“…So in 2011, I went undercover into North Korea, posing as a missionary and a teacher to instruct English to the 19-year-old sons of North Korea’s ruling class at a brand-new university staffed only by foreigners. I lived on a walled campus with the students and ate all my meals with them, and was constantly monitored by minders. I kept notes whenever I could, erasing everything from my computer and keeping it on USB sticks, which I carried on my body. What I wrote would become Without You, There Is No Us.” -Suki Kim
Last February, I got so intrigued by the isolated North Korea after reading Park Yeonmi’s memoir (In Order to Live). At that time, I googled everything about North Korea — novels, history, organizations to help the defectors, leaders, and so on. That was when I stumbled upon Suki Kim’s speech on TED Talk (watch: here).
Born and raised in South Korea, Suki Kim craved to understand the intention of North Korea’s propaganda. For over a decade, Suki would go back and forth to North Korea for the purpose of research and investigation, until she landed herself on a book contract in 2011. She came to a realization that the only way of understanding beyond the regime’s propaganda was full immersion, and that was the time she got the courage to disguise herself as an English teacher at a Pyongyang evangelical university. When she first step on the university, she directly received a set of strict instructions — most of them were ridiculous:
- If someone asks about politics, just answer with an “I don’t know”
- Never hint that something is wrong with North Korea
- When you step outside campus — which will never happen — be careful with the way you look and the words you say
- Be careful with saying the leaders’ terminology: Great Leader, Dear Leader, Precious Leader (referring to Kim Jong-Un and his predecessors)
- Eating out is prohibite. Don’t give out gifts
- If you have a diary/journal, please do not say something bad about the country
- No foreign books/magazines/internet allowed, and so on
Basically, Suki was forced to just do her job and keep silent — no talk about politics, entertainment, whatsoever. She could not even talk to herself in her dorm room as there was a recorder attached by the government.
Living in North Korea is basically the same as living in an aquarium; everything you say or do will be watched and recorded. The universities are not educational homes; they are merely highly-guarded prisons. Until this day, students and school staffs are prohibited to go anywhere outside the buildings, except for outings to the national monuments of the Great Leader. Critical thinking is forbidden by the regime as people in North Korea are only supposed to praise the one and only Great Leader. It truly is a modern day gulag.
When Suki first asked her students to write a personal essay, she mostly received almost blank papers. But after a few months or so, the students started opening up about themselves through an assignment of writing personal letters. Although their letters would never reach the intended recipients, the students poured their heart out by writing about how they were so fed up with the monotony, and worried about their future. The students implored Suki to speak Korean to them, so they could bond over the same origin and language. However, she was forced by the regime to speak only in English, due to her teaching job. A teary message was told by Suki at the end of her TED speech, saying how she only wanted her students to lead a safe life by obeying the regime and not starting any dangerous revolutions.
Nonetheless of all the good intentions, Suki still faced backlash — mostly by white dudes — that she tried to justify by writing this essay. Some people degraded Suki’s investigation as deceptive and dishonest, claiming that she had jeopardized others’ lives for her own financial gain. “My book was being dismissed for the very element that typically wins acclaim for narrative accounts of investigative journalism. When Ted Conover, author of the award-winning Newjack, posed as a corrections officer to investigate the prison system, he was lauded by TheNew York Times for going “deeper than surface” and reporting ‘for real.’ Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the best-selling Nickel and Dimed, was widely celebrated for working undercover as a waitress, hotel maid, and sales clerk to expose the conditions of working poor. Among journalists, undercover work is generally viewed as a badge of honor, not a mark of shame“, wrote Suki towards the criticism, basically asking the ‘intellectuals’ on why Caucasian undercover journalists got all the accolades while she received prejudiced disapproval.
Living at immigrant slum when she was just about 13, Suki was familiar about being mute and helpless. Now, she refuses to be muted. She knows well that the books about North Korea only come in 2 segments: by white people and by defectors (it’s true). Unlike those white writers, Suki did not need to undergo language barriers and surreptitious cencorship from North Korea’s translators. What she wrote in her book was all facts that she’d accumulated during the undercover, yet her editor dismissed the book as a “memoir”. Suki has continuously emphasized that her book is not a memoir like Eat, Pray, Love — it’s a book based on investigation journalism. Truly a shame when high-caliber media (The NY Times) chose a TV/pop-culture columnist to review a book on brutal dictatorship. Also a shame when some of the NY Times reporters did underestimate Suki’s intention as an investigate journalist.
“I recognize the irony here: Sifting through my memories, recalling again and again what happened has turned me, in this essay, into a memoirist. My book is about North Korea, but this essay is about me, and for me, there is something deeply humiliating about being so self-obsessed. Here I am telling my story to you, the reader, essentially to beg for acknowledgment: I am an investigative journalist, please take me seriously. I had been excluded from the insular world of journalism; perhaps, in the end, my anger is a reaction to that exclusion. As a woman of color entrenched in a profession still dominated by white men, I have been forced to use my writing not to explore topics of my own choosing, or to investigate the world’s complexities, but as a means to legitimize myself.”