When threats were leveled by Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, President Trump declared they would be met with “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
I was glad to be planning a trip to London at the time when I heard this news in August of 2017. If a retaliatory use of weapons ensued, I wanted to be far away as possible.
This explains why I had to learn more about the investigative journalist and novelist Suki Kim. In 2011, she went undercover to research and experience what it was like to live in Pyongyang, North Korea. I wanted to understand if this small country was really a threat to our security given Trump’s remarks. While Kim’s visit to the country happened several years earlier, she too was on a mission to find out the truth about the North Korean government and its people.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Kim lived the aftermath of the Korean War: separated families, threats of nuclear war, and a sustained U.S. military presence in her home country since 1953. Tensions were always present and created a stalemate. But Kim was clear about her objective when she finally had the opportunity to go undercover:
“To write about it with any meaning or to understand the place beyond the regime’s propaganda, the only option was total immersion.”
The desire for Kim to explore living conditions in North Korea can be traced back to when she was a young girl born in Seoul, South Korea. She was well aware of the fact that her country had once shared a shared history with North Korea. This memory, even at thirteen, had Kim still wondering despite her family’s immigration to the United States.
Her curiosity about Kim Jong-un was re-ignited when she became a journalist in the U.S. and had several opportunities to visit North Korea on reporting assignments. The first of these visits happened in 2002 when Suki assumed the role of a loyalist group member to gather information for a feature article in The New York Review of Books.
A second opportunity followed in 2008 when she accompanied the New York Philharmonic who performed a concert in Pyongyang at the request of the Ministry of Culture. Kim was there to write about the reception and what it was like for the members of the Philharmonic. The event itself was the first “significant cultural exchange” between the U.S. and North Korea since the Korean War and the press were given unprecedented access to the country.
This sharpened Kim’s desire to learn more but it wasn’t until 2011 when she decided she needed to go further to really understand the country’s dynamics. Kim was hired to teach English at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. She lived and worked with her students, and felt she was finally witnessing what it was truly really like in North Korea.
Kim kept her notes hidden on a hard drive, that she kept on her body, and she was careful to wipe her computer clean every day. In one account, she said:
“North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation. Everything there is about the Great Leader. Every book, every newspaper article, every song, every TV program—there is just one subject. The flowers are named after him, the mountains are carved with his slogans. Every citizen wears the badge of the Great Leader at all times.”
As the only known writer to live undercover in North Korea, Kim pretended to be a Christian missionary. She published the details about her experience in 2014 in what was soon-to-be a New York Times best-seller Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.
Over the course of the six months that Kim worked with her students in North Korea, she became a trusted mentor and resource.
Sometimes Kim played a game with her students called “Truth or Lie” in the hopes of learning more about them, what they believed to be true, and also to understand if they ever questioned what they had been told.
In her tell-all book, Kim said her students struggled with writing assignments like essays. Kim wondered if this was because the students had never been encouraged to form their own perspective or if they knew they could only have one perspective – that of the North Korean leader, aka the Great One.
Whatever the rationale, the students were understandably reluctant to share their thoughts. Kim also noted however that some hinted at their own thoughts but had to be careful knowing these could pose a threat and be considered dangerous. North Korea is known for assassinating citizens suspected of dissent. Yet, surprisingly, Kim saw that,
“It took a long time, but eventually some of them began to write to their mothers, their friends, their girlfriends…They wrote that they were fed up with the sameness of everything. They were worried about their future. In those letters, they rarely ever mentioned their Great Leader.”
Kim admits she needed to consider her expectations; she wasn’t looking to start North Korea’s own version of an Arab Spring. So what did she hope would come from those months spent in Pyongyang?
She knew that too much information was dangerous for this group of young men being trained to enter high ranking positions in the North Koran government. She understood that underneath the relationship she had slowly built with her students was a tower of lies—some by her, some by them, some by the North Korean government—and maintaining those lies could be the difference between ensuring their safety or causing their suffering.
Kim’s investigation came to an abrupt close when at the age of 69 Kim Jong-Il died and the country experienced its transfer of power to Kim Jong Un. Kim left the country worried about what the changes might bring.
Since then, Kim’s moved in a different direction and reports on other issues that concern her. She’s written about sexual harassment at WNYC and helped force the resignation of the radio’s president, Laura Walker. Longreads, an online story platform, called Kim out for the “Best Investigative Reporting in 2017.”
In a stunning new development in June of 2018, President Trump became the first sitting president to meet with a North Korean leader. It was a huge reversal from his threats of force and during this summit meeting, the leaders discussed foreign relations and denuclearization. It was held in Singapore and while there seemed to be an attempt to understand each other’s country and politics, not much was accomplished. Any real progress has been met with resistance on both sides.
Progress doesn’t happen overnight. There is always posturing and politics, and politics in posturing. The remnants of a Cold War-era era remain. But investigative reporters like Kim show us through their willingness to visit and learn, that progress can happen if we are open to learning and understanding what separates and unites us.
Kim risked her personal safety, hoping to learn something more about North Korea that she hadn’t known. It took great courage to overcome her fear. What she found was a deeply divided set of belief systems that underscored how different the U.S. way of life is from North Korea’s.
Kim sympathized with the young people she met in North Korea who didn’t seem to know much about the outside world but she also realized how much their lives are controlled by the political regime. One overriding takeaway? In the end, freedom should never be taken for granted.