Guest Host: Susan Page

Suki Kim and her students take a final exam at a school in North Korea, December 2011.

Suki Kim and her students take a final exam at a school in North Korea, December 2011.

North Korea is arguably the most secretive country in the world today. Few foreign journalists enter its borders. When they do, they seldom see beyond what the government shows them. Frustrated by official reporting trips, Korean-American journalist Suki Kim decided to go undercover. In 2011, she posed as a teacher at a missionary school. During her months in the classroom, she was charmed by her students and overwhelmed by the regime’s totalitarian control. Suki Kim shares her story in a new book, “Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.”


  • Suki Kim Journalist and author of the novel "The Interpreter."

Read An Excerpt

Excerpted from WITHOUT YOU, THERE IS NO US: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim. Copyright © 2014 by Suki Kim. Excerpted by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


  • 11:06:54

    MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is visiting station WCPN in Cleveland. The Korean War tore apart Suki Kim's family. Growing up in the shadow of that tragedy, Kim became obsessed with North Korea. She thought that if she could penetrate the borders of that mysterious country, she could somehow heal her family's wounds. As an adult, she's been reporting on North Korea for more than a decade.

  • 11:07:26

    MS. SUSAN PAGEIn 2011, she spent six months working as a teacher at a missionary school to try to see beyond the facade of the oppressive regime and get to know its people. She wrote about her experience in a new book. It's titled, "Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea's Elite." Suki Kim joins me here in this studio. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:07:50

    MS. SUKI KIMHi. Thank you for having me.

  • 11:07:51

    PAGEWe're gonna invite our listeners to join our conversation. You can call our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can always send us an email, Find us on Facebook or on Twitter. What an incredible story. It seems like it would be easier to go to the moon than to get inside North Korea these days. Such a secretive regime. Even the title of your book, "Without You, There Is No Us." What does that mean?

  • 11:08:21

    KIMIt's a song. It's a song title. I was living in a locked compound in a suburb of Pyongyang with 270 male students, all age 19 and 20. And they sang songs all the time. Marching to the cafeteria, before the class. One of the songs they sang was called, "Without You, There Is No Us." So, as you can imagine, you as the great leader, and without him, there really is no us.

  • 11:08:55

    PAGENow, you're interest in North Korea goes back to your family's experience during the Korean War. What happened?

  • 11:09:04

    KIMIt affected a lot of families. I think the estimate is something like a million plus families were affected during that war, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. On my mother's side, her brother, who was then age 17, was taken to the north. They never saw him again during the war. So, they were all trying to, when north attacked south, in Seoul, they were all living in Seoul then, and everybody was trying to get to the south, as southern as possible, to get away from the bombs.

  • 11:09:42

    KIMAnd that's when he actually got on this car that was all leaving, but then he got off, because all the young men had to get off. She was only four years old. So, they never saw him again. And later, it was said that he was taken to the north.

  • 11:09:59

    PAGEYou were born in South Korea yourself.

  • 11:10:01

    KIMYes, my family's all from South Korea.

  • 11:10:04

    PAGEAnd when did you come to this country?

  • 11:10:06

    KIMI came when I was 13, in the 80s.

  • 11:10:09

    PAGEAnd why, why did your family decide to integrate?

  • 11:10:12

    KIM1980s in South Korea was a very turbulent time, because the 70s was a lot of military dictatorship. 60s and the 70s. And by 80s, we have a lot of economic meltdown, so during that time, there was a bankruptcy and we all fled. Because you have to go to jail if you have bankruptcy.

  • 11:10:34

    PAGEYou know, it's interesting, in your story, you talk about immigrating to this country, but constantly trying to kind of find a home again. Never feeling fully at home here, and you say that when you first went to North Korea, you felt, in a way, like you had come home.

  • 11:10:49

    KIMIt's an odd position, I think, being an immigrant. And I think, you know, as an American, we, in some way, we all come from somewhere else and find home here. And I think because I'm the first generation immigrant, that I came as a child. It was not my choice, because I was still a child, 13. So, I think that loss of home was so sudden and also I lost a language, and I'm a writer. And I wanted to be a writer as a child. So I think this loss of the language and the country and the sense of home at that age. 13 is a very, very -- it's a difficult age anyway.

  • 11:11:26

    KIMSo I think it did sort of tear my world apart, and that longing for home has stayed with me always. And it's -- in an odd way, when I went to -- I went to Pyongyang in 2002 for the 60th birthday celebrations of Kim Jong Il. The then great leader. And I think I felt this longing that Koreans must experience.

  • 11:11:49

    PAGESo, you have gone to North Korea a couple times. It's a very hard place to get into, especially if you're a journalist. How have you managed to get there?

