This well-written memoir about teaching in a college in North Korea the year Kim Jong-il died sent shivers up my spine. The author, Suki Kim, an American writer, who spent part of her childhood in South Korea and is fluent in the language, had visited North Korea several times. Each time she felt divorced from the people and prevented by her “minders” (they were actually called that) from getting a true understanding of what contemporary life was like in the country.
Emotionally, Kim felt connected to the country because part of her family lived there. Kim’s mother had often told her stories about how her eldest brother disappeared and was never seen again when he was taken from a truck during the Korean War. The family was divided from other aunts and uncles and cousins who lived across the divide.
Kim, primarily a journalist, had taught at a college in the states and sometime around 2010 heard that a Bible college, financed by Americans, was soon to open near Pyongyang. The very idea sounded strange—a culture that scorned religion was allowing westerners to open a bible college by the capital?
Through connections, Kim, was given contact information. To her amazement, her application was considered, at first, just for the summer term. At this juncture, her life between two worlds began. First she left New York to care for a sick older sister in South Korea. The North Korean bureaucracy was tricky and her application to enter the country could be approved at any moment, not for weeks, or never. But finally after caring for her nieces and her sister for weeks, the call came. She could enter in two weeks.
Then truly strange times began. Twice a day all 297 students marched in straight lines chanting praises to Kim Jong-il. Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. The brand new college, officially called Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, had few computers and access to them was denied to most of the students. Rumors also circulated that all the other North Korean colleges had shut down that year, and the students had been sent out to do construction. Only this new one, financed by western Christians was open, and the first class included mainly children of the country’s elite.
The teachers had to follow stringent rules. No talking about politics, religion, or any in-depth conversation about Western life or mores. Yet, Kim was expected to sit at meals with several students to let them practice English. Lesson plans had to be approved, not just by her chair, but also by a group of North Koreans who were quick to reject questionable materials or topics. Harry Potter films were taboo. At least until Kim found a way to show one for a single class only.
Kim began to teach her students the art of essay writing. She found it very hard. Her North Korean students seemed to her very immature, and afraid to state an opinion about anything. They were group oriented and tended to give back propaganda or expected answers. But she found herself caring deeply for these young men.
However, life at the college felt like prison to her. Her email was monitored, her computer and room bugged. Most, if not all, of her colleagues were there for religious reasons, if not to convert now, to make a good impression, so they could convert later if the country were to open up more.
Trips outside the campus were forbidden unless orchestrated tours were arranged. Yet on these occasions, Kim could not help noticing the extremely thin people, the haggard faces, the empty looks in people’s eyes even in the capital of the country. On rural trips, children played on the road surfaces, totally unsupervised, wearing ragged clothing. People worked in the fields until after dark seven days a week.
For an intelligent look at one of the most isolated countries in the world, try this involving memoir. Pair it with a beautiful novel set in North Korea, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.