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Going undercover in North Korea: Suki Kim’s greatest fear was not for own safety

The investigative journalist and author spent a full six months with her life on the line.

Suki Kim, an investigative journalist and the author of a New York Times Bestselling literary nonfiction book, ‘Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elites’, has gone through an experience that most would never try in their lives – going undercover as a teacher in North Korea.

The 47-year-old first visited Pyongyang in 2002 as a journalist –  and came away unsatisfied by the repetitive and falsified image of a perfect society that was bared to her. Wanting to gain greater access to the secretive state, she infiltrated a school for the sons of the elites, and posed as an English teacher for six months in 2011. This allowed her a glimpse of the world closed off to the rest of us. The Peak got ahold of Kim when she was in town to participate in the Singapore Writers Festival earlier this year.

Suki Kim teaching in a class of the sons of elites at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology


“Every second was frightening as hell,” Suki Kim commented on her time in North Korea. 
Even her first moments gave her the jitters – she was assigned the same minder from her first trip in 2002, only to realise that her cover would be kept safe because they were not trained to question things. To avoid suspicion, Kim would constantly re-examine her words and actions to ensure she did not make any overt slips that could land her in a gulag. She also made notes of daily occurrences for her novel in secret at four in the morning every day, and was fastidious in clearing her computer history regularly to prevent being discovered.

As the interview progresses, Kim often looks lost in her memories. Her voice is thick with emotion and she often turns to the side, arm raised to her head, in a bid to recall the events from six years ago. Immersive journalism led her to leave her identity as a writer in Manhattan behind to become an English teacher in North Korea.

“Your feelings are real, but separation sometimes… it became a bit harder as I began to really love them. They are my subjects. But often, I felt so much tenderness for them,” Kim says, detailing the struggle of separating her responsibilities as a journalist from her personal feelings.

This came to a head when a fellow American journalist visited the school – instead of feeling a need to reach out to someone from her world, Kim mentioned that she surprisingly felt a stronger sense of allegiance to her students, and the need to protect them from prying questions.

“It was not a (selfish) journalistic concern. I was not afraid that he would take away (leads on) my subjects. It was really about – I felt like I belonged in their world.”

The moment that struck the most fear in her?

As it turns out, it was not fear for herself, but for one of her students – who approached her saying he was considering to writing an essay on his own country. Although Kim’s role as a teacher was to engender critical thinking and exposition, in that moment she realised that such thoughts would jeopardise his own safety.

“Every North Korean has a meeting every Saturday where they would report on each other. This surveillance is a national thing,” Kim explains. “It’s really horrible to be a North Korean and want things. It immediately suggests that you’re not going to be happy, and you’re not going to be safe.”

Due to all the watchful eyes in class, she was unable to overtly advise him against his course of action.

Is Kim optimistic about a chance that revolution can come from the inside? Not so. According to her, the youth are “trapped” in a culture and system where curiosity about the outside world is nipped in the bud.

“We think that somehow, (when) someone is curious about the world, you can start a revolution. No. You need to nurture that. When you’re a youth, you’re 19, you have to be (nurtured) tenderly,” Kim says. “But in that world, there is no tenderness.”

Despite this gloomy outlook, Kim’s plan is to author more books about the North Korean society. By reaching a wide audience, she hopes that her works expose the many layers of the problem at hand, strike a chord with those outside the regime, and eventually contribute towards policy decisions that may one day coalesce in external intervention.

 

Photo: Singapore Writers Festival and Suki Kim