  • 11:11:57

    KIMI went there the first time by joining this organization that was turned out to be a pro Kim Jong Il organization. But I actually did not know why -- I, I joined them thinking that was just a way to get into North Korea, but I didn't realize that they had thought that I was somehow this official youth delegate that they were looking for. So, it was a very odd story. I ended up doing a whole cover essay for the New York Review of Books. By joining this group, I ended up experiencing Kim Jong Il's 60th birthday celebration in a very private way.

  • 11:12:32

    KIMI didn't see Kim Jong Il, but I ended up doing karaoke with all the workers, party leaders, and staying at this VIP quarters. And I had to attend all the state meetings. So, it was a very odd way of being introduced to North Korea. But that was right after the famine, the height of famine, which hit North Korea in the late 1990s, that killed off a tenth of the population there. So, it was a very dire, grim, horrifically sad North Korea that I saw. There was just no electricity, heat.

  • 11:13:10

    PAGEAnd of course, we know that for most of the residents of North Korea, for most North Koreans, they live a life of constant hunger, of deprivation. You know, the -- then the story of how you got this job as an English teacher to the sons of the most powerful men in North Korea. How did you get this job? How did this come about?

  • 11:13:34

    KIMI have a following. So, since 2002, when I went there, I kept trying to find a way to go back in. And then I covered a New York Philharmonic's concert for Harper's Magazine in 2008. And still realized that I didn't get to see much. You just get the -- whatever the regime shows you. And then I heard about this university that will be staffed all foreigners, by foreigners. An all male boarding school, essentially. So I apply for a job and miraculously, I got the job. So I went.

  • 11:14:08

    PAGENow, this is, you know, this regime in North Korea is the most mysterious in the world, in terms of not allowing contact with foreigners. So, why is there a school that is staffed entirely by foreigners?

  • 11:14:23

    KIMI think that it's an interesting thing, why Pyongyang University of Science and Technology was allowed to be built. I think -- it's also run by missionaries, Christian missionaries, and they basically fund the school. Everything about the school is funded by this organization, operation costs also. And North Korea doesn't really pay any of it. So, I think it is -- it ended up providing this education for the elite. Physically, incredibly well built and nice looking school.

  • 11:15:03

    KIMSo, I think that it's more because they were cornered to a point where they really needed to feed their children with the foreign money.

  • 11:15:14

    PAGESo tell us about the rules that govern every minute of every day that you were there. What were the rules at the school?

  • 11:15:23

    KIMThe school, first of all, because it was run by missionaries, and people ask me, why were missionaries allowed in? Because Christianity is a, you know, proselytizing can be an execution of a crime, we have Kenneth Bae right there, along with Jeffrey Fowle, who are there for doing missionary work. And Kenneth Kae got 16 years in a gulag. So, but the -- these missionaries, who built (word?) got in because they made a promise not to proselytize.

  • 11:15:55

    PAGETo not even mention Christianity.

  • 11:15:56

    KIMNever. You would say things like M for minister. J for Jesus. Well, also because the school was so bugged everywhere, and minders were living there. And there were this group of people called counterparts who oversaw our lesson. And everybody was reporting on the class that I taught. So, and all students are watching each other, so I think because we knew that it was so highly watched, one of the things was never, ever to, you know, you're supposed to pray with your eyes open.

  • 11:16:30

    KIMAnd so there were -- and you also never, ever, ever talk about Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Un. The Great Leader is not a topic you discuss.

  • 11:16:41

    PAGEWell, and in fact, you couldn't -- you talk about the naivete of the questions that your students ask you. For instance, they would say, do people speak Korean all around the world, because we know it is the best language?

  • 11:16:55

    KIMYeah, there was that sort of rehearsed aspect to their speech. Where they just kind of say things that -- I don't know if you really believe that or not, but everything goes back to DPRK, you know, North Korea being the best in the world. So, because it's the best in the world, of course, everyone eats Korean outside. Korean noodles are the best food. Or they speak the Korean language, because it's the best language in the world. But that propaganda started definitely breaking down the longer I stayed.

  • 11:17:31

    PAGEAnd how did it break down?

  • 11:17:33

    KIMVery, very, very slowly, and very subtly. But, you know, you have to imagine that I lived there and I wasn't allowed out. And they were never allowed out. The teachers were allowed out on group outings that were organized, with minders. But the boys were never, ever allowed out. So, when you live in a compound, and we also ate every meals together, three meals a day together. We played basketball together, that, in that locked compound when you are locked up with people like that, you begin to adore each other, to a degree. I think that's the best thing about humanity.

  • 11:18:12

    PAGEYou adore them or hate them. I mean, it's good that you adored them.

  • 11:18:14

    KIMI guess so.

