This author went undercover for six months with North Korea’s future leaders – here’s what she told us

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Author Suki Kim teaching a North Korean university class Photo Credit: Suki Kim

Borderless News Online caught up with author and investigative journalist Suki Kim, who went undercover as a university professor in North Korea’s most elite university, where over 200 sons of the nation’s top families were being groomed to be the country’s future leaders. If caught, she would have been imprisoned and possibly executed as a spy. But she managed to secretly document her six months there, in which she spent almost every waking minute with the students, eating daily meals with them and not being allowed to leave the campus except on official school outings. She wrote about the experience in her book “Without You, There Is No US: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite,” an investigation into a world where few outsiders have ever had that kind of access. 

When Kim arrived in North Korea the first day, the compound in which she would spend the next half year seemed like a prison, as she was not allowed to leave except on official group field trips.

Nor was she given a moment’s privacy, in a country where classmates, colleagues and even friends were expected to watch and inform on each other daily out of reverence for their Dear Leader, who had the status of a god there. Even being suspected of thinking the wrong thoughts can land you in prison in North Korea.

Kim spent all day with this select group of 20-year-old young men, the whole time being watched by administrators and other teachers, possible hidden cameras, and even the students themselves — one of whom had the official job of recording each lesson on an MP3 player.

The students were plucked from the Harvards and MITs of North Korea, and a brand new university was created just for them. But despite their high status, every aspect of their lives was strictly controlled — and it had likely been that way all their lives. These future rulers were not allowed to leave campus; were forbidden from making even the smallest decisions themselves; and were clueless about their own country, having never been allowed to travel inside North Korea.

This had the effect of stunting their development in terms of maturity, and making them into children in young men’s bodies, with the innocence of 8-year-old elementary school kids.

NORTH KOREANS CONSTANTLY JOKE AROUND, SO THEY CAN AVOID THE DANGER OF A REAL CONVERSATION

As a result of living in a society where everyone is always watching everyone else, North Koreans have developed the odd habit of constantly joking around. But this was not simply being good-natured or cheerful, rather it was a way to avoid having to have a real conversation and possibly slipping up and saying something that could get you in trouble, Kim said.

“There is a common trait of them kind of talking in a circle and making jokes about a lot of things. Because when you turn things into a joke, you don’t really ever have to have a real conversation, and you don’t have to ever answer any question,” she said, noting that she found this constant joking around to be mentally exhausting.

It’s also a way to get information about people, she said, pointing to the minders that are assigned to each foreign visitor to keep an eye on them.

“This intimacy (some visitors have felt) through laughing isn’t really what it is,” she said.

“It’s a very common trait of a culture where you’re trying not to reveal anything,” she said. “You talk in a circle and you turn a lot of things into jokes.”

This, she said, has often been misunderstood by visitors — even some who try to pass themselves off as experts on the country — who don’t speak or understand the Korean language.

LIES, LIES AND MORE LIES 

Another defense mechanism of her students was habitual lying. This wasn’t malicious, it was just a way to survive under a regime that will lock you and your family up — and even worse — if your thoughts are deemed somehow unpatriotic.

“Because their system is different, lying was a big thing. You know, because the system is so built on lies, and encourages lies, and lies are essential for survival, that lies came so easily… Just (about) mundane things… sometimes they just lie without thinking…just sort of habit lying. If a friend was missing who was supposed to be there (and he was) late, everybody would just chip in to lie, to say, you know, ‘he went to get a haircut,’ or ‘he has a stomachache,’ but it would just happen so quickly. There’s no hesitation,” Kim said of her students.

“Because fear governs their world, because they’re always afraid of getting in trouble, and also they are also watched. It makes people self-conscious in a different way. And they have a system that they have to follow every hour of the day, in a communal way, (and) they watch each other,” she said.

“And also they don’t think for themselves, because they’re always told what to do and how to think, so that also dictates their system,” she said.

“I really do think the most accurate way to understand them would be abused children, probably that’s the closest thing to it. The way that abused kids can be more hypersensitive, for example, and make up stuff to not get in trouble out of survival habit, all of that was there, all the time, which really made me, kind of broke my heart, because I felt like I wanted to protect them or help them in some way,” she said.

But aside from the constant lying and avoiding any real discussions, Kim described her students as just like any other good-natured young men anywhere else in the world.

“Their lovely personality, or humor, or sweetness or kindness, I mean, absolute loveliness of their youth, that was the same as any other place in the world,” he said.

A RIGID STRUCTURE OF INFORMANTS 

Kim said students would inform on each other daily as a matter of routine — something that’s normal in North Korea, where all citizens are required to keep an eye on each other.

The system of informing on your peers was military-like in its organization, with a very clear chain of command, in which there was a class monitor, vice monitor and secretary, and there was even a hierarchy in the young men’s shared living space in their dormitories, in which there were four people to each room, she said.

All students reported to the vice monitor, who reported to the monitor, who in turn probably reported to North Korean staff – bureaucrats or teachers – although Kim said she is not exactly sure. There was also one student whose job it was to record each class on an mp3 player, Kim said.

EVERYONE PANICS WHEN BITS OF TRUTH SLIP OUT 

In North Korea, where the regime is always watching, the truth slips out from time to time. That happened once when a student had a birthday. North Koreans sing songs to celebrate birthdays, and when Kim asked what songs they sang, they told her the tunes were all about friendship, as well as their Great Leader. Then, suddenly, one student blurted out the words “rock and roll.”

In a society that is based on keeping its citizens in the dark about the outside world, any foreign music is strictly forbidden.

“He just panicked and just lowered his face, and everyone around him also panicked, and I, looking at their reaction, realized how scared they were,” Kim said, adding that such subtitles could not be gleaned from just an interview, and that you really had to live among North Koreans to understand their society.

