This month’s nonfiction read is a fascinating account of going undercover in the secretive and oppressive dictatorship of North Korea. Suki Kim is a Korean-American journalist who infiltrated a North Korean university as a teacher, during the reign of Kim Jong-il in 2011. Here is some info I found the most interesting in her book:
Kim’s behavior was governed by a smorgasbord of rules that I’m sure you can imagine, but here were a few surprising ones on pages 31-35:
– Do not wear jeans, as Kim Jong-il disapproves of them due to their connotation with American culture.
– Anything that could be easily duplicated and passed around with information stored on it is suspect. For this reason, do not play music on CDs; play iPods. Do not read paperbacks; read Kindles.
– If an image of the Great Leader is on a piece of paper, be careful not to accidentally rip it, fold it, sit on it, or throw it away, as that would be equal to tarnishing the Great Leader himself.
– The people of North Korea do not refer to their country as North Korea. It is “the last Korean kingdom” – Chosun.
– Even your dorm room is not safe from potential voice recordings, so do not speak anything critical.
While her classes were not completely unaware of the outside world (these upper-society students anyway), they still possessed alarming gaps in knowledge. “These were North Korea’s brightest students,” Kim says, “yet photos of the Taj Mahal and the Great Pyramids of Giza elicited only blank expressions. A few guessed the names and locations of the Eiffel Tower and Stonehenge, but only after much hemming and hawing.” (Page 76)
The students seldom used the pronoun “my” when they could say “our.” Never my school, but our school. Not my country, but our country. Kim states, “Even when we gave them a special lesson on ‘my’ versus ‘our,’ and made clear that they could drop ‘our’ altogether with proper nouns, they seemed confused.” (Page 78)
Strict rules banned teachers from discussing worldly politics with their classes, the breaking of which would be highly dangerous. For the teachers, the worst might be immediate deportation, but for the students, it could mean arrest, or even death. So when one student named Ji-hoon started earnestly inquiring about democracy over dinner, Kim didn’t know what to do. “I felt weak in the knees,” she describes. “This was the exact kind of discussion we were warned against. I knew that this student might be trying to trap me, or worse, that I might get him in serious trouble.” (Page 96) Unable to weasel out of the conversation, she told him as much as she dared.
She conferred with another teacher, Katie, about the event: “What if we were the instigators of his doubt, what if he was beginning to realize that everything he had known thus far was a lie…? We agreed that we would never sit with him again, not even if he asked. ‘A dinner with us might get him killed,’ Katie said. I wanted to dismiss the comment… [but] such a consequence was entirely possible.” (Page 96-97)
Later, another student approached Kim and said that Ji-hoon “thinks like you.” (Page 98) The statement rattled her. “That night I lay awake, unable to fall asleep. … Our fears and hopes were justified: Ji-hoon was thirsty for information, not trapping us to make a report. Perhaps this was why the regime had shut down universities across the country. … I had hoped I could perhaps change one student, open up one path of understanding. But what kind of future did I envision for the one student I reached? Opening up this country would mean sacrificing these lives.” (Page 98)
On a bus ride into the city, Kim noticed the heart-breakingly poor condition of the people working along the street: “Their faces were ghastly, as though they had not been fed in years … with hollowed eyes and sunken cheeks, clothing tattered, heads shaved, looking like Nazi concentration camp victims. … Katie mouthed the exact word that struck me at that moment: ‘Slaves.’ ” (Page 101)
Early during her term as teacher, Kim asked each student to write her a letter about anything they wished, as an informal practice of their English. The subjects of these first letters ranged from their families to their favorite sports, and so on. But the next time she assigned this, suddenly every letter “focused almost entirely on Kim Jong-il. As a group, they became preachy about his greatness, which they called his ‘solicitude.’ If they got a good grade, it was thanks to his solicitude. If their English improved, that also had to do with his solicitude. … But what seemed most peculiar was… the use of identical words and phrases such as solicitude, single-unified people, and powerful and prosperous nation. I wondered whether they had gotten a firm lecture from the counterparts [overseers].” (Page 109-110)
One startling discovery Kim made was how casually her students lied. When she mentioned she liked buying flowers at grocery stores back home, a student said he did too, even though there were no flowers in any of the city markets. “Another time, a student got up from the table at lunch and said, ‘Oh well, off to a shop. We have to get ready for a birthday party, so we need to go buy some things.’ There was no shop on campus yet … and Katie asked if he was allowed to go shopping outside the campus, at which point he pretended not to understand English and walked away.” (Page 127) Even the most farfetched lies came easily to them, such as one who claimed he cloned a rabbit in fifth grade, and another who said there existed a North Korean scientist who could change a person’s blood type.
Such deceit did not seem to stem from mischievousness or rebelliousness. It seemed an entirely natural behavior for them. Kim muses on this: “I was not sure if, having been told such lies as children, they could not differentiate between truth and lies, or whether it was a survival method they had mastered.” (Page 128) … “I wondered if it was possible that they had never been taught that lying was a bad thing. … Was it possible that they just did not know right from wrong? … Of course, they had been lied to themselves, all their lives.” (Page 132-133)
Because they had grown up in such dishonesty, where spoken truth could be dangerous, the students showed a highly attuned skill at reading facial expressions. “They seemed almost trained at it. They could sense when tides turned, because perhaps tides always turned, and no one spoke his mind, and so the only way to survive was to try to outdo each other at mind games.” (Page 132)
The book is packed with interesting material, so I recommend the read.