‘I felt their fear’: Journalist recalls Pyongyang experience at Singapore Writers Fest

‘I felt their fear’: Journalist recalls Pyongyang experience at Singapore Writers Fest

Korean American best-selling author Suki Kim, who was at the festival over the weekend, warns against the ongoing “thug dialogue” between US president Donald Trump and North Korea, as the former continues his marathon Asian tour.

Suki Kim (Suki in 2002)
Suki Kim (left) posing with a North Korean student at Kim Il-Sung University campus with a statue of Kim in the background, during one of her earlier trips in 2002. (Photo: Suki Kim)

SINGAPORE: On the very same weekend that Korean American journalist Suki Kim was spending her time explaining the complexities of North Korea, her president was busy continuing his war of words against Kim Jong Un.

On Sunday, US president Donald Trump had kicked off his marathon Asian tour in Japan with a warning that no dictator should underestimate the US.

It was the latest jibe from someone who once called his North Korean counterpart “rocket man” and threatened to “totally destroy” the country if it attacked.

Suki Kim (Singapore Writers Festival)
Suki Kim at one of her events at the 2017 Singapore Writers Festival, a talk titled Undercover In North Korea. (Photo: Singapore Writers Festival)

For Kim, who had once risked her life going undercover in Pyongyang to learn more about the people there, it is frustrating, thuggish behaviour.

“He’s not helpful. I don’t know how name-calling does anything. And verbal banter like that can lead to some mistakes. Wars do happen from mistakes and that’s the more worrying part about what unbelievably looks like a thug dialogue between the two leaders,” she told Channel NewsAsia at the sidelines of the ongoing Singapore Writers Festival, which runs until Nov 12.

“I don’t know what this verbal fight with a nuclear nation led by a dictator can lead to.”

CONSTANT FEAR IN PYONGYANG

Kim was in town to talk about her best-selling book Without You, There Is No Us, which chronicles her experience posing as a teacher at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

Suki Kim (Students exercising)
Young students at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology doing morning exercises in 2011. (Photo: Suki Kim)

For six months in 2011, she taught English to 270 young men – all sons of elite families aged 19 and 20 – at a military compound in the suburbs of the capital, which had been converted into a school.

Since 2002, the South Korea-born Kim had travelled a few times to North Korea to cover official events, including a report on the New York Philharmonic’s historic trip in 2008. She had also spent a lot of time interviewing defectors through the years. But the undercover teaching stint was her longest and most in-depth experience inside the Hermit Kingdom.

During her festival talks, Kim revealed having to always be on guard and living in “constant fear”.

Suki Kim (North Korean Woman in 2002)
At Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport in 2002, during Suki Kim's first visit to North Korea. The woman holds a sign that reads The Sun Of The 21st Century in honour of Kim Jong-il’s 60th birthday. (Photo: Suki Kim)

“My minder was living (in the room) below me, I was watched 24/7, and the room was bugged,” she recalled. Every time she finished taking down notes on her computer – around 400 pages of them – she would quickly transfer them to a USB stick that she carried with her at all times.

When it was all over, the experience would eventually take a toll on her. “I was very traumatised. Once I left North Korea, I literally did not leave the house at all for months,” she said.

But even leaving the country itself had been a touch-and-go experience – the end of her teaching stint had coincided with the death of Jong Un’s father Kim Jong Il.

Suki Kim (Women in Hanbok)
Women guides in hanbok, the traditional Korean dress, standing outside an election booth during a supposed Election Day in 2011. (Photo: Suki Kim)

“The border closed down and I thought it was miraculous that I was allowed to leave.”

THEY’RE REAL PEOPLE, NOT ROBOTS

Compared to her previous short, state-sanctioned trips, the once-in-a-lifetime experience at the school gave her a more nuanced picture of the country, albeit one she talks about with difficulty.

Describing North Korea as “the most abusive home you can think of”, she regarded even her arguably more privileged students as victims of the system as well.