  • 11:18:15

    PAGEI guess there's an alternative. Well, we're talking to Suki Kim. She's a journalist and author. She wrote the award winning novel, "The Interpreter." We're talking today about her second book. It's titled, "Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea's Elite." We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones. Our phone lines are now open. 1-800-433-8850. Or shoot us an email, Stay with us.

  • 11:20:01

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking with Suki Kim about her new book -- excuse me. It's titled "Without You There is No Us." We'll go to the phones in just a minute but first, this -- North Korea obviously a highly-regulated state, you mentioned that two American missionaries are now in prison there. Was there a risk for you? If they had found out that you were not exactly who you purported to be, not really a Christian missionary working as an English teacher but an author who was curious about reporting on North Korea, would you have been at risk?

  • 11:20:36

    KIMI would think so. I guess I would be portrayed as a spy possibly. And I did write everything and put everything on USB sticks and erased everything from the hard drive every day.

  • 11:20:51

    PAGESo you'd write on your computer, the computer you had brought.

  • 11:20:54


  • 11:20:54

    PAGEAnd then you'd download it on a stick and you'd carry that stick with you always?

  • 11:20:58

    KIMAlways, yes.

  • 11:21:00

    PAGEBecause everything -- you think your computer was being monitored.

  • 11:21:03

    KIMEverything was monitored. I think the paranoia -- I mean, it's paranoia but it's also not paranoia because you know that the minders are repeating the private conversations you had. So they were listening to you somewhere. So we were also told there, you know, as teachers we're allowed the internet connection. The students didn't even know what the internet was in 2011 when I was there. So although this was a school of science and technology, a lot of them computer majors did not know the existence of the internet. So -- but we knew our connection was absolutely watched by the minders.

  • 11:21:39

    PAGEAnd so what did they think -- they thought they knew what the internet was though, right? They had an internet...

  • 11:21:44

    KIMThey had intranet.

  • 11:21:45

    PAGEAn intranet in North Korea that they thought was the internet.

  • 11:21:49

    KIM...the internet. That's the downloaded information, you know, the kind of thing you see at a library catalog.

  • 11:21:55

    PAGEAnd so since you've published this book, have you heard of any consequences, for instance that the North Koreans now know that you were working on a book and have written a book about them?

  • 11:22:07

    KIMI published an op-ed after Jang Song Thaek was executed with -- who was Kim Jong-un's uncle that he had executed at the end of 2013. So I published an op-ed in the New York Times. And after that I heard from the school. You know, I got several emails from the school.

  • 11:22:26

    PAGEAnd were they -- what were they saying? Were they saying...

  • 11:22:29

    KIMVery, very angry

  • 11:22:30

    PAGEAngry because they thought you had deceived them.

  • 11:22:33

    KIMThey felt that I had jeopardized the school. And they asked me for the manuscript to look at it or just not publish it.

  • 11:22:44

    PAGEAnd what did you tell them?

  • 11:22:46

    KIMI said, no.

  • 11:22:47

    PAGEAnd is the school still operating?

  • 11:22:49

    KIMThe school is still operating. And, I must say, you know, I do feel terrible for hurting them but there was no way -- there is no way to investigate North Korea without being embedded there. Because what you get from North Korea is just a soundbite of the government propaganda. And you do have 25 million people in North Korea where the UN report, latest report claims violation -- the gravity -- the violation against humanity is unsurpassed in the contemporary world.

  • 11:23:21

    KIMYou have gulags, hundreds of gulags, millions of people close to famine. So I think that my priority is about really the wellbeing of the 25 million North Koreans.

  • 11:23:35

    PAGEOne of the things that occurred to me when I finished the book, when you talk about the level of paranoia and the constant surveillance of everyone. Do you think that any of the minders with whom you had a good relationship or any of the boys that you taught would suffer any consequences because you wrote a book?

  • 11:23:54

    KIMI don't know. To be honest, I don't know. The most I could do was to -- I changed all the names and obscured the identities. So even if the quotes were interesting, I had to just not use them. And I mixed all the boys up so there was no way of pinpointing which one is which.

  • 11:24:12

    PAGESo one thing that struck me was for all the totalitarian nature of this regime, they seemed really incompetent because they could have Googled your name when you were applying for a visa and discover that you were a journalist who had written about North Korea in the past. I mean, it seemed quite surprising to me that you were able to do this without them -- you know, without raising red flags for them.

  • 11:24:34

    KIMI think it's because it's a very organizational society, so that one organization does not really communicate with another organization.

  • 11:24:42

    PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners ask questions. Carol is calling from Haslet, Mich. Carol, hi, you're on the air.

  • 11:24:50

    CAROLHi, Susan. I love "The Diane Rehm Show" and you're one of my favorite hosts.

  • 11:24:54

    PAGEOh well, thanks so much.

