An American journalist on daily life in North Korea

“The level of fear is unimaginable.” —author Suki Kim

President Donald Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un later today in a historic summit. It will be the first face-to-face meeting between an American president and a North Korean leader.

Now is as good a time as any to ask what it’s like to actually live in North Korea.

In 2011, American journalist Suki Kim secured a job teaching English at an all-male university in North Korea. Pyongyang University of Science and Technology had just 270 students, all of whom were the sons of North Korean elites.

Kim spent six months at the college, recording notes for what would become her 2014 book, Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.

Last year, I reached out to Kim by phone. Her perspective is valuable and rare; few Americans have spent much time on the ground there. I wanted to know what daily life was like for average citizens of North Korea, the world’s most reclusive country.

“The level of fear is unimaginable,” she told me. “It’s possible to be both happy and terrified all at once, and I think that’s the case for many North Koreans.”

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Sean Illing
Tell me how you ended up in North Korea in the first place.

Suki Kim
Well, I was born and raised in South Korea, with family separated on both sides of the line, so I understood the layered depths of tragedy that divided Korea. In 2002, I had spent about eight days in North Korea as part of an aid organization and was utterly devastated by what I witnessed. After that, I returned a couple more times, trying to understand this world from the inside.

In 2011, I realized that what I needed to do was get embedded in the country for a longer period of time, to really absorb what was happening there. I found an evangelical group that was teaching there, and I decided that would be a great cover. So I made way into the country by essentially posing as an English teacher.

Sean Illing
And where did they place you?

Suki Kim
I ended up in a military compound teaching 19- and 20-year-olds who were children of North Korean elites. They were all male, and nobody was allowed to leave for six months.

What does “elite” mean in North Korea? Who were these kids?

Suki Kim
It’s a vague term, but it basically meant children of party officials, people who were formally “approved” by the party. In some cases, elite means people who might be related, however loosely, to the Kim family.

I called them elite because of how privileged they were relative to most North Koreans. In 2011, all the universities were shut down for a year, and all the students were sent to construction sites to build their “powerful and prosperous nation” — that was the slogan they used. And so the vast majority of North Koreans were forced to sacrifice everything for the sake of the regime, and for most that meant working endlessly on construction projects.

But these young men I was teaching were excepted from this. There were 270 of them, and they were the only young men in the country who were not sent to toil away at the construction sites.

Sean Illing
What was that teaching experience like? How receptive were the students?

Suki Kim
It was an incredibly odd experience. My motive was to write notes for my book, so I was trying to understand how these people thought and felt. But all of my daily teaching was under constant surveillance. Everything was monitored, recorded, and approved very rigorously. I was aware of this all the time, and so were the students. So even when they were receptive, there was always this cloud hanging over everything.

Sean Illing
Were the students ever alone?

Suki Kim
Never. They are never alone. They have a buddy system, where they go everywhere together in a pair. Even when they come for office hours, they’re never alone. I was living in a dormitory right next to students in a compound that’s watched by the soldiers. My room, literally, was above the minder’s room, so the minder was watching me constantly. So you find that people just do what they’re told.

Sean Illing
And what was daily life like for your students outside of your classroom? Was everything regimented, surveilled, and controlled?

Suki Kim
Every second. They wake up at 5 am and take part in group exercise, very much like boot camp. They run in a group, march in a group, do everything as a group. It mirrors a military environment, which is to say there’s a rigid hierarchy and everything is regimented and everyone has a role.

That’s how we all functioned.

Sean Illing
You too?

Suki Kim
Yes. Everything was mapped out by the hour. They’d have to march to the cafeteria in a group to have a meal, and the students would have their self-study and then they’d sing songs about the “Great Leader” [North Korea’s founder and the current leader’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung]. Even when they’re marching to the cafeteria, they’d be singing as a group about the Great Leader. That’s how things worked. So much of their routine was about honoring the regime and the founding philosophy of the country.

It’s probably worth repeating that you were only observing the elites. Conditions for virtually all other North Koreans are even worse.

Suki Kim
Absolutely. There are degrees of how the surveillance system works, but this is more or less how it functions. For non-elites, life is equally oppressive but includes far worse physical labor.

Sean Illing
Obviously there wasn’t much freedom of thought for your students, but what kind of books did they read? What kinds of shows or films did they watch?

Suki Kim
The kids were sweet and adorable and not that different from 19-year-old kids anywhere else. But television is what you’d expect under a totalitarian state: Every program is about the Great Leader. On Chosun Central TV (the state-sanctioned broadcaster), there was one feature drama that playing in evenings. One time it was The Nation of the Sun, which was about the heroic actions of the Great Leader. Another time, a Chinese drama called How the Steel was Tempered, which was based on a social Russian novel of the same name, which was about the socialist ideals.

Their newspaper was six pages long, and every article is about the Great Leader. The same was true of the textbooks they read, and virtually every other form of education or entertainment.

They’re born into a world in which this is the only truth they know, and it’s all they ever hear or read or watch. This doesn’t mean the kids are like robots — they laugh and smile like anyone else. But their worlds and imaginations are constrained in ways we can’t really imagine.

