"North Korea counts their calendar di erently from the rest of the world. It begins from the birth of their original Great Leader."
What made you want to go to North Korea?

I have been covering the topic since 2002. There are multiple reasons. First, I am Korean, born and raised in South Korea, and I do come from families that were separated during the Korean War. So I had a personal interest in this topic: a deeper concept behind separation and separated countries. I do both fiction and nonfiction. I had just published my first novel, and then in 2002, I went to North Korea to write a non-fiction article. And then I realized how devastating, important, frightening and horrible the world is over there, and that I needed to somehow get to a deeper meaning behind it. I kept travelling there for a decade, I went there five times. I realized soon that there is no way I could write about North Korea unless I was embedded undercover, because it is a land of propaganda: there is no way you could go there even with a permission and get to any truth about the place.

Could you tell us about the situation in North Korea, since no one really knows much about it?

No one does, because we have no unfiltered portrait from North Korea except the testimony from defectors, but those defector testimonies are often told once they fled North Korea, and many years later, and they often belong in the bottom of society. I was really curious about what happens in the inner North Korea among the people who live there, who are elite, to get a complete picture of that society. What I found was an absolute control of imagination. If you look at the NASA photograph of North Korea, it is the only dark spot on Earth. I investigated that when I went in: that was because there is nothing that is not controlled there. Everything is about the Great Leader, every citizen lives for the Great Leader, education or information, television or newspapers, there is not a single thing that is not controlled. In 2011, Kim Jong Il's final year, I lived undercover with a group of 20-year-old young men in this University in Pyongyang that was set up by foreigners, and these were the future leaders of North Korea, the crème de la crème, top class. Those students were computer majors, and did not even know that Internet existed.

Why were those boys expected to become future leaders of the country?

It's fascinating, because in 2011 Kim Jong Un rose to power, and that year was also North Korea's 100th year. North Korea counts their calendar differently from the rest of the world. Their calendar begins from the birth of their original Great Leader. There have only been three generations of Great Leaders, and they count from the birth of the original Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, so 2011 was considered the 100th year. In that year North Korea shut down the whole country for a year, and then they plucked 270 students, who were the sons of elite, out of universities and moved them to another brand new University, and kind of sheltered them for a year. That is where I lived with the young men. All other college students in North Korea in 2011 were in construction fields doing manual labor except for these 270 young men.
What was the most shocking experience that you had while living in North Korea, something that you did not expect to see?

I think that the outside world is very much mistaken thinking that North Korea is somehow similar to them. Meaning that sometimes poor people suffer and rich people enjoy freedom. But when I lived there, I was very surprised to find out that even the elite lived under absolute control. They live in absolute fear, in complete ignorance, and they are not allowed to go anywhere or do anything without permission. The amount of control was utterly absolute, which is a frightening reality, because you realize that no one is spared in that society.

Returning back to your students: how were they different from kids of the same age in South Korea or the States?

When you live in a system of abuse and lies, it does affect your psychology. And I think that from reports we know just the superficial details about North Korea, that there is hunger and gulags there. Apart from that, the tremendous impact on psychology that this kind of system has is unthinkable. Although they were incredibly lovely, and sweet, and complicated 20-year-olds, they did not know how to think critically, they seemed a lot younger than their age, they lied all the time, because in North Korea you have to lie to survive. The system of that much control and abuse will always be infantilizing. In North Korea you are not allowed to travel inside the country without permission, going to a next town is not allowed. Also, they don't really learn anything except about the Great Leader, because it's not possible to teach things like literature, history and even computer science without mentioning the rest of the world. How do you block out the information to that degree and teach the young generation anything important? It is not possible in that world.

Have you been contacting people other than your students?

No, North Korea does not work that way. I can only speak for the world that I lived in, and despite the fact that I lived there for an extensive period of time, I could only get a glimpse of the outside world. If my students were not allowed to do anything, or go anywhere, or know anything, neither was I. My entire existence there was policed, 24/7.
What do you think about the future of North Korea and its people?

I just don't see what would change. Covering it as long as I have, I always hoped that there was some gap there, some room for change. There is only one television channel there that only shows the information about the Great Leader, only one newspaper that shows articles about the Great Leader, every citizen wears a badge of the Great Leader, every song is about the Great Leader, every holiday is the Great Leader holiday. In the place of such an utter control I hoped that there would be some loose end, some exception, some gap. But the amount of absolute control is beyond what we think is possible in the outside world. And this is why North Korea is able to maintain itself. I think that the outside world loves to compare North Korea to China or Cuba. None of those countries were controlled to this degree. North Korea is a different thing. There is literally no gap in this control. And that's what I found in my last time living there, which made me conclude that there is no hope, I don't see what will change.

