war and she just waited her life, waiting for him to come home. She presumed he’ll just walk in the door because you know Korea was one country then and it was a temporary measure to create this wall between North Korea and South Korea. So, knowing that story, I always did think about this idea of living your whole life waiting with this heartbreak, and dying of this heartbreak, and what that means for an entire generation to feel such sorrow, and if it could ever recover from it as a nation. That’s the bigger moral question I was really obsessed with. How do you recover from that kind of sorrow when the entire nation suffers from that? And what’s the amnesia where you can move onto the next generation pretending that everything is fine?
I think the book seems to have reached people and that readers have reacted to the humanity of the subject. This is not a defector account, this is not about hunger and famine. When people think about the problem in North Korea, they see it as the other. They see the horrible atrocities of the world, and then they shut the information down and move on. But, because the book captures the life within, in all its complexity, I think the reactions that I am getting is readers identifying with North Korea. Because only when you begin to identify and empathise and begin to think of these people as your own, your sons, your friends, things will change. That’s generally the reaction I got and I am glad about it.
The book, to begin with, was not taken seriously, because of my gender, for just the fact that I was a woman and how could a woman be an investigative journalist. So, that injustice, I had to deal with. It’s been an exhausting journey, to get legitimacy for the journalism.
They are ( US-North Korea relations) not really a crazy show now, they had a crazy show forever. It just that it wasn’t getting any media attention before. So sure, there is a difference now, and it’s crazier because of Donald Trump. The North Korean tactic is always melodrama – they will threaten nuclear war or terrorist action. They’ll say they’ll bomb a South Korean town, sink a submarine, bomb the plane, then there will be some action, and this is how North Korea has operated forever. But Trump is basically coming up with a response to every single of these antics now, and every time Trump issues a response, the media goes crazy. So, the heightened feeling is just that the level of showmanship is a bit double the usual. In reality, on the ground, nothing is different.
The future of investigative journalism is stronger than ever. You know, when the time is horrible politically – and I am not just talking about America, it’s true for the world at large, including India – those are the moments when the search for truth becomes more urgent than ever.
Just see the #Metoo movement. That’s a reaction to many things including the US president and more than 12-13 women accusing him of sexual harassment, and that injustice that we have all witnessed with nothing, absolutely nothing being done to punish those in wrong, and him not being accountable for these accusations – I think that has been one of the causes of this phenomenal journalistic development that we are seeing right now.
I just did a piece on sexual harassment in public radio for New York magazine, and you know it was actually so much work, but the fact that we are so technology-based, that everybody is so connected, it was actually really possible to track down women. I just had to go to Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and just look at all the women who had really worked at that radio station. And that makes investigation far more doable. It’s also less expensive because we didn’t need to hire people all over the place. If you are devoted, you can just sit at your desk and find a lot of information about a lot of things. That just means investigation now is more accessible.
( This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity)