Making notes at night and acting the part of an English teacher by day, this was not going to be an easy task in the extreme totalitarian state. Kim placed herself as a teacher to a group of elite students at a school called PUST (Pyongyang University of Science and Technology). What she witnessed there was often bizarre and troubling, at times verging on intolerable.
There is no resolve or happy ending to this story. But in a situation that appears almost completely hopeless, Kim’s story provides a rare glimpse into the world’s most isolated nation, confirming the disturbing reality of life in North Korea. The book, entitled ‘Without You, There is No Us’ acts as an important bridge from our world to another and is a reminder of the importance of assiduous journalism and the power of the written word.
Your book ‘Without You, There Is No Us’ is a heart-breaking and often disturbing read. Having had time to reflect on the journey that you took and the amount of media attention the story has garnered, how do you feel about the book now?
Over a year has passed and what I have realised, that I did not realise when the book came out was that there was a strange reluctance of people in accepting it for what it is. The book is not really a teacher’s tale and it is not an evangelical tale of human rights. Its undercover investigative journalism by a literary writer. Oddly despite the fact that there was a lot of positive reception when the book came out, there was also sort of a backlash. I realised that people didn’t want to see what really went on there. And another thing was that the book had been packaged as a memoir in the United States because the publishing industry didn’t want to call it journalism. Also the racism within America . . . there was this perception somehow that I was a North Korean who went home. But I’m from South Korea. There was a lot of coverage portraying me as a teacher telling her story. But I was not a teacher, I was a journalist posing as a teacher.
I went undercover in North Korea. I already had a book contract going in and it was a topic that I followed for a decade before going. The book is rare because it’s investigative journalism from inside the country. Most stories of North Korea come from defectors, the majority of whom belong in the bottom sector of North Korean society, and the stories inevitably get told after they’ve fled.
North Korea is a country where journalism has failed. No one has reported from inside, everything is fabricated. You can’t just go and interview. The regime says ‘you interview these people’ and then you interview them. For me that’s publicity for the regime, it’s not journalism. And real journalism is the only way to reveal the truth behind the dictatorship.
Let’s step back a bit. Are we safe to say that the mess North Korea finds itself in is largely due to the role of Japan in its history? As far as I understand the country is best understood as a holdover of 1930’s style Japanese fascism. Is that correct?
I actually think that’s just one facet of why North Korea is the way it is. What you’re referring to is a complicated history, the colonial history of North Korea. Japan colonised Korea from 1910 to 1945 but there was a 5,000 year history before that. So there’s also Confucianism and that does link into the whole fatherly worship of the great leader. What you’re talking about with Japan, the way they worshiped our emperor, fascism, all of that, I mean certainly some of that is at the root of North Korea but there’s also the Russian influence under Stalin. I think most of all it’s a composite of all of that mess, contributing to this disease which is North Korean society. That’s what I try to get at in my book.
The soul of that nation was really brutally violated when people were artificially separated. And it was a nation based on family values. You know Americans talk about family values – I’m covering the election here, that’s what I’ve been doing for my latest project – they talk about family values, but it’s not really the same. Family values in the Korean way is almost like a religious thing because of Confucianism. And we had this situation where suddenly millions of people were separated artificially.
Also it was an outside force, the Allies, including UK who signed off on Korea’s temporary protectorate status during the Cairo Conference of 1943, and Russia and the US, who cut it up, and gave no end date to the separation.
It seemed like it was a temporary thing. Koreans like my grandmother believed that the division was temporary. It was like the whole country was waiting for someone to come home. I tried really hard in the book to get that feeling of violation across.
How long had you been harbouring the idea to do this investigative story? It obviously wasn’t something that came out of the blue but was a deep-seated desire to uncover the brutal reality of the country.
I grew up in a family that was separated. As Koreans you grow up with separation always there, it’s an issue that is always present. What I remember from my childhood is a sense of waiting. When someone disappears it’s very different from someone dying and that is what I saw in my family. They knew that my uncle was supposedly just a couple of hours away in Pyongyang and we were in Seoul. The feeling was that he should be coming home, that they will get rid of the border and it could happen tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow. It’s that kind of longing for seventy years. That was something I couldn’t fathom and that’s why I went to North Korea for the first time in 2002 and saw the depravity.
