Undercover in North Korea: “All Paths Lead to Catastrophe”

Suki Kim engaged in high-risk investigative journalism when she worked in North Korea as a teacher. What she discovered is frightening.

Foto: Suki Kim

The most alarming aspect of North Korea’s latest nuclear test, and the larger standoff with the U.S., is how little is known about how North Korea truly functions. For 70 years it’s been sealed off from the rest of the world to a degree hard to comprehend, especially at a time when people in Buenos Aires need just one click to share cat videos shot in Kuala Lumpur. Few outsiders have had intimate contact with North Korean society, and even fewer are in a position to talk about it.

One of the extremely rare exceptions is novelist and journalist Suki Kim. Kim, who was born in South Korea and moved to the U.S. at age 13, spent much of 2011 teaching English to children of North Korea’s elite at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

Kim had visited North Korea several times before and had written about her experiences for Harper’s Magazine and the New York Review of Books. Incredibly, however, neither Kim’s North Korean minders nor the Christian missionaries who founded and run PUST realized that she was there undercover to engage in some of history’s riskiest investigative journalism.

Although all of PUST’s staff was kept under constant surveillance, Kim kept notes and documents on hidden USB sticks and her camera’s SIM card. If her notes had been discovered, she almost certainly would have been accused of espionage and faced imprisonment in the country’s terrifying labor camps. In fact, of the three Americans currently detained in North Korea, two were teachers at PUST. Moreover, the Pentagon has in fact used a Christian NGO as a front for genuine spying on North Korea.

But Kim was never caught, and she returned to the U.S. to write her extraordinary 2014 book, “Without You, There Is No Us.” The title comes from the lyrics of an old North Korean song; the “you” is Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father.

Kim’s book is particularly important for anyone who wants to understand what happens next with North Korea. Her experience made her extremely pessimistic about every aspect of the country, including the regime’s willingness to renounce its nuclear weapons program. North Korea functions, she believes, as a true cult, with all of the country’s pre-cult existence now passed out of human memory.

Most ominously, her students, all young men in their late teens or early 20s, were firmly embedded in the cult. With the Kim family autocracy now on its third generation, you’d expect the people who actually run North Korea to have abandoned whatever ideology they started with and degenerated into standard human corruption. But PUST’s enrollees, their children, did not go skiing in Gstaad on school breaks; they didn’t even appear to be able to travel anywhere within North Korea. Instead they studied the North Korea ideology of “juche,” or worked on collective farms.

Unsurprisingly, then, Kim’s students were shockingly ignorant of the outside world. They didn’t recognize pictures of the Taj Mahal or Egyptian pyramids. One had heard that everyone on earth spoke Korean because it was recognized as the world’s most superior language. Another believed that the Korean dish naengmyeon was seen as the best food on earth. And all of Kim’s pupils were soaked in a culture of lying, telling her preposterous falsehoods so often that she writes, “I could not help but think that they – my beloved students – were insane.” Nonetheless, they were still recognizably human and charmingly innocent and for their part, came to adore their teachers.

Overall, “Without You, There Is No Us” is simply excruciatingly sad. All of Korea has been the plaything of Japan, the U.S., the Soviet Union, and China, and like most Korean families, Kim has close relatives who ended up in North Korea when the country was separated and have never been seen again. Korea is now, Kim says, irrevocably ruptured:

It occurred to me that it was all futile, the fantasy of Korean unity, the five thousand years of Korean identity, because the unified nation was broken, irreparably, in 1945 when a group of politicians drew a random line across the map, separating families who would die without ever meeting again, with all their sorrow and anger and regret unrequited, their bodies turning to earth, becoming part of this land … behind the children of the elite who were now my children for a brief time, these lovely, lying children, I saw very clearly that there was no redemption here.

The Intercept spoke recently to Kim about her time in North Korea and the insight it gives her on the current crisis.


Suki Kim’s North Korean visa.

Photo: Suki Kim

JON SCHWARZ: I found your book just overwhelmingly sorrowful. As an American, I can’t imagine being somewhere that’s been brutalized by not just one powerful country, but two or three or four. Then the government of North Korea and, to a lesser degree, the government of South Korea used that suffering to consolidate their own power. And then maybe saddest of all was to see these young men, your students, who were clearly still people, but inside a terrible system and on a path to doing terrible things to everybody else in North Korea.