You have been getting a lot of criticism for your book because it could cause potential harm to your students. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it is an utterly ridiculous claim. I just published a piece on that. We have the world's most brutal society in North Korea. It's a place where foreign policy has clearly failed; where the journalism had failed. So when I went undercover, it angered a lot of people, and I was accused of the things that were simply not true. For example, the school I went undercover, was built and run by fundamental evangelicals from around the world, who made a pact with North Korean regime. And I went undercover, posing as one of them. And people were so mad that I broke my promise with the school, but this is what "undercover journalism" is. My "subjects" were my students, and I protected them. Anyone who read the book would see very clearly that I protected them, because I left all the things that might have hurt them out. Obviously, their names had been changed, but on top of everything else, they come across as perfectly loyal to the regime.

Why do you think this criticism took place?

I felt like if I wasn't a Korean woman writer covering this, if a white male journalist had gone in North Korea undercover, none of this criticism would have ever happened. But for some reason people were quick to criticize me on every level. Why getting the truth about North Korea would anger so many people? I documented and brought out what is considered to be the final year of Kim Jong Il's life, and the psychology of the future leaders of North Korea. And this is what the book is: it is the psychology of that nation and the young people that are going to lead it. When my book came out, which was the only time a writer lived among North Koreans undercover, more intellectuals were pissed off that I did it, rather than looking at what was in the book to try to understand that world and try to do something to stop or change that.
What about the North Korean government, do they know about you and your work?

Obviously, I could never go back there, because this is exactly what they did not want. I was threatened constantly before the book came out to stop the publication. But that message was related to me through the school. This school is Kim Jong Un's mouthpiece, and they threatened me non-stop before the book came out. After that there were some harassment, wherever I would give an interview, they would call in or write in.

How did the limitations of North Korea affect you personally during your stay?

It is unbearable, and incredibly depressing and frightening. It was my fifth time there, and I understood what I was getting myself into. There was a minder in the same building, and his job was to watch me 24/7. Every class I gave was recorded and reported on. Every conversation I had with my students was also reported on. My rooms were bugged. My office was bugged. There was just no place where you would be on your own in private. Also, to write a book there would be a capital crime. I probably would have ended up labelled as breaching their national security law and spying, would have probably been sent to a gulag, if not worse. So knowing that, I had to copy all of my notes on USB sticks and erase them from the laptop, because I knew they went through my computer. I had those USB sticks on my body at all times; I wore them around my neck. That kind of pressure was frightening. If I was not writing a book, I would not have been scared to that degree. And then I was trying to understand how their minds worked, which meant conversations with my students. That was always uncomfortable, because I was trying to find as much as I could, and I was waiting for them to slip up, because they would only answer stuff about the great leader, but of course they are human beings, so they slipped up. Those slips scared me, because they happened in private, and in public and I was always afraid of who saw that. Would they get in trouble? Getting in trouble in that world meant being sent into a gulag. So that fear of being responsible and scared for your own life and other people's lives, people you love, because I really grew to love my students, – that was a very scary position to be in. It was just horrible.
Do you still worry about and miss your students in Pyongyang?

Of course, I do, but at the same time I went there to write a book, so I think that's where the division is. It's not like I was really a teacher, I was a writer undercover. Although I did love them, while I was in that role, they were not really my students. There was this distance, because they were the subjects of my book. I wrote a book, I studied it for a decade, and the book is finished. Of course, I think about them and I worry about them, but it is not like a real mother missing her sons, no.

What do you think your students would say if they could read your book?

Obviously, they are never going to. But I think they would understand it. As a writer, as a communicator of the free world I cannot imagine anything more inhumane than having your voice be trapped and destroyed, and never being delivered to the outside. My young men, that I used to call gentlemen, because I kind of hoped that they would be gentle, these young gentlemen that I loved were 20, but they never were allowed to enjoy the blessing of being 20. It's a privilege to be young, and 19-20 is such a beautiful age, and I think that I witnessed this beautiful youth being destroyed. They were never allowed to go anywhere, they would always be in that school, never allowed to keep in touch with anybody, not allowed to know about the Internet, although they were computer majors – this was stifling for them. But the sparkle that I have noticed at times, that is all in the book. Their incredible humanity and loveliness, I thought that it was my job as a writer to document that, because we don't see that about North Korea. What the outside world sees is these incredibly hungry people or a crazy dictator, or this horrible American comedy stuff like 'The Interview', which is a ridiculous, shameful portrayal of North Koreans. I think I wanted to break that down, to deliver the portrait of the real people. They are not the other, they are like us. And I think that they would be glad to see, if they could ever possibly read the book, that their stunning beauty of humanity is captured in the book.

Is there anything you would like to say to people who will be reading this interview?

It's a mind boggling and horrifying problem – North Korea. For this to continue for 70 years, I think the world is complicit. We have to face up to that. When it is ongoing for this long, it is basically a one big gulag, and the world is just sitting in the distance, kind of casually making fun of this situation. Kim Jon Un had become a sort of a hipster joke. I do think that it is because we don't know anything about North Korea. We need more and more voices to speak up, to bring more awareness to the topic. What has actually happened to this subject is shameful. What I want to ask the world is: is this the best we can do as human beings? É
Interview: Kamila Narysheva for Étage Magazine
Photo: Suki Kim