  • 11:24:56

    CAROLMy question is, I'm wondering if the author has met Shin Dong-hyuk or knows anything about his journey that was written about in "Escape From Camp 14." And if -- I've heard of some people who questioned the veracity of his story. And if she can -- if the author can shed any light on that.

  • 11:25:21

    PAGEAll right. Carol, thanks so much for your call.

  • 11:25:23

    KIMHi. Thank you for the question. I have not met Shin Dong-hyuk but I did cover defection for -- the North Korean defectors for -- I did several pieces for Harper's magazine. So I am familiar with the world of defecting and the coverage of defecting and no possibly believing what they have to say. I think it's because essentially it's not verifiable. Nothing about North Korea is verifiable.

  • 11:25:55

    PAGEBut you write about how these boys who you were teaching at the school were so different from the defectors who you had interviewed previously. How were they different?

  • 11:26:07

    KIMWell, I think the defectors often come from the bottom rung of the society. They are usually -- live along the border and then they just cross over the river, whereas these boys were the sons of the elite. You know, they're the crème de la crème of North Korea. In 2011 all the universities were shut and the university students were sent to construction fields. But these 270 young men were sent to PUST Pyongyang University of Science and Technology to learn English.

  • 11:26:39

    PAGEAnd that's because why?

  • 11:26:42

    KIMThey gave a reason that it was to -- 100 year, meaning it was the 100th year since the birth of the original great leader Kim Il-Sung. And they were celebrating that by building the nation, prosperous, powerful nation. That was the official reason given but we know now by the end of 2011 Kim Jong-il died and Kim Jong-un took over. So the rumor of the regime changed. It was a very, very unsettling time. So in some light you can see the boys were sort of waiting out the storm.

  • 11:27:11

    PAGELet's talk to Nakeel calling us from Albany. Hi. Thanks for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:27:18

    NAKEELHi. It's a privilege being on the show and I am from Albany, N.Y. I'm an engineer so I'm always looking for some common sense or logic connecting, you know, politics. But I guess this question to you is based on my thinking that if a country like North Korea is so isolated and then you have the elite, which are privileged, and the non-elite which are not privileged, do you think a civil uprising in the coming decades is a possibility?

  • 11:27:56

    NAKEELAnd if you think that a civil uprising is a possibility, the other countries which are pretty much, you know, either democratic or communist, people who at least support that there should be some form of democracy would support such uprising?

  • 11:28:13

    PAGEAll right. Nakeel, thanks very much for your call. So we've seen uprisings in other places with totalitarian regimes. Is there -- are there the seeds for that in North Korea?

  • 11:28:23

    KIMNorth Korea's slightly different in that. We see -- we have the Arab Spring but, you know, there's actually the internet there. So North Korea's absolutely controlled. There is no form of communication and that's changed a lot of things.

  • 11:28:38

    PAGEBut, you know, one thing that was -- one thing we know about other places where the -- people have risen up to change the government, that they understand when their government's lying to them. At least some of the people understand that the world is not the way it is being portrayed by the government. Do people in North Korea understand that their government is lying to them about the world situation, North Korea situation, that the world is not the way it is portrayed to them by their government, or do they think this is really how things are?

  • 11:29:11

    KIMYou know, it's interesting because when I was covering the defectors who have fled North Korea, would often tell me that they do doubt -- they were doubting what their government was telling them. And there's actually a market culture that's forming, black market culture called (word?) in North Korea where people are now getting a little more information. And that formed because of the extreme food shortage. There was no government -- governments were just not giving out food the way they were promising to. So they definitely -- there is that culture. However, the students that I spent months and months with, I did not think they doubted their government at all. But these were elites.

  • 11:29:51

    PAGEAnd they were so innocent. You talk about standing before them on the first day of class and saying, you can ask me any question. What did they ask you?

  • 11:30:00

    KIMThey asked me things like, what is your favorite color? They were 19 and 20 but the questions were just lovely and sincere respectful and earnest but a little like childlike. So they genuinely wanted to know what's my favorite color and what's my favorite hobby. So those were the questions they were curious about.

  • 11:30:24

    PAGEWhy don't you read for us just the very opening of the book that gives a sense of what it was like to be there?

  • 11:30:32

    KIMOkay. So this is a prologue of the book. Time there seemed to pass differently. When you are shut off from the world, every day is exactly the same as the one before. This sameness has a way of wearing down your soul until you become nothing but a breathing, toiling, consuming thing that awakes to the sun and sleeps at the dawning of the dark. The emptiness runs deep, deeper with each slowing day and you become increasingly invisible and inconsequential.