SUKI KIM: Right, because there’s no other way of being in that country. We don’t have any other country like that. People so easily compare North Korea to Cuba or East Germany or even China. But none of them have been like North Korea – this amount of isolation, this amount of control. It encompasses every aspect of dictatorship-slash-cult.

What I was thinking about when I was living there is it’s almost too late to undo this. The young men I was living with had never known any other way.

The whole thing begins with the division of Korea in 1945. People think it began with the Korean War, but the Korean War only happened because of the 1945 division [of Korea by the U.S. and Soviet Union at the end of World War II]. What we’re seeing is Korea stuck in between.

JS: Essentially no Americans know what happened between 1945 and the start of the Korean War. And few Americans know what happened during the war. [Syngman Rhee, the U.S.-installed ultra right-wing South Korean dictator, massacred tens of thousands of South Koreans before North Korea invaded in 1950. Rhee’s government executed another 100,000 South Koreans in the war’s early months. Then the barbaric U.S. air war against North Korea killed perhaps one-fifth of its population.]

SK: This “mystery of North Korea” that people talk about all the time – people should be asking why Korea is divided and why there are American soldiers in South Korea. These questions are not being asked at all. Once you look at how this whole thing began, it makes some sense why North Korea uses this hatred of the United States as a tool to justify and uphold the Great Leader myth. Great Leader has always been the savior and the rescuer who was protecting them from the imperialist American attack. That story is why North Korea has built their whole foundation not only on the juche philosophy but hatred of the United States.


North Korean girls outside Kumsusan Palace where Kim il-sung is embalmed.

Photo: Suki Kim

JS: Based on your experience, how do you perceive the nuclear issue with North Korea?

SK: Nothing will change because it’s an unworkable problem. It’s very dishonest to think this can be solved. North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons. Never.

The only way North Korea can be dealt with is if this regime is not the way it is. No agreements are ever honored because North Korea just doesn’t do that. It’s a land of lies. So why keep making agreements with someone who’s never going to honor those agreements?

And ultimately what all the countries surrounding North Korea want is a regime change. What they’re doing is pretending to have an agreement saying they do not want a regime change, but pursuing regime change anyway.

Despite it all you have to constantly do engagement efforts, throwing information in there. That’s the only option. There’s no other way North Korea will change. Nothing will ever change without the outside pouring some resources in there.

JS: What is the motivation of the people who actually call the shots in North Korea to hold onto the nuclear weapons?

SK: They don’t have anything else. There’s literally nothing else they can rely on. The fact they’re a nuclear power is the only reason anyone would be negotiating with them at this point. It’s their survival.

Regime change is what they fear. That’s what the whole country is built on.

JS: Even with a different kind of regime, it’s hard to argue that it would be rational for them to give up their nuclear weapons, after seeing what happened to Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi.

SK: This is a very simple equation. There is no reason for them to give up nuclear weapons. Nothing will make them give them up.

JS: I’ve always believed that North Korea would never engage in a nuclear first strike just out of self-preservation. But your description of your students did honestly give me pause. It made me think the risk of miscalculation on their part is higher than I realized.

SK: It was paradoxical. They could be very smart, yet could be completely deluded about everything. I don’t see why that would be different in the people who run the country. The ones that foreigners get to meet, like diplomats, are sophisticated and can talk to you on your level. But at the same time they also have this other side where they have really been raised to think differently, their reality is skewed. North Korea is the center of the universe, the rest of the world kind of doesn’t exist. They’ve been living this way for 70 years, in a complete cult.

My students did not know what the internet was, in 2011. Computer majors, from the best schools in Pyongyang. The system really is that brutal, for everyone.

JS: Even their powerful parents seemed to have very little ability to make any decisions involving their children. They couldn’t have their children come home, they couldn’t come out and visit.

SK: You would expect that exceptions were always being made [for children of elites], but that just wasn’t true. They couldn’t call home. There was no way of communicating with their parents at all. There are literally no exceptions made. There is no power or agency.

I also found it shocking that they had not been anywhere within their own country. You would think that of all these elite kids, at least some would have seen the famous mountains [of North Korea]. None of them had.

That absoluteness is why North Korea is the way it is.

JS: What would you recommend if you could create the North Korea policy for the U.S. and other countries?

SK: It’s a problem that no one has been able to solve.

It’s not a system that they can moderate. The Great Leader can’t be moderated. You can’t be a little bit less god. The Great Leader system has to break.

