North Korea's secrets spilled in author's haunting memoir

Suki Kim spent six months teaching English to the sons of North Korea's elite and left feeling sad for a people 'utterly debased'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Friday, 12 December, 2014, 6:15pm

"Without you there is no motherland, without you there is no us," is a popular line from a song that praises former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Three times a day, the students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a closely guarded all-male institution where the sons of North Korea's elite are sent to study, sing that song as they march on campus.

Suki Kim spent six months teaching English to PUST students in 2011, the year the dictator died. A Korean-born resident of New York whose family was split by the Korean war, Kim lived on the university campus along with 270 students, to whom she gained unprecedented access. Every night, she secretly recorded her experiences in a notebook, and this formed the basis of her haunting memoir, Without You, There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite.

What motivated you to write this book?

I first went to North Korea in 2002 to write about Kim Jong-il's 60th birthday celebrations for Harper's Magazine. But I quickly realised there was no way to write about North Korea beyond what the North Korean government would want as propaganda. So when I got the opportunity to live [there] in 2011, I realised it was the only possible way to humanise the people there. But I did not go there for the sole purpose of writing a book. I went because North Korea was such a cause of heartbreak for me and my family, and I wanted to understand the country better.

Does Kim Jong-il still cast a long shadow over North Korea?

My students said to me that their life was so fulfilled with [Kim Jong-il]. They woke up at 5.30am every morning for a group exercise in which they would chant and scream "reunification" of their motherland. Their routine was meticulously regimented and they were not allowed to leave the campus, not even to keep in touch with their parents. As time passed, they began to admit they were fed up with the sameness of everything. Their school was a miniature North Korea.

What do you think the Korean immigrant community in the US can do to influence political change in North Korea?

The Korean community in the US is largely organised around churches, so their efforts become mixed with the missionary purpose. And that makes matters more complicated because I think their objective has largely to do with converting North Korea to Christianity.

But how do you do that from the outside?

The churches do a lot of funding for the work inside North Korea. PUST is almost entirely funded by churches around the world. And this is a school that is rearing the future leaders of North Korea.

So the North Koreans gladly accept missionary money?

North Korea doesn't really care whether you're missionary or you're Muslim or you're atheist as long as you bring in the money. As far as they're concerned, anybody who does not believe in the Great Leader [a blanket term for the dynastic rulers] is a heretic anyway.

You write that China and the US - the two nations that can influence change in North Korea - have done little or nothing in that regard. What do you think they should do?

It's true the rest of the world knows hardly anything about what's going on in North Korea. And the regime would like to keep it that way. The lack of information about the country is astounding. Some of that is because North Korea is so tightly controlled. A lot of it is because of the lack of resources invested into finding out about the country. But I'm not sure what the rest of the world can do about dealing with a country that has gone back on every agreement and will never stay true to what it has promised.

What's the most enduring image or idea that you got from your 2011 visit to North Korea?

Being there is incredibly heartbreaking. You can feel the absolute lack of freedom and the utter debasement of humanity because of the control that the government has. You are watched 24/7 - everybody watches everybody else. Just to be at PUST and not be allowed to walk out of there freely was a scary situation. In the countryside I saw people who looked like skeletons.

What were your students like?

They were the crème de la crème of North Korea and they all looked lovely … so respectful and adorable. They were about 20 years old, but they looked much younger because they led such sheltered lives. They had an innocence about them and yet they lied constantly about the smallest things. It took me a while to understand that telling lies was part of their system - their world. If they were doing Great Leader guard duty, for example, they were told not to talk about it. So they were kind of ordered to lie, I realised. It became their habit, a way of life. They would say things like: "I should have cheated better in the exam."

But isn't that telling the truth?

Yes, but somehow cheating was not considered bad. Another student told me that computer hacking was rewarded in their country.

What kind of reaction do you think your book is going to get from the North Korean regime?

The regime cannot be happy with my book. It's displeased, I'm sure. The evangelicals are not pleased either. They think my book could affect PUST, which is God's mission to them, and they feel I disrupted it. I'm sorry if I upset them. But ultimately, the book is about the 25 million North Koreans who are the victims of the biggest violation of human rights in the world.