“So I paused, and then I changed the topic…I could see the panic in all of their faces, and he also looked around to see who heard him say that. That seems like so little, but there, you can almost feel that fear,” she said.

KIM WAS THE CENTER OF HER STUDENTS’ WORLD — BECAUSE THEY HAD NOTHING ELSE

“Our relationship was so warm,” she said of the closeness she had with her students, with whom she spent all day and ate breakfast, lunch and dinner together.

They thought of her almost like a mother, she said.

“But there’s more than that. There’s the endless respect that they have for a teacher, which is a very old-fashioned way of thinking, but that was very true there. And then also I’m the only girl they see, you know? In an all-male school where they’re not allowed to keep in touch with anybody (outside the campus), I think I became kind of a center of their world in some way…Like their mom. And also I’m Korean in this foreign school, where most of the other teachers are foreigners (from Western nations),” she said of the school, which was run by a foreign organization.

While the students were guarded by young female soldiers, there was a strict policy of zero interaction between the soldiers and the students, as the students were the elite in a country governed by a rigid class system somewhat like India’s caste system. And anyway, the students would not have thought of the soldiers as real girls, given the vast class difference.

“And they told me themselves that they just felt closer, because I’m Korean. They knew I spoke it, although I wasn’t allowed to speak it. They knew that when they sometimes broke into Korean that I knew what they were saying. So there was this sort of a camaraderie, and it was special for them,” she said.

“And also I think because they didn’t have anything else. If they had other things, it wouldn’t have been such a close relationship…They literally didn’t have anything else, except an endless routine schedule that began from 5:30 am until they went to bed…they really, I think, felt a certain closeness to me, beyond just a teacher and student relationship,” she said. “We lived together, and ate every meal together,” she said.

When asked how the students felt once her six-month teaching stint was over, Kim said they were “devastated.”

“That’s all they talked about. Like children. You know I think that’s another heart breaking thing. Actually, 20-year-old young men are not going to be that upset when their teacher goes away, you know what I mean? They had no choice in anything they did, because they the only thing they kept telling me was ‘teacher, when will you come back?’ You know, like children. Kids get very excited when their mom and dad come home (after being away),” she said.

“My readers always tell me they feel like they (the students) were eight or twelve years old, and that’s how it felt. Because (that degree of) control really infantilizes people… because they were never allowed to do anything that didn’t require permission. They couldn’t say ‘I’ll come and see you.’ They can’t say stuff like that, because they’re not going to see me, they’re not going to be able to travel. So they would ask me – although they knew the answer to it – they would say “will you come back next semester. They would repeat it. It’s as if that was the only way they could say ‘we really don’t want you to go.’”

Their way of telling her they didn’t want her to leave came indirectly, the way elementary school kids would express themselves.

“They’ll be like ‘I was watching the moon last night, and I was hoping professor Suki would not leave,’” she said.

“It’s almost like kids saying ‘mom I wish that you weren’t going to go,’ or ‘mom, when are you coming back? And that was so difficult because they just repeated it and repeated it like kids do….One person said to me on my last day, ‘I know how I’m going to see you again – become an ambassador to the UN so that I can come to New York and I can see you.’ And that was the most they could think of. Because proactively going to New York is impossible for North Koreans,” she said.

HOW HAS THIS REPRESSED SOCIETY SURVIVED FOR SO LONG? 

Kim said the information she recorded is important in understanding why the country has existed in this state of severe repression for so long, with the government’s boot on the neck of its citizens since the end of the Korean War.

“What population would let a regime like this continue? And then it actually makes since, because the control is so absolute. Just because you’re elite doesn’t mean that you can escape that fate. It’s obviously governed by a few of those very brutal military dictatorship personnel. And everyone just watches everyone else and no one knows anything. And I think that’s why (the regime) is able to survive,” she said.

The students hadn’t even experienced most of their own country, she said, explaining that some of the Korean Peninsula’s most famous mountains was just around 90 minutes from campus. While her students could tell you everything about it, how many hills and waterfalls the place had, and could describe its beauty from seeing it on TV, no one had ever actually been there.

Despite these young men being the nation’s most elite, the fact that they had never been anywhere was shocking, Kim said.

“What does that little fact suggest? They have not been anywhere. They don’t know their own country,” she said.

“How does this country manage to shield the most crème de le crème kids from absolutely everything?” Unless this control is somehow so brutal, that there’s no way out of it,” she said.

“If there were a little bit of mercy, or some sort of room, where they were allowed to do something, then I think I would have found a little ounce of hope. But I just didn’t see any,” she said.

“It was so much scarier and so much more controlled than I could ever have imagined,” she said.

One telling example was once when the students wrote a short skit about their foreign teachers taking a trip to a mountain, in which one teacher had a minor accident.

While writing the play, the students wrote that the teacher’s coworker had to go to Canada to inform the first teacher’s wife of the incident. When Kim asked the students why the teacher wouldn’t simply call his wife, the students then changed the skit to have the doctor at the hospital call the wife.

“All it was was a teacher from Canada telling his wife at home that he got hurt, and I realized that it was kind of impossible to get to that level, because they didn’t live in a world where they could just call somebody in a foreign country,” she said.

“They were mystified each time I said ‘why doesn’t he just call?’ That kind of thing was (something that) I picked up all the time. It doesn’t mean that they’re slow, it doesn’t mean they’re crazy, it just means they’re stuck in a system where they’re not allowed to do anything,” Kim said.

From time to time, students let it slip that they were fed up with their mundane lives, but such moments of frustration would pass, because students realized there was absolutely nothing they could do about it and were resigned to the lives that had been decided for them, she said.

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