This book is subtitled My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite; A Memoir. Suki Kim spent about seven months teaching English at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) built in an empty suburb of Pyongyang in 2011. She left Pyongyang the day after the news broke of the death of Kim Jong-Il in the Juche Year 100, which counts time on the calendar beginning with the birth of the original Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung.
Kim’s memoir of that time teaching is full of her fears—fears that she will be kicked out of North Korea, fears that she or her friends or family or students will be retaliated against, fears that she will be poisoned by the food, or that she will suffer nutritional deficiencies. All these fears have their basis in the conditions she faced there. She put her life as an American reporter and novelist on hold to teach in North Korea and she needed enough information to make a book or the effort was wasted. What she didn’t count on was the very real impact she was able to have on her students, and they on her.
Kim’s students at PUST were talented college-aged sons of high-level government cadres, hand-picked to attend intensive English-language training. Kim taught Level 1 and Level 4, so she could see the range of skills. Many of the students had excellent English language ability and comprehension, but it was concepts like “internet,” “hip-hop,” “women’s studies,” and “Social Security” that threw them. Gather together all your experience of the culture of Koreans or Korean-Americans that you know and multiply it by a million. The culture is so intensified and distilled in its isolation that college-aged boys sleep with pictures of their mothers and claim their only interest is to serve the Great Leader, though in private they admit to a heartbreaking homesickness and desire for intimacy.
While we begin to imagine what they would think were they ever confronted with the true diversity of American artistic life, Kim brings us back to the harsh reality that these young men have been taught since childhood to abhor and detest the filth of America’s cultural richness. She was startled to discover that the boys sang songs every day both praising their leader but also promising a bloody vengeance on his enemies. When she would point out that she could technically be considered one of those enemies, the boys would look away.
Just before Kim left her post at PUST a student wrote to her a letter expressing his anger at a grade she had given him. When they met to discuss his feelings about her explanation, he thoughtfully remarked that he’d actually cared both about her opinion and about the grade. And he believed she would listen to him. He’d never had a conflict with a teacher before. This may seem a small thing, perhaps, but for seven months work, it is Kim’s great achievement.
We in the United States have grown used to students who actually challenge teachers and who care about their grades. It is true this student was one of the top performers and wanted to keep his class ranking. But he also thought he’d be listened to which is something he may not have expected in his normal schooling and which is why he’d never protested before.
We get used to Suki Kim saying she was afraid to ask questions or speak freely to provoke reactions but in fact she did figure out something about what ordinary North Korean lives were like from her protected and restricted perch. She saw the folks who picnicked on the tarmac of a highway, having travelled halfway from their villages to meet up in a convenient place; she met older folks in Pyongyang suburbs who were friendly and inquisitive until the minders barked at them to “get inside”; she heard the bus drivers for a school outing playing a counterfeit Simon & Garfunkel tape until the minders came back from the hike; she passed on the gossip that rabid dogs fed rat poison were subsequently eaten by the school staff (that really could have/should have been confirmed—it would have made a far better anecdote).
Has it occurred to anyone else that countries divided by foreign powers often don’t work in the way they were intended? I wonder if arbitrary division by uninvolved parties is a good choice. I am thinking now of Korea, but also of the Middle East. It seems to me we should just force them to the bargaining table and insist on some kind of negotiated settlement. The outcomes of divided lands are always so prolonged and damaging. Let the ones doing the negotiating take responsibility for their choices.
What Kim tells us about the knowledge base of North Korean students, even the elite ones at a university for science and technology, is truly frightening. They are terrifyingly ignorant of the latest advances in science and technology, and are nationalistic to the point of mania. One cannot see this ending well. That there exists among the old a remembrance of things past is a relief. Hopefully restrictions can be eased before they pass so that some remembered joy can be passed on.
I used to think China ridiculously restrictive and the government overbearing, but now I see China as the wild and uncontrollable environment it really was. North Korea is small enough to manage the control—it is surely a test case for how dictatorial control works and how it doesn’t. It should be pointed out that PUST was a school set up by Christian ministries and although they were not allowed to overtly preach a Christian message, they still worshipped among themselves while they were there. Kim makes the point more than once that the kind of worship of the Great Leader paralleled in unattractive ways the worship of these loyal followers for their version of Christianity. Both groups were equally close-minded about other choices, other paths.
Thanks to Suki Kim for doing what we couldn’t or wouldn’t. Her notes from the other side add to growing evidence and shore up earlier reports that we found hard to believe.
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