Transcript: The Risks of Reporting From North Korea

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Interview with Suki Kim, author, Without You, There Is No Us

For podcast release Monday, January 18, 2016

KENNEALLY: 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.

Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. I’m Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book. 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. Suki Kim joins me now from New York, and welcome, anyong haseyo, Suki Kim.

KIM: Hello, Chris. Thank you for having me on the show.

KENNEALLY: Thank you for joining me. We met first at the Miami Book Fair in November, where you participated on a panel for authors of memoirs. Later you told me you felt out of place then and that you strongly reject the label of memoir for your book. Your reasons reveal much about the marketing of nonfiction today that should concern all of us as readers. But first, can you summarize the book, Without You, There Is No Us, and tell us how you came to write it?

KIM: It is the only undercover account from inside North Korea. I was following it since 2002, when I went in there for the 60th birthday celebration of the then-Great Leader, Kim Jong-il, and I ended up writing a long cover feature essay for New York Review of Books. I returned repeatedly, and I also covered the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang for Harper’s Magazine and did a feature essay.

Then finally I found this chance to actually live there, because anything coming out of North Korea, there are two kinds. Either you have sanctioned visits by journalists, which is you write what the regime tells you to write. That, to me, is just basically a press release. Or you have defector accounts, people who flee North Korea and tell their confession or stories to journalists once they have fled North Korea. Neither really you can get a picture of what’s going on inside while it’s happening.

So when I found out about this school that was educating the future leaders of North Korea, all aged about 20-year-old young men, sons of elites, I posed as a teacher and went in there with a book contract. I already had a book contract on North Korea to write a book. But in order to do that, I had to go undercover, because North Korea will never tell you any reality if you are to interview them. The only way to really know what’s going on was to get embedded in North Korea.

KENNEALLY: I think that’s a pretty critical point, is that you went there as a writer. I didn’t know you had a contract at that point, but you certainly had a background as a writer. You were a journalist. I wonder what thought you gave to the kind of book you were going to be writing. Obviously you had a stake in it as a journalist, but you also had something of a personal stake as well. You are from South Korea, after all.

KIM: Yeah, so any nonfiction I’ve done actually, unless it was – I’ve done straightforward op/eds and stuff, but my essays were personal, and I guess that’s the category they put under New Journalism, because it’s a personal blend. Still me, but doing heavy reporting. Even New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang was a very personal and yet reported piece. It’s more long-form journalism.

This book also – because I am born and raised in South Korea, my family was separated by the war, so it was not just about facts and figures of North Korea, reporting aspect, but also the history of Korea and the personal reflections. It’s hard to categorize that, but it’s an investigative journalism from a personal standpoint.

KENNEALLY: Right. I think that’s important. The intentions are what seem to me to be the central issue here. You went as a writer, as a reporter, and I think it’s important to share with our listeners the kind of work you had to do to conceal that you were writing. Apart from being an undercover journalist, you were also exposed to the charge that you were a spy if you were caught.

KIM: It 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, so that if I were to be caught, the sentence obviously – I can only guess, but it’s a country where they send any political prisoners gulag, and any information they do not want revealed to the outside world would be considered a class information that shouldn’t – it would’ve been a gulag sentence. Knowing that, I had to really keep those USB sticks on my body at all times.

KENNEALLY: I think in Miami you told me that you had fashioned them as a necklace or something like that, and there was another trick you used is you say you buried the notes deep into other documents on the assumption that anyone who was looking at these things would only go up to page 10 and they wouldn’t find their way all the way through to the very end.

KIM: Yeah, because I was there posing as a teacher, I had my own laptop, which I knew they would look through me. We had minders living in the same building. Their jobs were to watch us. And so I would have these documents that were class notes, and my real book would start, let’s say, page 100. The rest of it was teaching material. Things like that.

And then I had several USB sticks. If I were to lose one, for example, what would happen? I would make my computer clean everything and then keep them on a necklace on my body – like tiny, tiny USB sticks.

KENNEALLY: It’s fascinating, and it certainly does enough to establish for me, at least, that this is journalism, and indeed this is undercover investigative journalism. You mentioned some of these other categories of nonfiction, such as New Journalism, the phrase Tom Wolfe coined back in the early 1970s. We’re familiar with things like literary journalism and narrative journalism, all of which are journalism, none of which are memoir. The book, though, as it sits here on my desk, I could see on the cover is labeled a memoir by the publisher, and I suppose by the publicist as well. So why would it be important to you that this distinction be cleared up, that this is journalism rather than memoir? Tell us about your reaction when, indeed, you learned that the publishers intended to call it just that.

KIM: It was a huge battle. They didn’t just put that on the cover without finally me relenting. But I had a very big publisher, and I argued and argued. It’s a battle I couldn’t win. They all stepped in, and they said this has to be called a memoir. I said it’s absolutely not a memoir. Because for me, memoir’s coming from memories, not reporting that you are – I came out of North Korea with 400 pages of investigative notes. There was nothing about that that was a memoir. The battle went on and on and on, and there was no way that my book would go out without it being called a memoir.

But I didn’t also understand the consequence of that. It’s amazing. 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 in there and taught and came out and wrote from her memories. It’s a very different kind of writing when you’re actually investigating undercover.

