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Suki Kim Goes ‘Undercover’ to Tell Stories from North Korea

Image: Crowds of people visiting the Mansu Hill in Pyongyang

Crowds of people visiting the Mansu Hill in Pyongyang before statues of late President Kim Il-Sung and leader Kim Jong-Il on the first anniversary of leader Kim Jong-Il's death in 2012. KCNA via AFP/Getty Images file

Suki Kim is a Korean-American author whose new book, "Without You, There Is No Us," chronicles her 2011 experience teaching English at a private university in Pyongyang for six months.

Kim, 44, emigrated to the U.S. from South Korea as a child, and has spent time reporting from North Korea as a journalist since 2002. For this book, she secretly took and hid notes while working as a teacher -- often going to great lengths to conceal the information she was gathering -- before returning to America to write and publish the memoir.

Her words have been hailed by many who watch the region as a valuable look inside a closed country, beyond the superficial access occasionally granted to journalists. Her work has also raised questions about possible repercussions for the students and teachers featured in her stories. She talked to NBC News about her experience on the ground, reporting from inside one of the world's most secretive nations.

--Amna Nawaz

Suki Kim's new book "Without You, There Is No Us," gives a rare, inside look at life in North Korea.
Suki Kim emigrated as a child with her family from South Korea to the U.S. She's reported on North Korea since 2002. Ed Kashi-VII
(1) You went to considerable lengths to hide your notes as you gathered information and quotes - destroying paper, erasing laptop files, wearing or hiding thumb drives. Did all that secrecy ever make you ever second-guess your decision to tell these stories?

There was never a doubt in my mind that I needed to tell these stories. I had been reporting on North Korea since 2002, always searching for an opportunity to get behind the façade. Also, I was born into a South Korean family that was separated during the Korean War, so the history of North Korea has personal significance for me. Having said that, I do believe that a journalist has a duty to protect anybody who could be compromised by her reporting, and I did my best to protect my students. Not only did I change their names, I blurred their identities, even when it got in the way of portraying them as unique, and uniquely lovable, individuals. Because of this, I am confident that they cannot be individually identified. In any case, as readers of my book will see, they were not rebels but obedient servants of the regime, so I doubt the regime would find anything in their behavior to censure. As for the Christian evangelicals who founded, funded, and run the school where I taught, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), they are there at the invitation of the regime, so there is nothing in my account of them that would surprise the North Korean government.

(2) Some at the university have said they felt cheated that you lied to them. Do you think there was any other way to tell this story, without concealing your intentions?

There was really no way to gather these stories without being, in some sense, "undercover." If I had gone to PUST and announced that I intended to write a book, I would have immediately been asked to leave. The fact is, North Korea allows foreigners very little access, and too often the articles that emerge from people's visits read more like press releases for the regime than skeptical reporting. Teaching at PUST, the only privately-run university in North Korea, offered a way to gain a deeper understanding of how the regime indoctrinates young people, especially in the upper echelon of society. There are so few unfiltered portraits of life inside North Korea, and our understanding of this brutal nation remains dismal. I did not want to wait for North Korea's permission to tell North Korea's truth according to North Korea.

Students at Pyongyang's PUST taking their final exam in December 2011.
Students at Pyongyang's PUST taking their final exam in December 2011. Courtesy Suki Kim
(3) Do you think it's likely you'll ever be able to return to North Korea? And if not, was telling this story worth that risk?

I doubt I will be able to return. But it was worth it. My goal was to write a book that humanizes North Koreans, in the hope that readers will feel more invested in what happens to them, and I think I achieved that. I wanted to show that there is more to North Korea than what articles often focus on—the almost comic images of the Great Leader as a crazy man with a funny hairdo and outfits, whose hobby is threatening nuclear war. The truth is so much more dire and frightening.

(4) You write about the many ways in which your students lied to you, about things big and small. Why do you think they did that, and did you worry that you weren't really getting the real story?

You can never get a full picture of North Korea because it is a system built on fear, and North Koreans are not in the habit of spending time with foreigners, let alone sharing their real thoughts and feelings with them. And I am sure my students were warned not to converse about anything other than schoolwork and the weather with their teachers. Yet I still felt that I was able to glean a lot through our daily interactions. We lived in side-by-side dormitories in a walled compound and we shared so much—from eating three meals a day together to playing basketball to laughing at inside jokes.

At first, my students told me that their life was so fulfilled with their Great Leader. They woke up at 5:30 every morning for a group exercise in which they would chant and scream about "reunification" of their motherland. Their lives were meticulously regimented, and they were not allowed to leave the campus without permission, not even to keep in touch with their parents. As time passed, however, they began to admit they were fed up with the sameness of everything.

Over time I began to understand that there was a duality to their lives. They were the future leaders of North Korea, mostly from Pyongyang, and yet they were so clueless and sheltered in their upbringing that they sounded like children from a small village. They were innocent 19- and 20-year-olds, yet they were soldiers for the Great Leader, trained to regard Americans and South Koreans as their mortal enemies. They were so easy to love, and yet also impossible to trust. They were sincere, yet they lied so casually. The very human side of them was in conflict with the very inhuman system under which they lived.

(5) What surprised you most about what you learned while you were teaching there? Anything you hadn't noticed or really understood from previous reporting trips?

I was surprised at how little freedom even the elites have. I had interviewed many defectors in the past and was familiar with their stories. My students, in contrast, were from the upper echelon of North Korean society, and I thought their lives would be far less circumscribed than those of defectors. But even though they were privileged compared to other young people, all their movements were monitored and controlled by the government, and frequent propaganda classes ensured that there was virtually no free thinking among them—or at least little that I was aware of. One thing I kept thinking while I was there was that there was no mercy in their world—that no one was spared except Kim Jong-il himself.

Suki Kim's new book "Without You, There Is No Us," gives a rare, inside look at life in North Korea.
Suki Kim's new book "Without You, There Is No Us," gives a rare, inside look at life in North Korea.

--Interview was edited for clarity and length.