Undercover in North Korea with Suki Kim

Cover of Without you, there is no usNew York resident Suki Kim is a very clever essayist and novelist who wrote the award winning work The Interpreter. However, it was her impressions of life in North Korea as an undercover journalist which were the subject of her discussion On North Korea: Inventing the Truth at WORD Christchurch’s Shifting Points of View session at the Christchurch Arts Festival.

The Democratic Republic of North Korea (DPRK) is one of the most misleading titles for anything, ever, as they kind of forgot to add the Oppressive, Centralized, Totalitarian, Cult-like, Single Party parts to the title. Human Rights Watch refers to the DPRK as one of the most “harshly oppressive countries in the world”.

North Korea is described by Suki Kim as basically the world’s biggest cult. At the centre of this cult is the “eternal, supreme leader” Kim Jong-un, who rules with an iron fist.   The myth of the supreme leader goes on despite persecution and the millions that go hungry due to food shortages. There is no contact with the outside world as borders and lines of communication are sealed, and government agents watch everyone who might seek enlightenment.

Author and South Korean American Suki went to North Korea to teach English to the sons of the elite as part of a special international programme at a university titled “The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology” (which was quite unscientific, and devoid of technology). Without You, There Is No Us is her memoir of this experience, which beautifully infuses impressions and emotions into the issues of world politics and international relations. Political material can be achingly dry and hard to relate to; this most definitely isn’t.

Hearing her speak was timely. The entertainment industry is producing lots of young adult dystopian fiction (think The Giver, Hunger Games). Spookily, her depictions of life in the DPRK had me thinking such fictions are somehow based on these North Korean facts.

Suki Kim and Paula Morris

Suki Kim and Paula Morris, Flickr 2015-08-30-IMG_8988

Every aspect of daily life is monitored within the Institute she taught at, and everything – from the articulation to the architecture – is geared towards control. The university is intentionally designed with sterile, glazed spaces – privacy is at a premium. The idea “there is no I in team” is taken to an illogical extreme as Western notions of individualism are staunchly repressed and this was manifested in the language of her students. The words “I” or “Me” are almost never utilized by the students, who robotically state “We” and “Our” in a true spirit of collectivization and group identity. There is no place for individual ambition, it’s all servitude to the State. She did her best to teach them. And what she encountered was classes of bright, eager young men who have been lied to their whole lives, not only about the greatness of their country and its leaders, but about everything. They believe they have the internet, but it’s actually an intranet. To make it even more painful, in a show of nutty nationalism they think their “internet” is the best in the world.

Suki Kim
Suki Kim, Flickr 2015-08-30-IMG_8991

Suki developed a fondness for this innocent bunch of kids, who almost never get to see their parents (but pretend this is normal so not to incur the wrath of their overseers) and are in many ways hopelessly lost – with only the guidance of a regime which lies to them.

Over time, Suki sneakily and quietly attempted to inject the smallest of radical ideas into their naive minds. Like the idea of choice, for example, when shes is asked pointedly by the students “how many TV channels does [“wicked capitalist”] America has”!? She gingerly answers “thousands”, trying not to appear boastful in light of North Korea’s one channel which presents shows full of propaganda about the Great Leader. She endured many Q&A sessions regarding details of our lives in the West, but she could not be completely honest with her inquisitive class, as most subjects were off limits. A knowledge of the truth hurt!

I did manage to ask Suki during our own Q and A time if North Korea had any allies these days, and she said they don’t, not after the fall of the Soviet Union – “North Korea are all on their own”, much like the kids in her class whom she grieves for deeply…..

“Without you there is no us” is a beautifully written memoir detailing daily life in a closed society, and which is laced with stories of her own family history detailing the separation of loved-ones who may never meet again as they are spread across the two Koreas.

Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever read such well written personalized account of political and international relations.

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