“You have an idea that the leaders are all having a good time and everyone else is suffering – that is not how I found North Korea to be. Everybody was a victim. The amount of control everyone was under – the system is brutal, it’s built on lies. I felt their fear and glimpsed it a little bit,” she said.

Suki Kim (children performing)
Girls about to perform for Kim Jong-Il's 60th birthday celebration at Pyongyang Indoor Stadium in 2002. (Photo: Suki Kim)

But at the same time, she maintains a fondness for her students, who, like her were stuck in the school.

“I became almost like their mom,” she said, adding that in between language classes, she would try and hang out with them and even sneak in some glimpses of the outside world – including one screening of Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban. 

Kim cautions against the one-dimensional representation of North Koreans. In fact, in one of her talks, she revealed one of her pet peeves was people asking whether they’re all brainwashed.

Suki Kim (Harry Potter screening)
A screening of Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban for Suki Kim's students, who had to be content with a small projection because there were too many propaganda messages on the classroom walls. (Photo: Suki Kim)

“How can an entire country just be brainwashed? When that question comes up, I know immediately that person hasn’t read my book. Because if they have, then these people become real to them and not objectified as one group where they’re all robots and not real people. Once we feel like that, we begin to care about them,” she said.

COMPLICIT MEDIA AND POP CULTURE

Western media and pop culture, too, have been complicit in the current situation of information and misinformation. Kim cited one particular incident in 2010, when North Korea participated in the World Cup in South Africa.

Mainstream media reported that the supporters who came were all Chinese actors hired by the government. “I covered it and went there and talked to the people – there were 70 North Korean labourers (working in Africa). Who made these lies up?” she said.

Suki Kim (Sports Day)
Sports day for the students. In the background are the Forever Tower and the Kim Il-Sung Research Hall, where students go for their daily classes on "juche", the official state ideology of North Korea, which means "self-reliance". (Photo: Suki Kim)

Another example had been a false report in 2013 that said Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang Song Thaek was executed by being fed to wild dogs. The story was unwittingly carried in Singapore’s The Straits Times as well as western news outlets.

Pop culture hasn’t been particularly helpful, too, with their occasional jokes about Kim Jong Un and North Korea.

“America isn’t willing to make parodies about 9/11, Charlottesville or Ferguson; nobody is going to make a musical about Americans falling out of the 9/11 towers. If they’re not willing to make fun of their own tragedy, to be making parodies about the biggest gulag, where 25 million people are under torture currently, is unacceptable.”

Suki Kim (visa)
Suki Kim's visa for her teaching stint in 2011. (Photo: Suki Kim)

She cited, as an example, the 2014 movie The Interview starring Seth Rogen and James Franco.

“The Kim Jong Un character gets detonated like a cartoon character. At the end of the day, that’s the president of another nation you just made into a cartoon character. By doing that, you’ve turned (by extension) North Koreans into sort of cartoon characters. Somehow their suffering stops mattering and I think it’s a dangerous thing to do,” she said.

A DEADLOCKED PROBLEM

But even as the outside world continues to try and make sense of a country that’s closed off to the world, Kim noted that her book has also resonated differently with Americans, ironically thanks to the emergence of Trump himself.

“The book deals a lot with the idea of truth and a system built on lies, and with the obsession with fake news now, Americans are understanding it through different eyes. It’s become relevant to them – it’s no longer just the story of a North Korea far away.”

Suki Kim (Kim Il-Sung mural)
North Koreans walking past a Kim Il-Sung mural in 2011. (Photo: Suki Kim)

Kim admitted to not being particularly optimistic about the current situation, describing it as a “deadlocked problem”. For her, a more active United Nations coalition is perhaps the most sensible thing at the moment.

“I don’t see how this would stop any other way. The world just has to throw things in there,” she said.

And at this point in Trump’s Asian tour, that hopefully doesn’t mean more unhelpful words or worse. 

Source: CNA/mm

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