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A view of hell: Dispatches from North Korea, the world’s worst gulag

Korean-American author Suki Kim, who worked undercover as a teacher in North Korea, spoke of the world’s most repressive state during a session titled Undercover in North Korea: Facts and Fiction at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Thursday.

JaipurLitFest Updated: Jan 26, 2018 15:46 IST
Supriya Sharma
In the session titled Undercover in North Korea: Facts and Fiction, investigative journalist Suki Kim spoke about her experience of working as a teacher at a North Korean University in 2011.
In the session titled Undercover in North Korea: Facts and Fiction, investigative journalist Suki Kim spoke about her experience of working as a teacher at a North Korean University in 2011.(Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

North Korea has been in the news lately thanks to juvenile Twitter exchanges between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, each threatening the other with their respective work desk-installed nuclear buttons.

Recent draconian UN sanctions against the totalitarian state may have pushed it to look for allies and to send a team of athletes for the Winter Olympics in South Korea next month, but its state machinery ensures its people know very little about what goes on in the world outside and vice versa.

Kim, who was born in South Korea, and has a decade of experience reporting on North Korea, had visited the country, previously as a journalist. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

In a session titled Undercover in North Korea: Facts and Fiction, investigative journalist Suki Kim spoke about her experience of working as a teacher at a North Korean University in 2011. Her book, Without You There is No Us: My Time With The Sons of North Korea’s Elite (2014) is about constant repression and fear in North Korea. Korea was split into the communist North and capitalist South Korea by the Allied Forces in 1945.

Kim, who was born in South Korea, and has a decade of experience reporting on North Korea, had visited the country, previously as a journalist. But traditional reporting methods failed, she said, because all foreign visitors are accompanied by minders who monitor what they see. “Everything is scripted,” she said. North Korea has no religion except worship of the Great Leader (currently Kim Jong-un) and proselytizing is a crime. “Churches and polling booths exist only as propaganda for foreigners,” she said. “The world they craft for the world to see.” Statistics about North Korea, she said are extremely hard to verify, but three-quarters of the population suffers from malnutrition

In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, posing as a missionary and teacher, Kim went to Pyongyang University of Science and Technology set up by evangelical Christian missionaries, to teach English to sons of the country’s elite.

Her experiences and evidence she gathered at great personal risk reveals North Korea to be “the world’s worst gulag”. The session began with a recording of the North Korean song dedicated to the deceased Great Leader Kim Jong-il, which her students sang twice a day. “The portraits of the Great Leaders are everywhere. All books are written about the Great Leader or are by the Great Leader. Even the TV programmes.” The state newspaper carries articles about the Great Leader and students have to wear pins bearing his images. “If you drop one or sat on it or stepped on it, it is a great crime,” she said. “North Koreans cannot leave the country. They need a travel pass to move between towns.”

The university had 270 boys, aged 20, handpicked from among the brightest in the country’s universities. Kim says their lack of general knowledge and technological backwardness was astounding. “There were computer majors who did not know about the Internet.” Or that man had been to the moon. “The university was a military guarded compound. We were never allowed outside without minders. Every lesson we taught had to be approved beforehand.”

“This tragedy should not be allowed to continue,” she said of North Korea. “The country has existed in darkness and isolation for 70 years,” Kim said during the session. (Raj K Raj/HT PHOTO)

This Orwellian state enforces students to sing daily odes to the Great Leader. What they say and do is monitored and students report on each other every week. As a result, critical thinking has been obliterated from the education system.

In such a heavily guarded atmosphere, it was the rare unscripted moments that offered a glimpse into what people really thought. Kim recalls the time when the teachers (all foreign nationals) were taken to see apple orchards. “One teacher needed to use the toilet and we went to an old lady’s house to do so.” Despite being the owner of the house, the lady looked terrified of the minder, said Kim, and promptly disappeared from their sight when asked to do so.

Watch: In conversation with author Suki Kim about her experience working undercover as a teacher in North Korea

North Korea is sending 22 athletes to the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, and a first-ever unified hockey team will participate in the games. Despite these developments, Kim believes nothing has changed.

“This tragedy should not be allowed to continue,” she said of North Korea. “The country has existed in darkness and isolation for 70 years.”

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