Also, it’s one country, one topic in the world there is no real investigative journalism from inside, because investigation is not possible, and going undercover is not possible. In fact, on this topic of North Korea, it was really important that this material be really taken seriously as this important historical document for it to claim what it was supposed to be, which is investigative journalism. So it actually misled the audience.

KENNEALLY: I think that’s important. I’ll just go back a little bit, because your distinction between a memoirist and a journalist is an important one for me, and that is about intention. Your intentions were to write. A memoirist often has no intentions as they go through their experience to ever write a book. It’s only after the fact that they decide they want to share their story. You were conceiving of the audience even as you were going through the experience, and you knew that you would be writing about it.

I think the other distinction is that memoirists often write on a fairly small surface. Even bestselling memoirs – I’m thinking of Frank McCourt and Mary Karr – their subjects really ultimately, and I hope this doesn’t do a disservice to them, are fairly small. They’re about impoverished childhoods and the curses of alcoholism. Your subject and your canvas, as it were, was the entire nation of North Korea, which you have said in your very well-received TED Talk is a gulag rather than a nation.

KIM: Actually, in this particular case, that distinction between a memoir and journalism actually has created a huge different response. I was constantly attacked for, for example, selling out my students. I was not a teacher with students. I was really a reporter going in there writing about my subject undercover. That’s a very different way of approaching a subject.

I think it took me a while to understand that also what the audience, readers, take from you if they think this is coming from memory versus if it’s constantly being investigated is different. Investigation has some sort of based on fact. It’s more serious on some level. That’s what exactly this was, because there has never been undercover investigative journalism from inside North Korea. That was, in a way, the whole point of the book.

KENNEALLY: Right. Writers so very infrequently think about how their books are going to be sold. In this case, you discovered that the selling piece can really make a tremendous difference. It made a difference to the positioning of the book within a bookstore. It made a difference to the way it was received by critics. This mis-positioning was something you, again, have thought a great deal about. Tell me about your reflections on it.

You mentioned that the readers could misunderstand it, and one of the mispositionings is not simply that you were a teacher, but that the only books that come out of North Korea are from defectors, that this is how we understand the North Korean story. So there was a misinterpretation of the North Korean story here.

KIM: Well, because also there are memoirs on North Korea, and those are by defectors who flee, and they’re telling their story of being in a gulag in North Korea. Those are not professional writers. Because me being Korean – that’s another thing where Orientalism or some sort of racism comes in, because any investigative journalism which are not really investigated from inside the country, but investigating from outside, belong to actually white Americans. I think if I were a man also – but I’m Korean and I’m female, and I think that somehow me being female and Korean have put this book into as if I’m one of the North Korean defectors. I don’t think a man going into North Korea, taking 400-page notes with researching it for over 10 years upon the experience, before the experience – I don’t think that book would have been considered a memoir and marketed and received by critics as a memoir.

KENNEALLY: Right. I know you’re sensitive to the thought that this may sound sort of personal and critical in a very personal way, but I think what struck me as we chatted about it at the Miami Book Fair and why I wanted to help you share this story with our listeners is that readers need to think about the ways that books have been marketed to them, have been sold to them. At a time in the book business when it’s under such tremendous pressure, it may be easy for marketers to fall into habits that they presume will be good for the book. I’m sure that the publishers told you this was going to help sales, right?

KIM: Yeah, they absolutely – it was clear it was a sales decision, and I still very resisted it. But I had 10 people in a sales/marketing team who all meant it very earnestly, I think, who all looked at this and said this has to be a memoir because I am Korean, it is personal, and despite the 400-page investigative notes, despite my undercover time there, they knew that the audience actually – that probably it would sell better, they thought.

It’s a little different in this case, because actually what makes the book so rare is because actually it’s an investigative journalist from inside. So they completely misunderstood that, and it took me a really long time – I was on a relentless book tour for a year around the world. It took me a long time to realize that I was often facing wrong audiences, like I was at the Miami Book Fair, facing an audience who are mostly into personal memoirs on topics that would be things like a vacation in Paris or stuff like that. It wasn’t really on an investigative journalism piece about what’s really going on in the psychology of future leaders of North Korea. It was a very different audience that I had to face.

KENNEALLY: Right. And you mentioned that author’s tour. That author’s tour took you outside of the United States to Europe and elsewhere. Were the published books in translation or just in English in other marketplaces – were they likewise labeled memoir? Is this something – I wonder whether in the United States we worry about a great deal more, and in, say, Germany, what you were doing, the investigative journalism that you were reporting, was something much more easily received.

KIM: No, it was really the American problem. That also took me a long time. I was taken to Poland and Spain and Australia and UK, and it was very clear that it was an undercover journalism, and it was received as such. All the journalists asked that question. It was in this country somehow, which I think had complicated reasons of this whole memoir market in this country, and also I think that me being female and Korean and then not knowing how to place that. Immediately one would think that’s investigative journalism undercover, but somehow in this country, me being female and Korean immediately pointed to memoir. That’s actually, for this book, a different market.

KENNEALLY: Indeed. Suki Kim, we appreciate your investigative journalism. I enjoyed the book a great deal. Anyone who is curious and wants to have a view inside North Korea in a way that we’ve never had before should pick up a copy of Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim. I want to thank you for joining us today on Beyond the Book.

KIM: Thank you very much.

KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights-broker for the world’s most sought-after materials, including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at our website,

Our engineer and co-producer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.

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