In the summer of 2011, American journalist Suki Kim got a job teaching English at the elite, all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in the North Korean capital.
Kim, who was born in South Korea and immigrated with her family to the U.S. at age 13, is a fluent Korean speaker and secretly took notes during her six months at the university in Pyongyang. This formed the basis for her new book, Without You, There Is No Us.
Though the university is geared for the privileged few, the students, like all North Koreans, are tightly controlled. The young men were closely monitored by female guards, they were not allowed off campus except for group outings, and they were discouraged from asking about the wider world.
On the day before Kim left the country in December 2011, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, died, sending the nation into mourning.
The next morning, the students “looked as though they’d been crying all night, as though their souls had been sucked out of them, as though they’d just lost a parent,” said Kim.
She spoke with Morning Edition’s Steve Inskeep about her rare insider’s glimpse of the reclusive country.
On speaking about the country’s leader
You don’t talk about Great Leader [Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder] by name. You certainly never, ever bring up anything about the outside world. The fact that I travel outside, really, 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.
On what the students asked
One time, a student did ask me about a national assembly. I think it was a word he picked up somewhere.
There was no way you could discuss that without bringing democracy into a conversation. And once I began 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.