But it’s impossible to imagine. I find it to be a completely bleak problem. People have been deprived of any tools that they need, education, information, intellectual volition to think for themselves.

[Military] intervention is not going to work because it’s a nuclear power. I guess it has to happen in pouring information into North Korea in whatever capacity.

But then the population are abused victims of a cult ideology. Even if the Great Leader is gone, another form of dictatorship will take its place.

Every path is a catastrophe. This is why even defectors, when they flee, usually turn into devout fundamentalist Christians. I’d love to offer up solutions, but everything leads to a dead end.

One thing that gave me a small bit of hope is the fact that Kim Jong-un is more reckless than the previous leader [his father Kim Jong-il]. To get your uncle and brother killed within a few years of rising to power, that doesn’t really bode well for a guy who’s only there because of his family name. His own bloodline is the only thing keeping him in that position. You shouldn’t be killing your own family members, that’s self-sabotage.

JS: Looking at history, it seems to me that normally what you’d expect is that eventually the royal family will get too nuts, the grandson will be too crazy, and the military and whatever economic powers there are going to decide, well, we don’t need this guy anymore. So we’re going to get rid of this guy and then the military will run things. But that’s seems impossible in North Korea: You must have this family in charge, the military couldn’t say, oh by the way, the country’s now being run by some general.

SK: They already built the brand, Great Leader is the most powerful brand. That’s why the assassination of [Kim Jong-un’s older half-brother and the original heir to the Kim dynasty] Kim Jong-nam was really a stupid thing to do. Basically that assassination proved that this royal bloodline can be murdered. And that leaves room open for that possibility. Because there are other bloodline figures for them to put in his place. He’s not the only one. So to kill [Jong-nam] set the precedent that this can happen.


A North Korean woman holds a sign that reads “The Sun of the 21st Century” in honor of Kim Jong-il’s 60th birthday at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport.

Photo: Suki Kim

JS: One small thing I found particularly appalling was the buddy system with your students, where everyone had a buddy and spent all their time with their buddy and seemed like the closest of friends – and then your buddy was switched and you never spent time with your old buddy again.

SK: The buddy system is just to keep up the system of surveillance. It doesn’t matter that these are 19-year-old boys making friends. That’s how much humanity is not acknowledged or valued. There’s a North Korean song which compares each citizen to a bullet in this great weapon for the Great Leader. And that’s the way they live.

JS: I was also struck by your description of the degeneration of language in North Korea. [Kim writes that “Each time I visited the DPRK, I was shocked anew by their bastardization of the Korean language. Curses had taken root not only in their conversation and speeches but in their written language. They were everywhere – in poems, newspapers, in official Workers’ Party speeches, even in the lyrics of songs. … It was like finding the words fuck and shit in a presidential speech or on the front page of the New York Times.”]

SK: Yes, I think the language does reflect the society. Of course, the whole system is built around the risk of an impending war. So that violence has changed the Korean language. Plus these guys are thugs, Kim Jong-un and all the rest of them, that’s their taste and it’s become the taste of the country.

JS: Authoritarians universally seem to have terrible taste.

SK: It’s interesting to be analyzing North Korea in this period of time in America because there are a lot of similarities. Look at Trump’s nonstop tweeting about “fake news” and how great he is. That’s very familiar, that’s what North Korea does. It’s just endless propaganda. All these buildings with all these slogans shouting at you all the time, constantly talking about how the enemies are lying all the time.

Those catchy one-liners, how many words are there in a tweet? It’s very similar to those [North Korean] slogans.

This country right now, where you’re no longer able to tell what’s true or what’s a lie, starting from the top, that’s North Korea’s biggest problem. America should really look at that, there’s a lesson.

JS: Well, I felt bad after I read your book and I feel even worse now.

SK: To be honest, I wonder if tragedies have a time limit – not to fix them, but to make them less horrifying. And I feel like it’s just too late. If you wipe out humanity to this level, and have three generations of it … when you see the humanity of North Koreans is when the horror becomes that much greater. You see how humanity can be so distorted and manipulated and violated. You face the devastation of what’s truly at stake.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Top photo: The Ministry of Railways’ painting of a train that Kim Jong-il once rode in; he was said to have died on a train while traveling tirelessly to oversee the well-being of his people. Kimjongilia Exhibition, 2002.

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