“When you’re not allowed to express anything in the open, you become good at reading what is unspoken. In one of their personal letters to me, a student wrote that he understood why I always called them gentlemen. It was because I was wishing them to be gentle in life.”
Investigative journalist and novelist Suki Kim knew a life of freedom in North Korea would likely never happen for the students she talked about in her second novel Without You, There is No Us: Among the Sons Of North Korea’s Elite.
Suki is a winner of the 2006 Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction, the PEN Open Book Award, and the 2019-2020 Berlin Prize from the American Academy. There are more awards for this gentle voice who was raised in Seoul, South Korea before moving to the U.S.
For Suki, North Korea has been a life-long topic of fascination. She believes North Korea has separated families, created border disputes, and promoted the ongoing U.S. military presence in her home country of South Korea. She also believes the truth about this country’s dictatorship government has remained an enigma because it continues to keep its citizens prisoners of secrecy and propaganda.
Today, WS shares Kim’s TED Talk, This Is What It’s Like to Go Undercover in North Korea. In it, Suki discusses the inherent difficulties of wanting to share the truth about the world with the small group of students she spent time with in North Korea. As their English teacher, she knew they were future engineers and computer scientists who had no knowledge of tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk.
She also knew that any knowledge of the outside world was a dangerous risk in North Korea, a country known to shoot down defectors and restrict its citizens from gaining access to information. A case in point – the government hid the existence of the internet when Suki was there in 2011. As well, foreign travel is forbidden and, if you can imagine, each city is an exact replica of the one before it. Cameras record every movement.
Sadly, Kim hopes her students forget her time with them at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
Kim continues to work as an investigative journalist in the U.S., where she is now a contributing editor at The New Republic. Recently, she was given a special posting at Princeton University as a Ferris Journalism professor.
Learn more about Suki’s experience in her TedTalk below. Her open letter to her “Young Gentlemen” reminds us to appreciate the values that make life truly worth living. Thank you, Suki.