  • 11:31:05

    KIMThat's how I felt at times, a tiny insect circling itself only to continue and continue. There in that relentless vacuum nothing moved. No news came in or out. No phone calls to or from anyone. No emails, no letters, no ideas not prescribed by the regime. Thirty missionaries disguises as teachers and 270 male North Korean students and me, the soul writer disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher, locked in that prison disguised as a campus in an empty Pyongyang suburb heavily guarded around the clock. All we had was one another.

  • 11:31:53

    PAGEThat's author Suki Kim reading from her new book "Without You There is No Us: My Time With the Suns of North Korea's Elite." I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're taking your calls. You can call our toll free number 1-800-433-8850 or send us an email at or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Now we talked about how people in North Korea do not have a realistic sense of what the rest of the world is like. Do people in the United States have a realistic sense of what it's really like in North Korea?

  • 11:32:31

    KIMI -- you know, I think that's why I wrote this book. I think that I wanted to humanize North Koreans. I didn't want them to become this sort of caricature. You know, we have a lot of Kim Jong-il jokes, images of the funny weirdness. Kim Jong-un, now it's all about where is Kim Jong-un and then he came back. And so the comic really is not that interesting in a way. And then we have the nuclear issues and the poverty. But beyond that they're also real people. And I think if you can look at them as real people like you and me then we can care more what happens to them.

  • 11:33:14

    PAGELet's talk to Eric. He's calling us from Charlotte, N.C. Eric, thanks for giving us a call.

  • 11:33:20

    ERICHi. Thank you for taking my call. My question's regarding specifically the followers of the regime and more importantly the men and women that might enforce the regime's policies. I know that, you know, psychology is sort of interesting to me in these situations. And I know in past dictatorships and things such as in Nazi Germany which, you know, not to make a comparison, but there are many people that enforce these rules and are part of the major parties that are sort of oppressing the other people but don't agree with the policies. But out of fear they go along with them. And I was wondering if there's any sense of that?

  • 11:34:05

    PAGEAll right. Eric, thanks so much for your call. So do you think the people in North Korea actually adore the great leader or are they playing a part because it would be so dangerous to diverge from the prescription?

  • 11:34:18

    KIMI think logically speaking there's both of that. With my students, what I sensed since they were so obedient of their system but slowly I think I did begin to see that there was so much fear that this was a system built on fear.

  • 11:34:34

    PAGEAnd you talk about the -- how good -- your students, you talk about them being kind of innocent and fresh but also liars about almost everything. What would they lie about?

  • 11:34:46

    KIMThey would just lie about most anything. They would say that they -- I saw them doing -- every day their schedule was mapped out. So they wake up at, like, 5:30 and they do group exercises, then breakfast, then the class, then also they have to go to check classes about Kim-il Sung-ism, about the great leaders. But then they would say -- although I just saw them exercising they'll say they slept really late and they rested.

  • 11:35:15

    KIMAnd in 2011 all the university students were working in construction fields. But in the summer break -- during the summer break when they were allowed to go home for a few weeks, they said that they play with their friends all the time, went swimming three times a week. So -- or they were not allowed to keep in touch with their parents when they were at the school. None of them were allowed, but then they would say they called their parents all the time. So it's things like that that they almost were afraid to say the truth, tell the truth because this is the way their system worked.

  • 11:35:50

    PAGESo were they saying what they thought you would want to hear or were they saying what they'd been told to say? I mean, why lie about inconsequential things regarding your daily life?

  • 11:36:01

    KIMWell, I think that they were probably told to say that. They were -- you know, their system was that they were not supposed to tell anybody, that they did not -- they could not call their parents, that they had no telephone with them. There was no cell phone with them.

  • 11:36:16

    PAGEAnd had any of them been outside of North Korea?

  • 11:36:19


  • 11:36:21

    PAGESo not even to a place like China.

  • 11:36:23

    KIMNo, not then. And, I mean, barely anybody can -- you know, it's -- no one really -- except very, very privileged few can leave the country. North Koreans cannot really leave their country. So, for example, we played Truth or Lie game in the class. So you had to -- just somebody puts a sentence on the board and you had to guess if that's true or a lie. And one student wrote, I went to China during the summer vacation. The entire class screamed out, lie. So I think it's things like that which reveals clearly they cannot leave the country.

  • 11:36:56

    PAGEWe're talking with Suki Kim about her new book "Without You There is No Us." We're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we'll go back to the phones. We've got a couple people waiting to make -- to ask a question or make a comment. We'll also read some emails. Stay with us.

  • 11:39:59

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're talking to Suki Kim about her new book, "Without You, There Is No Us." We've got some callers waiting. Let's go to the phones. We'll talk to Angela. She's calling from Martinsburg, West Virginia. Welcome, Angela.

