Tag Archives: North Korea


Interview: Suki Kim, Author of ‘Without You, There Is No Us’

by STEVE HAN | @steve_han

When author Suki Kim was offered a job teaching English to the sons of North Korea’s most privileged families in 2011, she knew it would offer a rare opportunity to dive more deeply into the walled-off country.

Kim, author of the 2003 mystery novel The Interpreter, was no stranger to official North Korea, having paid several visits over the last decade on reporting trips for the New York Review of Books, Harper’s Magazine and the New York Times.

Yet, the 44-year-old told KoreAm by phone, the more she traveled around the country, the less certain she became that she was sharing the real stories of its people.

“There are so few unfiltered portraits of life inside North Korea, and our understanding of this brutal nation remains dismal,” she wrote in a statement on her website.

Kim, who was born and raised in South Korea and came to the United States with her family at 13, applied in 2008 for a teaching position at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), an all-male private school founded and run by a Korean American evangelical Christian who runs a similar school in Yanji, China.

Between June and December 2011, Kim taught, ate and lived among her students in full immersion mode, taking great pains to secretly jot down her notes and observations amid heavy surveillance.

Her effort culminated in a memoir, Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, published by Crown Publishers in October. (The book’s title is taken from the lyrics of a famous North Korean song, “No Motherland Without You,” dedicated to the late leader Kim Jong-il, whose death occurred a day before the author left North Korea.)

Kim, who lives in New York, spoke with KoreAm about her experience writing the memoir. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I’ve been visiting North Korea since 2002. [When] I went back to Pyongyang [in 2008], it became clear to me that I couldn’t really write about my travel experiences with any meaning because [of] government propaganda. I wanted to find a way to be embedded in North Korea. So when this opportunity came up, I knew it was a unique chance to go in and really experience what the truth is.

What was the goal of your book?

I’m not a political pundit. I never approached it from a political point of view. I’m also not a regular journalist. As a writer, but also on a personal level, my goal was to humanize North Koreans by putting faces to their names. I wanted them to become real people for my readers. I wanted to get to know what the world was like for North Koreans. I went in there and came out with 400 pages of notes. It was important that my experience was about my relationship with the students.

What was it like teaching at the school? What were your students like?

I had to get each lesson approved by North Korean staff. Every class was recorded and reported on by a student. I had about 50 students, all boys, in my class. They were young, they were vulnerable. They were only [ages] 19 and 20, and they were really missing home. There was always a duality to the students. They seemed very curious, and yet wary—and understandably so. I was the first person from the outside world they had encountered. They were excited and distrusting at the same time.

Tell us about the living circumstances.

For the entire six-month period, we all lived together in an isolated compound, which we could never leave [without permission from the guards]. Because we were in such isolation, we spent a lot of time together. I ate three meals a day with [my students], I played sports with them. So there was definitely that familiarity that comes with close proximity. The proximity made us closer. When you eat three meals a day together, even when you’re watched all the time, some sort of bonding happens.

Were the students allowed any outside contact?

The students weren’t allowed to keep in touch with even their families, who presumably lived in the same city as most of North Korea’s elites in the capital. I was the only thing they had, and they were the only things I had. That helped to break barriers and develop an intimacy.

You had to record your notes in secret. Were you ever in fear of getting caught?

Yes, constantly. It’s a very, very frightening world there. I was watched 24/7. The fear is constant in the book. The fear was always a part of being in that country. I poured all of me into this book. It would be too dangerous for me to go back there today.

What other restrictions did you face?

I wasn’t allowed to speak to my students in Korean, but they knew I [was able to] because I would speak [Korean] to the staff. They also spoke to each other in Korean and would see me laugh whenever they said something funny. So, we had a secret language of communicating. [The students] also once told me they felt more comfortable because they were with a Korean teacher.


You devote some sections of the book to discussing your personal connection to the Korean peninsula. How did your own past inform this memoir?

I was born into the Korean division in a way. Both sides of my family had relatives in North Korea, but they lost touch during the Korean War. Although I grew up with that sorrow since birth, it was never a journalistic interest. When I came to America at 13, I did not speak a word of English. I suddenly lost my language and home. I think that loss at such a sensitive age affected me. I was really haunted by the idea of home. When I first went to North Korea by chance, I really identified with it. When we talk about the Korean division, we’re talking about a generation that died missing the people they loved. So arriving in North Korea in 2002 as a writer, I wanted to find a way to experience that sorrow for the rest of the world.

What was the funding structure of the school?