We know that there’s starvation but beyond that what really strikes you about North Korea on first sight is that you have zero freedom. You will not be able to go from the airport to your hotel without a minder.
An article came out today in another youth magazine and the title was ‘My Investigative Piece in North Korea’. One of the lines that struck me and stood in contrast to your book was, “I can tell you that most of what you think about this country is media imposed fear-mongering”. It was basically claiming that none of the things you say in your book about brutality and suffering is real. So I’m trying to figure out how one person can have such a different experience to your own.
I find that to be really shocking. North Korea is so good at manipulating the media, controlling who gets invited in, who will be allowed to film what, but I don’t know why people refuse to see the evidence that is right in front of them. People can’t go in or come out of there without permission. If North Korea had the freedom they claim it has then nothing would be the way it is now, it simply would not be an issue.
People were so angry that I was pointing out that there was no freedom, for example with PUST (Pyongyang University of Science and Technology) the professors there would call in when I was on BBC radio and would be adamant that there was lots of freedom and would post pictures of happy students, everybody on the internet, et cetera. But if that were the case then we just wouldn’t have any of these problems. We would see North Korean tourists, we wouldn’t have a problem getting a Visa to go to their country and anyone who wanted to leave would leave. None of that is happening. They wouldn’t have a television station that only shows the great leader.
Basically I think the country is very good at getting people who are ignorant about North Korea to go in and then show them what they want to show them, like the Dennis Rodman case. I’m sure Dennis Rodman thinks North Korea is like a real cool place where everyone is skiing all the time. My students had never even heard of skiing. From what certain visitors get to see you would think that it is the happiest place, filled with electricity and with people that are really well fed. I don’t know why some visitors refuse to see the evidence. You leave Pyongyang and the streets are empty, there are constants check-posts everywhere. When you asked me before what has changed a year following the book, I think I understand now why people were once being sent to gas chambers and the world did nothing.
"What really strikes you about North Korea on first sight is that you have zero freedom. You will not be able to go from the airport to your hotel without a minder."
Suki Kim on liberty and North Korea
Had people heard of Dennis Rodman?
I think sometimes if people think they can’t do anything then they just don’t want to know about it, like Germany under Nazi rule. And in this case they literally can’t do anything. You even talk yourself about not being able to help. But actually your book acts as a bridge to the wider world and so I think you’ve done a wonderful job of opening this subject up.
Thank you. I think the Nazi correlation really is appropriate because as human beings, how can you make sense of the fact that you did nothing when other humans are being sent to gas chambers? I think that there’s a complicit part of human nature where you feel guilty, but if you feel guilty you might pretend it never happened. Why would you think North Korea is a happy nation? It’s simply not the case given the evidence. An image from NASA will tell you there’s no electricity there. It’s hard for people to accept because it triggers their own guilt.
I felt a lot of anger reading this book and also felt there was a lot of anger from you.
Yeah I think anger is a part of it. I saw North Korea for the first time in 2002 and my feelings about it did not change in my last trip. In all those years that I covered my understanding of the place got deeper and deeper. And it might have looked on surface look like North Korea was getting better because it was moving on from the time of famine but as I got to know the place better it actually got worse and more horrible. I understood then the absolute depravation of humanity on a level I had never imagined. I think that there’s a violation of humanity that is unacceptable even to witness and that’s what I felt when I first saw North Korea. As we know even with Kim Jong-Il dying nothing has changed. The world is doing nothing.
Besides the few sanctions that America and other countries have placed on North Korea, why isn’t there more outside international pressure on this country?
I guess because it is just too expensive. You have 25 million people in North Korea and the neighbouring nations, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea don’t want to take on the responsibility. The US would not want that kind of conflict in that region. And of course there’s no oil to be gained. But most of all the problem is that you have these 25 million people who have been indoctrinated into this bizarre cult for the last three generations and completely isolated from the outside world. So would they really make productive members of a society? It’s a psychologically damaged nation. People keep comparing it to Russia, China, Cuba, but it’s very different. The surrounding governments that could wield influence of some kind just don’t want to deal with it. It’s a headache and an expensive problem. They would rather keep enabling North Korea so that it can maintain itself. Economically of course this may make sense but on a human rights level it’s unacceptable.
