The 38th parallel dividing the Korean peninsula is not the only line Suki Kim has ever crossed. An award-winning novelist and a journalist, Kim emigrated with her family from Seoul to New York City when she was 13. Over a number of officially sanctioned visits to North Korea, she reported for the New York Review of Books and Harper’s Magazine on that country’s bewildering, even byzantine self-absorption and its obsessions with the Great Leader, Kim Jong-il, and the Great Enemy, the United States. Then in 2011, she crossed another line, returning to Pyongyang undercover.
Without You, There Is No Us is Suki Kim’s account of her six-month stint teaching English at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a school privately funded and founded in 2002 by evangelical Christians with ties to South Korea and the US. Suki Kim was not a teacher, nor is she even Christian, yet these were not her deepest secrets. More covert still was her mission to record what she saw and heard so she might offer the world what it had never had before – an inside, unscripted, and unvarnished picture of life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“North Korea is what UN calls the most brutal nation in the world. There is absolutely no sense of freedom, and everything is watched. So I had to put all my notes on USB sticks and erase them from the computer every single time. I had to hide my documents, which I recorded every single day, within another document. If I were to be caught, it would’ve been a gulag sentence. Knowing that, I had to really keep those USB sticks on my body at all times,” she explains.
Yet while she evaded the watchful eyes of government monitors in Pyongyang, Suki Kim could not avoid the dictates of a publisher’s marketing program – the positioning (or mis-positioning) of her book as memoir rather than reporting made a difference to the way it was received by critics, and to where the book was stocked in stores. Writers infrequently think about how their books will be sold. Invariably, like Kim, they discover that the sales and marketing program truly does make a difference.
“For me, a memoir comes from memories, not reporting. I came out of North Korea with 400 pages of investigative notes. There was nothing about that that was a memoir,” Kim tells CCC’s Chris Kenneally. “As an author, it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen with a book. The book got tons of attention, but because it was called a memoir, a lot of people thought I was a teacher who went [to North Korea] and taught and came out and wrote from her memories. It’s a very different kind of writing when you’re actually investigating undercover.”
Suki Kim is the author of the award-winning novel The Interpreter and the recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Open Society fellowships. Her TED Talk, This is what it’s like to go undercover in North Korea, has seen nearly two million views.