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In Louisville, Journalist Suki Kim Talks Going Undercover In North Korea

Ed Kashi/Crown Publishing Group

Journalist Suki Kim was born in South Korea, but came to the U.S. with her family at the age of 13. Along with visits to South Korea, she also took the occasional trip to North Korea. In the summer of 2011, Kim got a job teaching English at the elite, all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

During her six months at the university, Kim secretly documented her time teaching the 19-year-old sons of North Korea's ruling-class. She wrote about her experience in the New York Times best-seller, “Without You There Is No Us."

Kim will speak at the 2017 Annual Lecture in Asian Democracy on Wednesday evening at Louisville's main public library. I spoke with Kim about her time undercover in North Korea. Listen to our conversation in the audio player above.

On how and why she she went undercover:

"I visited North Korea in 2002 as a writer and I went there about five times throughout the decade. And it was just impossible to get to the truth of the place unless I was embedded. I looked for that opportunity for a decade. And in 2011, I found that by going undercover as an ESL teacher and a fundamental evangelical missionary at a university that was built brand-new for the sons of North Korea's elite who were then aged 19 or 20."

On her first impression of North Korea:

"I had just never seen anyplace like that. That was so isolated, so under control. Where no one is allowed to do anything and know about anything. I mean, I had students who were computer majors who did not know the existence of the internet. And that's the elite of that country. So then as a writer and a journalist, you of course have to understand how this system operates and how can we deal with this nation that's now, of course, a nuclear power. But beyond that, on a human, humane level, what is really going on in that nation to keep people under absolute — a sort of a prison system they way it does."

On how she was able to document her time at the university while under close surveillance:

"I lived under complete surveillance with minders living downstairs from me 24/7, in a school that was really also guarded by the military 24/7. None of us allowed out, classroom lessons were all recorded and reported on, every conversation was jotted down and recorded. My room was bugged and so I had to...because my cover was as a teacher, I could keep my laptop so I would write at dawn and at night and then erase every trace from the computer and keep them on very tiny USB sticks which I kept on my body at all times."

The University of Louisville Center for Asian Democracy, the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana, and the Louisville Free Public Library present Suki Kim, "Undercover in North Korea" for the 2017 Annual Lecture in Asian Democracy.

The lecture takes place Wednesday, October 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the main library (301 York Street). There's more information here. 

Bill Burton is the Morning Edition host for LPM. Email Bill at bburton@lpm.org.