If Kim Jong-Un read this book what do you think he would say?
In Kim Jong-Un we have the world’s most vile dictator who wouldn’t blink an eye at starving his own people and killing his own family. He’s not someone I think you can communicate this kind of message to. I recently wrote an article about this actually. We kept thinking that our way of communicating would reach North Korea, which is what all the engagement policies are. It hasn’t worked for seventy years!
My book was not for North Korean people to read and understand, it’s for us. It’s for the world to see North Koreans as real human beings because the only coverage the country is getting is through North Korean defectors. This means stories of famine and gulags, which is legitimate but I think it makes it easier for people to distance themselves from it. People see it but don’t relate to it. So the aim of my book was to really get to know North Korean’s citizens because they’re complicated human beings, not all starving people in a gulag. My goal was to make you feel empathy for them, and if I can do that then the next step would be really caring about the issue.
It’s interesting in terms of the psychological warfare going on. One of the studies I read showed that a lot of people who defected from North Korea, in the nature of Stockholm syndrome, actually came back.
Yes, the world of the defector is a complicated one. Some people do go back, I mean that’s their home, you know? Even if you hate home you can still miss it. You always get that with defectors and as horrific as that system is, I even felt the same way at some points. I think I wrote in the book that I felt a weird comfort in not ever making my own decisions. You never have to think for yourself. That’s something defectors will admit when you talk to them. They come to South Korea and feel that they are second class citizens. Now suddenly they have to take responsibility for their own lives and it’s really hard for them when they weren’t born and raised into that.
One of the lines that stood out to me in the book was, “and so it went, from love to repulsion and distrust, back to empathy and love again.” Listening to that line what feelings does it bring back for you?
You’re right to quote that line because in some way that was sort of a thesis. North Korea is such a complicated thing to try and understand. So that was me trying to understand them. It’s a chapter on lies. They lie so easily and that raised a lot of questions like, how do I judge lies? I also know truth and lies in my world. But in my world I don’t get sent to gulags for telling the truth. You have to try and understand it from their point of view.
They might think completely differently from you because they have no choice. Trying to understand them made me fall in love. And once you love then you really care and understand why they have to lie and what this means. So it’s a moment of reaching a deeper understanding, which we need if we’re going to do anything about this problem of North Korea. Nothing is going to get done by someone going there for seven days and seeing some happy people having a barbecue in the park or talking on cell phones and turning around and being like, ‘wow looks like everyone’s okay.’ That’s a superficial understanding. That’s not an understanding, it’s a glimpse of lies. It’s not going to help us figure out what to do about this problem that’s been going on for seventy years.
You said you’re busy covering the US presidential campaign trail. It’s such a bizarre presidential race, I’m interested to know what you’re making of it so far and how your experience of North Korea informs the way you look at what’s happening.
Yes this year the US is having a very bizarre election time. This assignment that I’m on has nothing to do with North Korea but a couple of issues came up for me when I was watching the campaign. It’s exceptionally depressing that no candidate has a policy towards North Korea. It’s absolutely zero. And if they have zero interest in the topic then nothing is going to get done.
Then there’s the fear they bring up. In America right now the issue is gun control and immigration. I’ve been following the Republican candidate Marco Rubio, not out of choice but because I was assigned to it, and he and others always bring up how ISIS is posing a threat and thus we need guns. That actually reminds me of North Korea and how they always talk about the imminent attack from the United States. I guess from their point of view the US is the only country to have ever detonated a nuclear weapon on citizens, just 600 miles from North Korea in Japan. But their leadership really has manipulated this fear. The one thing that rules the nation is fear.
Let’s take a hypothetical scenario. If North Korea erupted today in an Arab Spring style scenario and a Syrian type migration eventuated where millions of people crossed the border into South Korea and China. How do you think it would play out? Do you think these countries would open their arms to North Korean refugees?
