Interview: Suki Kim, Author Of 'Without You, There Is No Us' American journalist Suki Kim spent six months teaching English at a North Korean University that serves the sons of the elite. She chronicles her experience in a new book, Without You, There Is No Us.
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Among The Young And Privileged In North Korea

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Among The Young And Privileged In North Korea

Among The Young And Privileged In North Korea

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This morning, news of an American coming home. Jeffrey Fowle was released from detention in North Korea.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He was accused of leaving a Bible in a club for foreign sailors.

GREENE: His detention serves as a prologue for the story we'll tell next. It's the story of a writer who lived in North Korea. Suki Kim worked as an English teacher in a North Korean school.

SUKI KIM: It was a university - Pyongyang University of Science and Technology - and the staff were all foreigners and evangelical missionary Christians.

INSKEEP: This school taught hundreds of young men, 19 or 20 years old, children of North Korea's elites.

KIM: Christianity is possibly even execution-able crime. So why were they allowed? Because they funded the school and made a pact with the North Korean government, who did not at all put in any money for the school to not proselytize.

INSKEEP: So this evangelical school was flying below North Korea's radar, and Suki Kim was flying below the radar of the school. The teacher was actually a journalist. She was writing a book called "Without You, There Is No Us." Those are words from a song praising North Korea's founder, the so-called great leader whose grandson still rules. The compound of the school was surrounded by walls and guards, mainly to keep the students in and chatting up students was not easy.

KIM: You don't talk about the great leader by name. You certainly never ever bring up anything about the outside world. The fact that I travel outside freely is not something that I was supposed to talk about, but then you live together for months and months and share three meals a day together, then suddenly things start happening where you ask things.

INSKEEP: What were some of the questions you are able to pose as time went on and what were some of the answers you heard?

KIM: One time a student did ask me about national assembly. I think it was a word he picked up somewhere.

INSKEEP: National assembly, like just a term meaning some kind of democratic parliament or congress.

KIM: Right, right. There was no way you could discuss that without bringing democracy into a conversation, and once I begin talking about it, I got very nervous because the students were all watching each other and reporting on each other. After we discussed democracy at the table, later another student who's a roommate of that student told me that he's with me, meaning he thinks like me. And that really scared me because I thought then some of them are questioning the system.

INSKEEP: So you're saying that you could not discuss the outside world without considerable fear as you did it, and of course it's such a famously isolated country. But were the students really as cut off from the outside world as we might imagine?

KIM: Some were more sheltered than others. Whatever the reason was on surface because it is a system so built on fear, they're not supposed to admit it even if they knew. So, for example, we talked about the way they celebrate birthdays. Usually they go back to their dormitory after dinner, and then they start singing songs one by one. And they all always claimed the great leader songs or songs about friendship.

One time, one student said rock 'n roll. The minute he said that, the whole table went quiet. The student just looked out instantly as if some horrible thing was just admitted, and then someone changed the topic and I realized this is the fear. That was a kind of reality that is so impossible to imagine for us Americans, and I thought it was important to get to know that side, to humanize North Koreans.

INSKEEP: We should mention again these are members of the elite that you're talking about here, children of the elites. It's first a little surprising that they would not - even the elites would not have a little self-confidence to say what was on their minds, some confidence that their family was important and they weren't going to be thrown in prison for the slightest remark.

KIM: I think that was what was possibly the most frightening thing because we don't really know much about North Koreans at all obviously. And I've covered North Korea for over a decade, interviewed so many defectors, and this was the other extreme of the society. And they had no freedom. I don't know how they absolutely keep that control. But we just saw, you know, Kim Jong Un getting his uncle executed, Jang Sung Taek, at the end of 2013, and that is number-two man in North Korea for decades, who is a relative of the great leader. I think it's just a different system. I had assumed also that maybe the elite, you know, the images that those people control - and they have so much freedom, but that just simply was not true.

INSKEEP: You must have run into people of other social classes as well, simply because it's a large facility. There are guards. There are people cooking the meals in the kitchen. There are other kinds of people around who might be more working-class. Did you get a chance to talk to any of them?

KIM: No, actually it is so controlled, the guards were only women, young women - in their early 20s, and they never mixed words with the staff. I tried, but they wouldn't talk back to me. They were minders, and minders were living in this faculty dormitory on the ground floor. And they all - all they ever did was just guard us. It was very, very systematically controlled.

INSKEEP: Did you say that this university filled with young men was being guarded by young women?

KIM: Yes.

INSKEEP: Did that strike you as unusual at all?

KIM: Very strange, very strange, and I did ask about that several times to the foreign teachers, why is this the case? The answer I got was that in the beginning of the school, they had put men there - soldiers, but they realized maybe it just looks too threatening. So they changed the soldiers to women soldiers.

INSKEEP: I have this impulse, I want to hear you tell me that one of the young men fell in love with one of the women who were guards or something like that.

KIM: That would make a really good Hollywood movie, and I did imagine that because these were just, you know, 19-, 20-year-old beautiful boys. But then I realized also at some point, I learned that they come from a completely different social strata, that it just wasn't possible supposedly.

INSKEEP: Did you in the end feel that you were able to learn something deep about North Korea by spending several months there?

KIM: You know this was my fifth visit in North Korea - that time, and I felt the incredible sorrow. And my last time, more so then ever because I spent so much time, and I got to observe so much of things firsthand at the school. And because they were so young, 19 and 20, and I think from that, really loving them to a degree and understanding their world, it made me really think what a claustrophobic and inhuman place North Korea is. You know, it's kind of like thinking my kids are trapped there. It was heartbreaking on a daily basis and also to leave and also knowing that that's the world that they will possibly be the leaders - they're the future leaders of North Korea.

INSKEEP: Suki Kim is the author of "Without You, There Is No Us." Thanks very much.

KIM: Thank you for having me.

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