Truth and Lies
Author Suki Kim describes the risks and heartbreak of her time living undercover in North Korea
Being a professional writer is not necessarily an easy career path; long hours of research followed by days of writer’s block, drafting and redrafting, negotiating with publishers, and then if you’re lucky, months of book tours. But only a few authors ever have to actually risk their personal safety, or indeed their lives, to do the background research for their work.
Yet this is exactly what Korean-American author Suki Kim was willing to do when she embarked on a six-month stay in North Korea, posing as an English teacher at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. During her secretive and highly risky time teaching the future leaders of the reclusive regime, Suki gathered information which she would later use to write her New York Times Best-selling literary non-fiction Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, which provides a unique and unprecedented glimpse into the tragic lives of the country’s people.
Prior to arriving in Macau to participate in The Script Road – Macau Literary Festival, Suki Kim spoke exclusively to CLOSER about her fascinating journey into arguably the most mysterious and unknown country in the world today.
Your trip was arranged by a Christian missionary group, so to get into North Korea you had to pretend to be a teacher and an evangelical Christian, is that correct?
Yes, double undercover. But they [the other teachers] were all pretending not to be evangelical, so in a way I was posing as an evangelical pretending not to be an evangelical.
You had been to North Korea before on three occasions, so what sort of planning did you do this time, given that your goal was to write a book about your experiences?
The first time I went was in 2002. I had interviewed over 100 defectors, in China, in Mongolia, in Thailand, Laos, South Korea, in their hiding places, in detention centres, in official interviews, a year after they had settled down in Seoul etc. I had been to the border region multiple times, but defector testimony is so dubious so it’s necessary to cross check, to approach from all angles for verification. I went to South Africa to observe the North Korean World Cup team and to see who was in the audience from North Korea. I travelled to the border region in China to understand the illegal trading that happens there. So I had spent a decade following every trail that I could.
When I interviewed for the job, they [the missionary group] never actually asked me if I was a Christian, because who else would go unpaid to North Korea and teach? My first book was a novel and as a journalist I was freelance, not a staff writer, so I seemed to be in a loophole. 2008 was when I contacted them for a job and 2011 was when I went.
Were you surprised that you were allowed in to teach there?
I was surprised, but I was also worried. I was worried that they [the North Korean authorities] would clue on to what I was doing; ‘When are they going to wisen up to this?’ So it was very scary. I was frightened all the time because I was not doing what I said I was going to be doing. When you go into North Korea, you had better be doing exactly what you said you were going to do. I was writing a book in secret, and I knew if I got found out, it would definitely be considered espionage and the punishment for that would be frightening. I thought the chance of me coming out alive was exceptionally slim, but by then I was a decade deep into it.
It seems it was a very personal mission for you. What made you willing to take such risks to write this book?
Now people talk about North Korea a lot, but at that time there was no interest. And when I was interviewing all those defectors, no one cared what they had to say. I was obsessed with the topic and at some point I realized, I might be the only one to do this: I happen to be fluent, not only in the language but in the culture; I’m not a traditional journalist but I can do in-depth investigation; I immigrated to America when I was 13, so I really do understand both cultures; I come from families that got separated. All in all, I have this unique perspective. Most of all, my writing is not political but literary, which is so helpful in covering this topic. There’s a subtlety that’s needed in covering North Korea, because so much of the truth is varied that you really have to look between the lines.
Despite the success of the book, you have received some criticism.
I’ve faced a lot of backlash for the book because I think the so-called “experts” covering this topic would love to pretend that what I did was not journalism, or that I did not spend years carefully planning on going undercover. I had a book contract long before my mission; I didn’t just stumble in there and then come out to write it up. It was a decade long project. They discredited my work as a memoir, that I did not go undercover, that I lied to get in, etc. It’s an outrage. The truth remains that I was the only writer to have lived inside North Korea, among North Koreans, and I documented the psychology of the future leadership during the final six months of Kim Jong-il’s reign. If that’s not immersive journalism, I don’t know what is. If I were a white male professional writer, would they have so quickly dismissed me?