First of all I cannot imagine those countries letting that happen. China wouldn’t want to pay so responsibility would lie with South Korea and they absolutely would not let it happen. Right now South Korea has 27,000 defectors within their borders. There’s hundreds of thousands of defectors, we don’t know the exact number, along the Chinese border, all living as refugees and working for next to nothing. And out of those that made it to South Korea, those 27,000, the country can barely handle them. They don’t really like North Korean refugees at all because it’s people they have to pay for and who come from the cult of the ‘Great Leader’. How would they deal with millions of people who are the product of that cult? It’s so complicated. It wouldn’t just be – North Korea erupts and Koreans unite and the world is happy. The population of North Korea have been living inside the system of the ‘Great Leader’ for three generations. They haven’t been taught anything else. It’s a unique problem.
What do you make of the current political drama that’s unfolding? Last month North Korea tested their fourth nuclear weapon. And China have announced that they will be passing a new law on March 10th effectively stating that any foreign news outlets have to submit a certificate in order to publish content within China. So what’s your opinion about what’s happening in North Korea? And secondly what are your thoughts on China appearing to be veering in a worrying direction?
I think tightening and reducing control has been going on for a long time. Whenever you see this kind of belligerent time it’s often followed by a relaxing of control. So actually I feel like what’s been going on is the status quo. A lot of it is just negotiation tactics of North Korea. I don’t think anything is that different right now to the way it’s always been. I think I even bring that up in my book at one point because the students are like that too. The minute I thought they were opening up to me they would all suddenly freeze up. And then they would thaw again. A lot of it was coming out of distrust. So I think what’s happening is actually a pattern of what we’ve always seen in North Korea. PUST itself opened right after North Korea bombed a South Korean submarine killing 40 or so sailors. That happened and you wouldn’t think a school opening in North Korea would follow, but it did. It’s almost how a mafia works. They’ll threaten you and then treat you well. That’s the tactic of North Korea.
"The one thing that rules the nation is fear."
Do you feel like you healed some internal wounds writing this book? I couldn’t help but feel this was a work of catharsis for you in terms of allowing you to think about your family and what they went through, knowing that North Korea may never open up in the way you want it to. What does this book say about you and the way you feel now?
I felt somehow that I had to write the book. I felt it was my duty because it’s one of the most important issues in the world I think. The generation that saw the war and that got separated are basically all now dead. There’s not many of them left. And I kept thinking back to the people that had died, knowing that nobody had ever recorded it. No one would remember their deaths. Like my uncle who was kidnapped in North Korea – what was his life? The injustice and heartbreak he must have suffered. His life was lost and there were millions of lives just like his. That’s what I kept thinking back to. I felt that as a Korean and as a writer and also just as a human being who understood some of these issues, it was my duty to do this work. And I did that to the best of my ability and with the most honest part of myself.
I felt the title, even though it’s the name of a song they would sing, was more about you. The words ‘Without You There is No Us’, you seemed to be saying that without the love of these boys there is no oneness.
In some way. I think that without love there is no understanding.
All photos courtesy of Suki Kim.
1.Portrait shot Ed Kashi/Courtesy of Crown
2. Pyongyang city skyline
3. Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport.
4. Girls about to perform for the sixtieth birthday celebration in Pyongyang Indoor Stadium.
5. An exhibit of Kimjongilia.
6.Display from the Moran District Administration.
7. North Korean girls outside Kumsusan Palace
“Daisies,” a feminist, avant-garde 1966 film by Czech director Věra Chytilová. The film was banned initially, and shocked me when I first saw it in my early 20s in London where I was living then. It’s a great film, but I don’t think that’s why it’s on this list, but because of that initial impression. To fall in love with a work of art in one’s youth — that is unforgettable.
Candy Candy manga: all Koreans my generation grew up with this Japanese manga. It’s about an orphaned girl named Candy who is very positive and resilient and won’t cry. Boys love her. Girls love her. My screensaver is this image of her. Even now, once in a while, I ask myself, why can’t I be Candy?
Patbingsu: Korean dessert I grew up on. Shredded ice with red beans and rice cake. But I am very particular, I need my ice to be exceptionally finely shredded. Red beans to be organic and freshly steamed. Rice cake to be marinated in coffee. No addition of ice cream or fruit. I like them simple, in an old fashioned way. I am not a foodie, but I am when it comes to this particular dessert.