The organization that set up the school basically funds the whole project; the whole thing was run by donations. [North Koreans were given the chance to] educate their kids in a top-notch facility without having to pay for it, which for North Korea is a good deal. It’s also propaganda, because it gives [officials] a facade of looking like the rest of the world.

A day before you left North Korea, Kim Jong-il died, and his son, Kim Jong-un, became the country’s new leader. How did your students react to the development?

I can only talk about what I saw [among] the small number of [my students], but what I saw was genuine. I wasn’t a journalist interviewing people on the streets. In my [view], the [students’ reverence for Kim Jong-il] was more than fear. And it’s not that hard to understand if you know their system. In a way, Kim Jong-il, and now Kim Jong-un, wasn’t just a leader. They are to North Korea what Jesus is to Christians. Kim Jong-il is the meaning for everything. He’s the reason for this world. He’s the savior. He’s the reason for you being alive. This is a country where all the books are about him, where all of what the television [broadcasts] is about him, where all the songs are about him. In that world, for Kim Jong-il to die, of course they were shattered. They were genuinely traumatized and heartbroken. It’s not an unfathomable sorrow.

What do you think the future holds in store for your students?

Back then, you wondered what would become of their world. But now, we know there haven’t been many changes. North Korea has just been referred by the United Nations to send their leaders to the International Criminal Court for crimes against human rights. I genuinely felt like these were my kids, but they were stuck in that gulag. That’s the world, ultimately, they live in. Their country has the worst human rights issues in the world. The sadness always came from being aware of the world they’re going to inherit and the world they’re going to actually run—and the world they are stuck in. It’s a horrible feeling.

What was it like leaving the school when it was time to return to the U.S.?

When you develop such a close bond with students, you care a great deal. I just couldn’t forget about the predicament my students were in. I mean, what will they even do after learning English in school? The fact is, they won’t even be allowed to leave the country—and they are the future leaders of North Korea. On my last day, when we were saying goodbye, I asked my students if there was anything they wanted to ask me. They asked me to address them in Korean, which was really heartbreaking. They weren’t allowed to express their feelings to me before that. I realized, at that moment, they really wanted a bond.


Featured photo courtesy of Ed Kashi-VII.

This article was published in the December/January 2015 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the December/January issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

‘The Interview’ Streams on YouTube, Google Play, Xbox

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

Sony Pictures’ The Interview is now available for rent and purchase online, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The controversial comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco became available to rent in HD at 10 a.m. PST on several streaming platforms, including YouTube Movies, Google Play, Microsoft’s Xbox Video and Sony’s own dedicated website at the price of $5.99. The film can also be bought for $14.99.

“It has always been Sony’s intention to have a national platform on which to release the film,” said Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Entertainment. “With that in mind, we reached out to Google, Microsoft and other partners last Wednesday, December 17th, when it became clear our initial release plans were not possible. We are please we can now join with our partners to offer the film nationwide today.”

Lynton also noted that Sony Pictures opted to release the film digitally first in order to reach the widest possible audience on opening day.

“It was essential for our studio to release this movie, especially given the assault upon our business and our employees by those who wanted to stop free speech,” he said.

Google officials also released a statement on their blog regarding the digital release.

David Drummund, the company’s senior vp and corporate development and legal chief officer, wrote, “Sony and Google agreed that we could not sit on the sideline and allow a handful of people to determine the limits of free speech in another country (however silly the content might be).”

On Tuesday, Sony reversed its decision to shelve the movie and announced a limited theatrical release. The comedy is now scheduled to screen at approximately 300 independent theaters across the country, premiering on Christmas Day.

Of course, the lead actors were ecstatic about the news and shared celebratory tweets with fans.

Screen Shot 2014-12-24 at 12.29.36 PM

The FBI claims that North Korea was responsible for the cyberattack and threats against Sony Pictures, but some experts have expressed their doubt over the regime’s capability to carry out such an attack.

Photo courtesy of Ed Araquel via THR.


Dr. Evil Mocks North Korea and Sony Pictures Over ‘The Interview’

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

Evil has a name, and it is Dr. Evil.

The comically absurd arch nemesis of Austin Powers interrupted last weekend’s Saturday Night Live cold open to express his anger at Sony Pictures and North Korea. He obviously knows a thing or two about evil, and he bashed them for damaging evil’s credibility in the last couple of months regarding The Interview.

Hackers attacked Sony Pictures’ computer network back in November, leaking unfinished movies, scripts, emails and other private files in protest of the upcoming James Franco and Seth Rogen comedy. Theaters initially pulled out of screening the movie last week due to threats from the hackers, called the “Guardians of Peace.” As a result, Sony Pictures canceled the Dec. 25 wide release, only to reverse its decision earlier today and announce a limited theatrical release of the film on Christmas Day.