Some white journalists have told me ‘oh it’s a lot easier for you to go in there and blend in’. But what do they think, that I was blending in among the locals in North Korea? Like people would mistake me for a North Korean? That is nonsense. Only white people would mistake me for North Korean, no North Korean would think I am one of them. Being South Korean in North Korea, there are so many more minders around you, because you understand the language and the context, and they don’t want you to understand. So you’re under far more watch, so it’s not an advantage at all, it’s a disadvantage in that way. I never did “blend” in. It was devastatingly hard work, in fact, impossible work. Look, I know the language and culture, but it took me a decade to research, chase, understand, and get to the core of it as much as I could.
Given the constant scrutiny you were under, how did you manage to keep a record of your time and experiences there?
I took about 400 pages of notes. I was recording notes day and night, all the details I could remember, scribbled down in my little note pad and then I’d rip it up. I had a laptop and would write down all my notes, then transfer them onto my USB and erase all trace from my laptop. I was never apart from my USB and I’d carry my laptop with me all the time, but there were moments when I didn’t have that, so I did have a notebook and I was always making notes.
I think what was surprising is that it was so like adrenaline writing in a way - I was so scared and petrified all the time - but a lot of the writing was actually very solid. And I also knew that I couldn’t fact check them afterwards. Sometimes you can get lazy with reporting and think ‘I’ll look this up later’, but I knew I couldn’t rely on that, so I think I was hyper alert with my writing and recording the entire time.
Was it difficult to teach the students with such strict limitations on what you could discuss with them?
Every moment was a struggle. It’s really hard to describe things and leave out ‘the world’.
Your goal was to tell the truth about life inside North Korea, yet you say your students would often not tell you the truth, and you yourself were not being truthful about who you really were. Did that affect you when it came to writing a book about ‘the truth’?
That’s the thing I struggled with when I was doing the background reporting, because so much testimony from defectors is lies, because they are in a desperate situation and they are just telling you what you want to hear.
No one there really understands what lies are in that world, and then that made me question ‘what is my truth and my lies, and how can I judge their world?’
We think ‘lies are bad, truth is good’ in such a conventional way, but that’s assuming their world is like our world. But their world is living by different morals where the truth can get you killed and lies can save your life. And they’re never taught that there’s a difference between truth and lies.
Traditional reporting about North Korea has not been about the truth, they [the media] deliver PR information that the North Korean government feeds them. So we are conditioned to think that traditional reporting on North Korea is the truth, but actually that’s a lie.
What I did as an undercover reporter was use lies to get into a system you can’t access otherwise, and deliver truthful reporting. Living in that reality of truth not being possible, or lies not necessarily being a bad thing, my students had no agency, they didn’t know the difference between truth and lies. They were so confused because their values have been so broken down and violated. But as young men raised this way, they have no hope but to live this way in order to survive.
What did you find to be the most disturbing or difficult part of your time there?
The heartbreak. And that’s what imbedded journalism does, you can’t predict what will happen and you become a part of that world. So because I approached North Korea that way, I genuinely came to care about the students so much, and their predicament broke my heart.
That was the most difficult thing because this level of travesty is bearable as a concept if you don’t know anyone who’s there. But once it becomes personal, it’s someone you love living under that on a daily basis. As a teacher, they felt almost like my kids and I did care about them so much and it was really heartbreaking, and I think that heartbreak was more than I could handle.
It must have been difficult to relive those experiences when it came to actually writing the book.
You know, I’m still reliving it. It’s as if for me, it never ended. To write something, you have to be in that world, in your mind all the time, and when the book was done I suffered from great depression. I felt like, ‘I have to say goodbye to them’. But then I didn’t, because I’ve been talking about the book so much, that in some way it feels like it never ended. I’ve done other writing work since, but nothing was ever invested that way. I think that this was a particularly important work - I mean I risked my life - so it was really different from the work I did before or since.
Are you optimistic about the future of North Korea, given recent attempts at diplomacy with South Korea?
No, I don’t have optimism about North Korea. The PR movements we are seeing with the Olympic unified team and all that stuff, this is just what we’ve seen before, a political tool, so it’s almost an expected development. And for North Korea, of course they do this all the time. They threaten and then they do PR movements, so it’s like textbook what’s happening now. I don’t see anything changing.
How are you feeling about visiting Macau for The Script Road?
I mean, Macau is a very interesting territory when it comes to the relationship with China and North Korea, so I don’t know. To be honest I’m a little wary. I’ve been there before, a long time ago, as a tourist, but I’m very curious. It’s definitely a place of interest, but at the same time it’s a place I have been warned not to go to, and yet I am going. But that’s the story of my life.