Sean Illing
And what did they do for fun?

Suki Kim
There were no games, but they all gathered and sang songs, one by one, on their birthdays. The songs were all about the Great Leader, or their country or friendship. Sometimes they played soccer or basketball.

Sean Illing
I take it everyone dressed and looked the same?

Suki Kim
They wore uniforms (shirt, tie, dark trousers, jacket) at school. On weekends, they wore what were basically shabby trainer suits and T-shirts. They washed their own clothes by hand.

Sean Illing
Did they have celebrity idols, people they admired that weren’t connected to the regime?

Suki Kim
No celebrity idols. Only the Great Leader. The only celebrity I recall them mentioning is Ri Myung-hun, a famous North Korean basketball player who they claim is the tallest and best player in the world. In reality, Myung-hun hasn’t played basketball since the 1990s. And they only mentioned him because we had some discussion about basketball, and they were aware of Michael Jordan. (They seemed to think he still was playing basketball. Dates and time can be blurry in that land where news does not really get reported.) Another American celebrity they were aware of was, oddly enough, Bill Gates. But they had no idea who Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs was.

Sean Illing
What does the outside world look like through their eyes?

Suki Kim
They’re all aware that the outside world exists, and they’re curious about it, but this is not something they can express. They’re just not allowed to do that. These were kids of elites, and some would claim to have seen the outside world, but it’s pretty clear that almost none of them had ever left the country.

Curiosity is forbidden in North Korea. This is what I meant earlier when I spoke about psychological abuse. When you’re always being watched, always being disciplined, you’re conditioned to accept it, and it causes you to police your own thoughts and actions.

Sean Illing
Are they happy? I realize that’s a strange question, given everything you’ve just said. But I ask because if unfreedom is all they’ve ever known, I’m not sure freedom is something they can miss. That’s not to say that their condition is just or right; I’m just wondering how self-aware they are of their own circumstances.

Suki Kim
What I learned living there is that concepts like happiness and truth and self-fulfillment are simply different in North Korea. Our meaning of happiness has no resonance there. Individual fulfillment there is serving their nation and leader — period.

Sean Illing
Happiness is relative.

Suki Kim
It’s very relative. The question of happiness takes on a completely different meaning in the North Korean context. I observed what you might call happiness, but again that means something different. Happiness was risking their life in service of their leader and their country. It’s bizarre, but I don’t think it’s insincere. You have to remember that this is their home, and they had been taught to believe that this is all that mattered. When you consider how they’re raised and how they’re educated, this is not all that surprising.

Sean Illing
The regime is still an affront to human freedom, but I take your point — and I realize you’re not defending the North Korean system.

Suki Kim
Definitely not. We have to remember that what is important to them is not voluntarily decided. What is important to them has been dictated by their incredibly abusive regime, so as much as I think we need to understand that their priorities are different, we must not forget that this is a horrendously abusive regime. It’s possible to be both happy and terrified all at once, and I think that’s the case for many North Koreans.

Sean Illing
Do they have any inkling at all that they’re living under an authoritarian state? Is that thought even thinkable for most North Koreans?

Suki Kim
I never sensed that they considered their regime authoritarian in that way, and, again, some of that may be because they were children of pro-regime families and therefore soldiers of the Great Leader. So to question any of this would be to question the very foundation of their world and their identity.

Suki Kim with a North Korean student at Kim Il Sung University campus, with a statue of Kim Il Sung in the background. The student’s face has been blurred for privacy concerns. Courtesy of Suki Kim
Sean Illing
In a context like this, doubt is almost inconceivable, right?

Suki Kim
I realized at some point that I couldn’t think about truth and lies in the way I normally did. If you’re born into a system that’s built on lies and that’s all you ever know, all you’ve ever been fed, that is the truth of your experience, the only truth you’ve lived. That’s not something you question or doubt, or that anyone around you questions or doubts.

Sean Illing
All that time you spent with those students, did any of them ever open to you? Did the veneer ever crack?

There were moments where you could see a little interior light shining through, where they would almost express frustration about this or that, but they’re not allowed to act on any of this, and so it’s all subtle and controlled. The level of fear is unimaginable.

The Pyongyang University of Science & Technology campus. The enclosed walkway connects all buildings. A Pyongyang smokestack is in the distance (2011). Courtesy of Suki Kim
Sean Illing
If the Kim Jong Un regime were to collapse tomorrow, and North Koreans were suddenly liberated, how do you think they would react?

I feel like they would probably be relieved about the system. But I also think they’d find something else to believe in absolutely, some kind of faith that requires total fidelity. There’s a deeper layer of psychological trauma here that is difficult to grasp. I think they’re conditioned to follow whoever is in power, whoever is appointed the leader.

We’ve now had three generations of tyrannical rule and abuse, and people who have lived under this their entire life have never thought for themselves. How do you fully account for that kind of damage? My suspicion is that they’d blindly follow whoever would ascend to power. I hate to say it, but the soil is ripe for future dictatorships.

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