The FBI formally blamed North Korea for the hack, an allegation the country refuted and actually offered to help in finding the true perpetrators. Earlier this week, North Korea’s Internet went down to a suspected cyberattack. Does this all sound like a typical over-the-top Dr. Evil plan, or is it just us?

“I’m furious that North Korea and Sony Pictures have both given evil organizations a bad name,” he fumed. “I mean, what the F, people? It’s so pathetic to see you two fight over a silly comedy.”

Dr. Evil then mocked North Korea for obsessing so much—“You’re one of the most evil countries of the world, and your act of war is to kill a movie?”—and told the Guardians of Peace that the name was already taken by another evil organization, the Republican Party.

“Way to go, A-holes,” he quipped. “There’s already a GOP, and they’re already an evil organization.”

Dr. Evil also threw barbs at Kim Jong-un, Dennis Rodman, James Franco and Sony Pictures—“Why pick on Sony? They haven’t had a hit since the Walkman.” He also took a shot at himself, Mike Myers, the comedian who plays Dr. Evil and Austin Powers.

“If you really want to put a bomb in a theater, do what I did. Release The Love Guru,” he suggested.


Sony Pictures Announces Limited Release of ‘The Interview’

by Suevon Lee | @suevlee

Call it an early Christmas surprise—Sony Pictures Entertainment said Tuesday it was planning a limited theatrical release of The Interview on Dec. 25 after all, just one week after the studio pulled the film when major theater chains canceled screenings following threats from hackers who launched a cyberattack on the company’s computer systems.

“We have never given up on releasing The Interview and we’re excited our movie will be in a number of theaters on Christmas Day,” Sony Entertainment chairman and CEO Michael Lynton said in a statement. “At the same time, we are continuing our efforts to secure more platforms and more theaters so that this movie reaches the largest possible audience.”

Among the first of the smaller, independent theaters that said they would screen the film were Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a chain based in Austin, Tex., and the Plaza Theater in Atlanta, according to news outlets.

Sony initially planned to release the satirical comedy starring Seth Rogen, James Franco and Randall Park on 2,000 to 3,000 screens in North America on Christmas Day—until large theater chains such as Regal, AMC and Carmike Cinemas pulled the plug on screenings.

KoreAm’s own planned advance screening of the film last Wednesday was nixed by the studio.

In the satirical film, Franco and Rogen play, respectively, a tabloid television host and his producer recruited by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Over the last month, Sony Pictures fell victim to a massive cyberattack by a group calling itself Guardians of Peace, which exposed a trove of embarrassing emails among top studio executives in addition to documents containing sensitive data of Sony employees.

Last week, the FBI said North Korea was responsible for the attack while the country has denied involvement.

Some of those involved in the film voiced elation at Sony’s announcement of a limited theatrical release.

“Thanks to everyone who didn’t give up on our movie! @Sethrogen & I are humbled & overwhelmed by your support. Hope you enjoy the film!,” co-director and co-producer Evan Goldberg tweeted.

Randall Park, who plays the North Korean dictator in the film, is featured in KoreAm’s December/January issue. A profile on the actor can be viewed here.

north korea computer

North Korea’s Internet Shuts Down, Cyberattack Suspected

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

North Korea’s Internet connection has been hit with outages and is currently offline, according to the New York Times. The network failure comes a few days after President Obama vowed to retaliate against North Korea for hacking Sony Pictures.

According to Bloomberg, North Korea has four official Internet networks that route through China, all of which first experienced unstable connection late Friday and went completely dark on Monday. Doug Madory, director of Internet analysis at the cybsecurity firm Dyn Research, said the outage was “out of the ordinary” and emphasized that maintenance problems would most likely not have caused such a widespread loss of connection.

“I haven’t seen such a steady beat of routing instability and outages in KP before,” said Madory, according to the North Korea Tech blog. “Usually there are isolated blips, not continuous connectivity problems. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are absorbing some sort of attack presently.”

The outage comes as China is investigating allegations against North Korea over the Sony hack attack. The Obama administration has recently sought China’s help in blocking North Korea’s ability to wage cyberattacks—the first step toward the “proportional response” Obama pledged.

While it is possible that the U.S. might have been involved in the disruption of North Korea’s Internet connection, the White House has reportedly declined to consider a “demonstration strike” against North Korean cyberspace targets.