  • 11:40:16

    ANGELAThank you for taking my call. My question is the time that you were teaching these young men, these 19 to whatever year olds, did you ever see signs of them questioning their reality? Or questioning, even subtly, what they were being told by their government or what you had to bring -- what you were teaching them or what you brought to them. And did you feel the need to try to answer those questions?

  • 11:40:45

    PAGEAngela, thanks so much for your call.

  • 11:40:48

    KIMI think that was something that was always, that I was battling with, because if I planted some seed in their mind, then it could actually cause trouble for that particular student. So, we always had to get our lessons pre-approved by the counterparts of the school. But one of the things that I decided to teach was essay. And teaching essay turned out to be incredibly difficult, because a basic essay has an introduction, thesis sentence, body that, a body paragraph, which has a lot of proof. You have to prove your thesis. And a conclusion, none of which was possible. You have a refutation in an essay format.

  • 11:41:36

    KIMAlso, that was not possible to teach them, because they do not have refutation. They're only thesis is about the Great Leader, and you do not prove -- you don't need a proof for the Great Leader, the greatness of the Great Leader. So, I soon realized it was so impossible to teach this concept, so we spent weeks and weeks with essay until one day, one student told me, because every day, they took their Great Leader class, where they just had to write compositions about the Great Leader all the time.

  • 11:42:04

    KIMAnd then the student did tell me that he had a very weird experience, because he looked at his composition as an essay. Then it felt really weird. So, when he said that, I knew that that meant that there was some doubt now. And it actually scared me when he said that, because I thought, then now, is he questioning the system? And once you start questioning the system, and you live there, then your consequences are different.

  • 11:42:33

    PAGEIf -- when the Great Leader dies, right -- he's disappeared, he's come back now just yesterday, I guess. So, we know he's still with us. Will things change? Will the system implode? What will happen?

  • 11:42:46

    KIMWell, Kim Jong Il, the last Great Leader, died on my last day during my stay, in 2011. And it felt then that the whole world was going to fall apart. But, you know, North Korea was always, the Great Leader is always a concept more than an actual leader. There is a group of military men who have always ruled North Korea. And those seven men, with Kim Jong Il, they're the ones who were carrying the casket out during the funeral. And now, five of them have either been executed or sent to a gulag or just demoted.

  • 11:43:24

    KIMAnd two of them have also been demoted. So, now there's a whole new set. We just saw three men going to South Korea for the closing of the Asian Game and diplomatic meetings. So, I don't really see what's going to change.

  • 11:43:37

    PAGEIt just doesn't seem like a sustainable system. To an American eye, it does not seem like this system should be able to go on and on and on.

  • 11:43:47

    KIMBut it has gone on and on. Because we thought, in the 90s, when they were all dying of famine, that the system would erupt. It's, you know, curiously held on with this Great Leader as a symbol. And this really hardcore military dictatorship has continued.

  • 11:44:05

    PAGEAnd of course, the reason it's of such concern to the US government is because it's a regime that's developing nuclear weapons. Which makes it get taken more seriously than if it was a very isolated place with many problems, but didn't have the potential to threaten ourselves.

  • 11:44:22

    KIMRight. There's a sense it feels like a time bomb run by rather, you know, not very kind, very mad dictators.

  • 11:44:34

    PAGEYes, that seems quite perilous.

  • 11:44:36


  • 11:44:38

    PAGELet's go to the phones and talk to Henry. He's calling us from Mt. Dora, Florida. Henry, you're on the air.

  • 11:44:45

    HENRYHi. Thanks for taking my call. My son has been teaching English in South Korea since 1995 and he has said that he thinks if the North Koreans were to invade South Korea again, when they saw how the people in South Korea were living, they would throw down their arms and surrender immediately.

  • 11:45:17

    PAGEWell, thanks very much for your call, Henry. What do you think, Suki?

  • 11:45:21

    KIMWell, I think that's a part of, you know, South Korea being the 13th richest nation in the world, it's kind of an impossible thing to compare to North Korea. But we also have to -- another thing I thought while I was living there is it's also their country. You know, Great Leader is the system they were born and raised in. So, I think that -- I think that it's important to understand North Koreans as people who also, possibly, have serious feelings about their own country and respect for their country.

  • 11:45:54

    PAGEBut North Koreans could love North Korea, but not want this weird regime to continue to be in power.

  • 11:46:02

    KIMAbsolutely. Absolutely. But I think that it -- you know, from our calculation, they would just throw their arms and just want to live in this fantastic world that we have. I'm not sure if that's true, because it's almost like a religious cult over there.

  • 11:46:17

    PAGEAnd what does South Korea -- you know, of course, unification, reunification is a goal for South Korea, an official goal. Do you think South Koreans really -- do South Koreans really want reunification to happen and do you think that's possible to imagine?

