December 7th, 2014

Suki Kim’s Experience in North Korea “it’s the most horrific place to me in the world”

CNN’s FAREED ZAKARIA GPS features an interview with Suki Kim who explains how she got inside a North Korean school and the warped worldview of students there.

TEXT EXCERPT

On North Koreans’ perception of the world:  “They, first of all, didn’t know anything about the rest of the world. If any of them did, they were fearful to admit that, because every conversation that we had, even at meals in the cafeteria, there was — somebody was reporting on it. They were all watching each other. And if they were curious, you know, there was a — little slips here and there where they would be curious about democracy, for example, how it functioned in the rest of the world. At the same time, some of the students really thought people spoke Korean in the rest of the world. So the utter, utter lack of information was astounding.”

On North Korea’s education system: “You take away any way of critical thinking, and you literally take away the tools where people can communicate with each other, then I think that you have a nation where they just basically have the most abusive nation in the world. There — these men just own their people. It’s the most horrific place to me in the world

 

Full transcript after the jump.

FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: Very few Americans are allowed inside North Korea, even for just a visit, let alone allowed to stay for months and work there.

But that is just the opportunity my next guest had. Suki Kim spent months in the secretive Hermit Kingdom as a teacher at a private university in Pyongyang, the capital, in 2011.

Miss Kim used subterfuge to get into the country, subterfuge to get her notes on her experiences out of the country.

And with those notes, she wrote a highly acclaimed and very controversial new book, “Without You, There Is No Us.”

Suki Kim joins us.

How did you get in?

SUKI KIM, AUTHOR, “WITHOUT YOU, THERE IS NO US”: I — well, I had been following North Korea. I went there first in 2002 as a journalist. I did a piece for The New York Review of Books and then I went back for Harper’s Magazine during the Philharmonic concert, the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang in 2008. And I realized that there was no way of covering this country, because it would end up being just the North Korean regime’s propaganda.

Then I found out about this private school that was being built in Pyongyang and staffed by — with foreigners. So I applied for a job and I got in. It was an all-male boarding school in a suburb of Pyongyang. 270 young men were there in 2011, which happened to be the last six months of Kim Jong-il’s life. And these young men, 19 and 20, were all completely sons of elite.

ZAKARIA: What kind of things did they talk about? What kind of things did they ask you about?

KIM: Well, there was — I mean it’s — it was — they, first of all, didn’t know anything about the rest of the world. If any of them did, they were fearful to admit that, because every conversation that we had, even at meals in the cafeteria, there was — somebody was reporting on it. They were all watching each other.

And if they were curious, you know, there was a — little slips here and there where they would be curious about democracy, for example, how it functioned in the rest of the world. At the same time, some of the students really thought people spoke Korean in the rest of the world.

So the utter, utter lack of information was astounding.

ZAKARIA: Was their knowledge about the outside world all wrong in terms of propaganda or did they just know nothing?

KIM: It was all like a mismatch, you know. They didn’t know the existence of the Internet in 2011. And this was a Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Their major was computer, a lot of them

ZAKARIA: So how did you get the notes out? That itself is a story.

KIM: I wrote, you know, morning and night. And I had a laptop with me since I was a teacher. So — or posing as a teacher. So I… but then I would write all this information and then put them on a USB stick, a couple of them, and erase them all from the laptop, because I knew that they could search my things.

ZAKARIA: When you got it out, did you think about what in the would mean to write the book in terms of the effect it would have on those students, because it was a kind of total violation of the deal you had made?

KIM: Well, I mean I’m not sure if it’s a violation of a deal. First, I went in undercover. I never — when I say undercover, though, I went in there with my full name. All the school had to do was Google who I was. I told them that I was a writer.

Student-wise, I did everything I could do to protect their identity. I changed all their names and blurred all the identities and characteristics. Most of all, in the book, they come through mostly being obedient to the regime.

So I don’t see how it could possibly affect — when you — when they can’t even single out the students and also they basically love their great leader.

ZAKARIA: The sense one gets from the outside looking at North Korea is, honestly, it’s the weirdest country in the world. It is the most strange social experiment. And the puzzle is how does it survive?

How does it — how is that people just docilely accept this incredibly authoritarian regime that’s not just authoritarian, but, you know, totalitarian, really kind of tries to shape how you think, feel, breathe?

What’s your answer to that?

KIM: Well, I think it’s a combination of many things. It’s sort of this perfect storm of, you know, you have, first of all, this cult, serious personality cult. It’s religious, really. Absolute belief in the great leader, where, you know, this generation — three generations of these men who, these hugely narcissistic men basically wiped everything out of their culture except themselves.

So every North Korean wears the badge of the great leader. Their only holidays are the great leader holidays. Every books, every articles, every television, every song, I mean you name it, there is some — there’s not a single thing — every building has a great leader slogan.

So I think when you have that kind of a personality cult, that’s an incredibly powerful thing to be doing it for three generations.

You also have a very brutal military dictatorship that’s been in place for a long time, and also to wipe out every communication method, you know, there’s no Internet. The phone calls are tapped or, you know, it’s a small country. You can’t travel within the country without a permission.

And so you take away education tool. You take away any way of critical thinking, and you literally take away the tools where people can communicate each other, then I think that you have a nation where they just basically have the most abusive nation in the world. There — these men just own their people. It’s the most horrific place to me in the world.

ZAKARIA: And it doesn’t seem like its changing?

KIM: I don’t know how they’re going to rise up. They can’t even get to the next town without a permission. They don’t have the Internet. They have no way of going there, transportation system. There’s just nothing that connects people.

So I think it is up to us in the rest of the world to do something where the system is not going to be maintained the same way.

ZAKARIA: Fascinating account.

Thank you so much.

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