Cybsecurity experts have claimed that there are several possible causes for the network failure, according to the New York Times. North Korea could be preemptively shutting down its Internet access to prevent U.S. counterattack. Vigilante hackers could also be responsible for the outage.

As most North Koreans do not have access to the Internet, the blackout will only affect the country’s elite, state-run media outlets, propagandists and its cyberwarfare divisions.

Photo courtesy of Rebooting Liberty

Peter Hahn School

China Formally Arrests Korean American Aid Worker

by JAMES S. KIM | @james_s_kim

Chinese authorities formally arrested Peter Hahn, a Korean American aid worker who lived near the country’s border with North Korea, on Friday, according to the Associated Press and Reuters.

Hahn, 74, was being held by authorities since November when they detained him on charges of embezzlement and possession of fraudulent receipts. A formal arrest, however, means a more serious situation than criminal detention.

Hahn’s lawyer, Zhang Peihong, told Reuters he believed Hahn was being targeted due to his Christian faith and because he ran a non-governmental organization. He maintained that the charges were “just excuses” but that the formal arrest would make the case difficult.

“I am not optimistic about the case’s prospects now that he has been arrested,” Zhang said. “The charges clearly have no merit.”

Hahn’s staff is also under investigation, including two U.S. nationals and three South Koreans. Chinese authorities have been expelling hundreds of Christian missionaries this year, according to Reuters, along with trying to curb the flow of North Korean defectors. Hahn helped defectors more than a decade ago, according to Zhang, but no longer did so.

Hahn and his wife, Eunice, ran a vocational school, located in the border town of Tumen, and a Christian aid agency that provided supplies and a local school to North Korean poor across the river. Other aid projects in his Tumen River Area Development Initiative included plans to build factories for food processing, fertilizer and bean paste.

Since the detainment, the Chinese police have allowed Hahn to see a doctor regularly, and U.S. consular officials have been able to meet him as well. Eunice Hahn had tried to deliver a letter to her husband through a U.S. diplomat with Christian messages, but Hahn had not been allowed to read it.

Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Economic Journal


South Korea Bans Leftist Political Party

by STEVE HAN | @steve_han

South Korea chose to disband a pro-North Korean party on Friday, marking the first time the country has outlawed a political party since it adopted its constitution in 1948.

The 8-1 ruling in the South Korean Constitutional Court effectively ordered the Unified Progressive Party (UPP), established in 2011, to dissolve. According to the National Election Commission (NEC), the UPP has been forced to forfeit all of its state subsidies, and its assets have also been frozen. Furthermore, an alternative party with similar policies as the UPP will be prohibited from being founded.

“The genuine goal and the activities of the UPP are to achieve progressive democracy and to finally adopt North Korea-style socialism,” Chief Justice Park Han-cheol said in a nationally televised broadcast of the landmark ruling. “The UPP, with a hidden agenda to adopt North Korea’s socialism, organized meetings to discuss a rebellion. The act goes against the basic democratic order of the Constitution.”

Several members of the UPP, including Rep. Lee Seok-ki, were convicted of plotting to overthrow the South Korean government in the event of a war and were found guilty of conspiring with North Korea’s communist regime.

Before the landmark ruling, no other political party has been banned in South Korea’s modern history.

Eight justices who ruled in favor of the UPP’s dissolution agreed that the ruling was made to protect democracy in South Korea. Kim Yi-su, the only justice who opposed the ruling, maintained that only a few UPP members were involved in the recent scandal.

The ruling also dismissed five UPP legislators from their seats regardless of whether they were elected through popular vote or the proportional representation system.

Photo courtesy of YTN


Steve Carell’s North Korea-Based Thriller Scrapped

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

Another Hollywood film has suffered from the Sony Pictures cyberattack. According to Deadline.com, production company New Regency has scrapped another film that was to be set in North Korea, immediately after major theater chains canceled screenings for The Interview.

Pyongyang, a thriller based on a Guy Delisle graphic novel, was being developed by Director Gore Verbinski and had Steve Carell attached to the project. Written by Steve Conrad, the script tells the story of a Westerner in North Korea who is accused of espionage. Principle photography for the film was slated to begin in March, but was soon canceled in the wake of terrorist threats against movie theaters playing The Interview, reports The Hollywood Reporter.

Following these these threats, the top five theater circuits in North America — Regal, AMC, Cinemark, Carmike Cinemas and Cineplex Entertainment — all opted to not screen the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy. Earlier today, Sony Pictures announced the cancellation of the film’s Christmas release.

Photo courtesy of The Wrap