  • 11:46:33

    KIMYou know, I think this whole concept of reunification is what politicians in South Korea always use as a goal. And people always do say, in theory, they believe in it. However, when you really talk to South Koreans, I've interviewed, you know, a whole lot of South Koreans, I don't think I've met a single South Korean who truly wants reunification. Other than the separated families who are dying to see their family members. But we have 25 million North Koreans that they potentially have to feed.

  • 11:47:07

    KIMAnd also, in some way, that the people are also quite traumatized, the North Koreans. 25 million. So, I think it's overwhelming thing for South Korea to imagine.

  • 11:47:17

    PAGELet's talk to Lisa. She's calling us from Traverse City, Michigan. Hi Lisa.

  • 11:47:22

    LISAHello. Well, first of all, I want to thank you, Miss, Miss Kim for your sacrifice and bringing us this knowledge and the risk that you took. And I also am very thankful and appreciate the others that went there and the ones who are there in prison. And I'm just wondering, the missionaries and yourselves, were you ever able to talk amongst each other about things of Christianity? Things of Christ, and I'm wondering, in your experience there, did you yourself have more -- did your faith increase? Did you become more faithful in things of Christianity, things of Christ?

  • 11:48:08

    PAGEAll right, Lisa. Thank you for your call.

  • 11:48:10

    KIMI am not Christian. And I'm not a missionary. So, but, the organizers were.

  • 11:48:19

    PAGEYou portrayed yourself to them as a Christian. They thought you were a Christian.

  • 11:48:24

    KIMThey thought I was -- it was more like don't ask, don't tell way, I think. But also, they were not allowed to talk about Christianity. You know, we never talked about Christianity. There was a mass, like a service, every Saturday, within the faculty dormitory, but you never, ever talked about Christianity outside.

  • 11:48:43

    PAGEAnd so, they -- the other people at the school were Christian missionaries. Not allowed to proselytize to the North Koreans. So, why did they want to be there?

  • 11:48:52

    KIMWell, they were Evangelical Christians. So, they believe, I think, in the long run. They, if they could convert North Koreans, when that school opens up, they'll sort of have a, you know, they're the first ones to get there, in a way. So, their, I think their goal was just to show them God's way without really actively proselytizing. But that's the condition in which they came to North Korea.

  • 11:49:23

    PAGELet's talk to Christian, calling us from Louisville, Kentucky. Hi, welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 11:49:28

    CHRISTIANHi. Thank you for having such an interesting guest on today. I wondered if, you know, I have no sympathy for the north, but, and yet, it's with the government, I have, you know, like everyone in the world, the utmost sympathy for those who are suffering there needlessly. But I wonder if your guest could comment on some of the roots of the conflict and if she felt, you know, for example, America, during the Korean War, dropped an enormous amount of napalm on the north, basically flattening it.

  • 11:50:06

    CHRISTIANAnd I'm wondering if, you know, the sides are just so far apart that, you know, we'll never, you know, shake hands in peace.

  • 11:50:17

    PAGEAll right. Christian, thanks so much for your call.

  • 11:50:19

    KIMSo, you mean America's role during the war? I think that is an important thing to remember, because, you know, North Korea's number one enemy is not South Korea. It's the United States. And the reason why they have decided to use that to control people, clearly, does actually go back to history. You know, because we talk about Americans going to rescue Koreans during the Korean War, but then we forget to mention the part one of the story. Which is that, in 1945, when the 38th parallel is drawn, that's actually the United States and Soviet Union doing it. So, we forget that part of the story.

  • 11:51:02

    PAGEThe students knew that you were an American.

  • 11:51:04


  • 11:51:05

    PAGEAnd did they ever ask you about the United States?

  • 11:51:07

    KIMThey don't ask, really, questions about the outside world. But they will always talk about -- this was the duality, I think, of my students, that they could be so lovely and yet lie all the time. Sincere, and yet, you know, everything, they would just make up stuff. But another thing they would do was just one time, there was this song called (speaks foreign language) which just means that, you know, at one single breath, I think, in English. And I said, so, you know, this song (speaks foreign language) is obviously a slogan, because I see it all over Pyongyang, this quotation.

  • 11:51:41

    KIMAnd they said, oh, it doesn't just mean in one single breath. It actually means that if the war were to happen, we would kill every South Korean and Americans, all of them. All, like every single human being. And I looked at them and I said, what about me then? And they just all looked really nervous and they said, well, you're different because you're our teacher. And they were heartbroken at the thought of me leaving. So, I think there is basically that, you know, what the message they're given, they have to repeat all the time.

  • 11:52:14

    KIMAnd then, yet, there is also the human side. And I think it was that human -- and they could sort of talk about these things like robots, but then the real feelings -- they were so dying to see the movie "Harry Potter," which I ended up showing them.

  • 11:52:27

    PAGENow, how did you end up showing it to them?

  • 11:52:30

    KIMI found out that one of the missionary teachers actually had a DVD with her. And the students somehow picked up something from this Chinese -- old Chinese textbook that we were using, which dropped something about Harry Potter. And because they have so little, they held on to this concept of "Harry Potter." They didn't know anything about it, but they knew that it was really popular in the outside world. So I felt like I must show it to them. So, I did end up getting an approval from the counterpart to show it to them.

  • 11:53:00

    KIMActually, the people who really disagreed, that I actually didn't end up showing it to all of my students, but only half, was because of my Christian colleagues, who, missionary Christian colleagues, who found it to be, you know, it's not a good thing to show any students, they said.

  • 11:53:16

    PAGEBecause of the magic and...

  • 11:53:18

    KIMYeah. It's not Christian.

  • 11:53:20

    PAGEYou write that you're showing this in your class and that, I guess, students are pressing in from other classes, trying to watch it while -- in your classroom, because it was so exciting to see.

  • 11:53:32

    KIMYeah, it was very heartbreaking to me, because I couldn't show it to everyone. I had to actually make a deal, that I'd only show it -- I was teaching two groups. I could only show it to one group, they said, because the other teachers were just going so insanely mad that I was showing this.

  • 11:53:48

    PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones, take another caller. Todd is calling us from Allentown, Pennsylvania. Todd, what's your question?

  • 11:53:58

    TODDHi Susan.

  • 11:53:59


  • 11:53:59

    TODDI love when you do the radio show, and I think you should have your own. You do a great job.

  • 11:54:03

    PAGEOh, thanks.

  • 11:54:05

    TODDOkay. Yeah, my question is, I was wondering how much food do you get to eat over there. And do you get as much as you want? That's my question.

  • 11:54:13

    PAGEAll right, Todd. Thanks so much for your call.

  • 11:54:16

    TODDAll right. Thanks.

  • 11:54:17

    KIMYou know, that's an important question. But it's, really, to be honest, hard to gauge. You know, the food was fine at the school. It was not your ideal food, by any means, just rice and marinated vegetables. And hardly any meat, but it's certainly more than the rest of North Korea, which in the World Food Program, consistently reports 80 percent food shortage. And malnutrition. All the children, something like 60 percent of children are malnourished. So, the food crisis is very serious, but wherever foreigners are, you're not going to see that, because they're not going to let you see that.

  • 11:54:53

    KIMAnd this was a school for the elite children. So, you were not -- even then, electricity cut every day, virtually every day, but I didn't experience the food shortage, no.

  • 11:55:04

    PAGEYou, at the very beginning of the book, you write about your relatives who were, you think, taken to North Korea at the time of the division. Did you ever have any possibility of finding any of them?

  • 11:55:18

    KIMNo, I didn't. And I think that, you know, that never even came up. And I think that, you know, traditionally, the whole family reunion thing is often used almost like a blackmail. So, I think that I sort of didn't want to know, also.

  • 11:55:33

    PAGEAnd you've gone to North Korea several times. Could you ever go back now?

  • 11:55:38

    KIMNot -- I don't think so. I don't think so, and I think if I were to go back, that it would have to be, you know, in a completely different circumstances, where it would be very open that I -- the book is already written. So, I cannot imagine them being happy about it.

  • 11:55:56

    PAGEDo you think the North Korean government -- do you assume the North Korean government is aware of your book?

  • 11:56:00


  • 11:56:00

    PAGEDo you, have you had any contact with them?

  • 11:56:03

    KIMNo. I've only had contact with the school, which I consider it as a communication with the North Korean government, really.

  • 11:56:10

    PAGEYou think the school heard from the North Korean government, and then contacted you about not publishing the book.

  • 11:56:14


  • 11:56:16

    PAGEYeah. And I wonder though, if one day, you know, things change in the world. The two Germanys have reunited. The Soviet Union broke up. I wonder if you see a day when things will be transformed in North Korea. You could go back, you could find the students you were teaching at this school.

  • 11:56:33

    KIMYou know, it's fascinating. My last day, because Kim Jong Il died, everything ended so abruptly, but right before that, they had just seen "Harry Potter," but they were just devastated because I was leaving. And one of them said, maybe one day, maybe I could become a delegate to the UN. So I can go to New York and I can see you face to face. And I thought, in this country, the only way to get to New York is to become an ambassador. There is no other way for a person to possibly get to New York. And I thought that was really, really heartbreaking.

  • 11:57:06

    PAGESuki Kim. Thanks so much for being on with us this hour to talk about your new book. It's titled, "Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea's Elite." Thanks for being with us.

  • 11:57:16

    KIMThank you for having me.

  • 11:57:18

    PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.

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