Tag Archives: North Korea

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Korean American Author to Be Deported for Praising North Korea

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

A Korean American author may be deported to the U.S. for allegedly making pro-North Korea comments, reports the Associated Press.

Local conservative groups have accused Shin Eun-mi, 54, of sympathizing with Pyongyang and propagandizing the regime’s ideals alongside her co-host during a talk show tour. According to TIME, Shin reportedly said during a November lecture that many North Korean defectors living in South Korea told her that they wished to return home and that North Koreans hope for change under the new leadership of Kim Jong-un. She also praised the cleanliness of the Hermit Kingdom’s rivers and the taste of North Korean beer.

During another lecture in December, an 18-year-old high school student threw a homemade bomb at her, injuring three people.

Shin had planned to return to Los Angeles on Dec. 12, but was barred from leaving the country after she refused to appear for police questioning, according to Yonhap. Since then, the Seoul police have questioned the author and requested prosecutors to formally indict her. Prosecutors, however, called the Korean Immigration Service on Thursday to deport Shin for violating South Korea’s National Security Law. Once deported, she will be banned from entering South Korea for five years.

Shin told reporters on Wednesday that she had no intention of praising the North Korean government and denied breaching the anti-Pyonyang security law. She also said her memoir, Korean-American Ajumma Goes to North Korea, is purely a travelogue and does not include any pro-North remarks.

While conservative groups have supported the prosecutors’ decision to deport Shin, others have criticized the country’s security law and called it an infringement to the freedom of speech.

“The decision to deport her is a clear violation of human rights,” the Hankyoreh newspaper said in an editorial on Friday. “The government is taking the lead in trampling on human rights.”

Meanwhile, prosecutors are also considering seeking an arrest warrant for Shin’s talk show co-host, Hwang Sun, for the same charges. According to the Korea Herald, Hwang is the former deputy spokeswoman of the now-defunct Democratic Labor Party and is famous for giving birth to her second child in Pyongyang back in 2005.


Featured photo courtesy of Yonhap


Netflix Says It Wants to Stream ‘The Interview’

by DAVID BAUDER, AP Television writer

PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Netflix wants to make Sony’s The Interview available to its 53 million worldwide subscribers, the streaming service’s chief content officer said Wednesday.

Ted Sarandos of Netflix would not comment on efforts to make that possible, however. The movie starring Seth Rogen and James Franco is available on some other video services and in some independent theaters, after its wide release was canceled due to the Sony hacking scandal.

“People want to see the movie and we want to be able to deliver the movie,” Sarandos told reporters at the Winter TV Press Tour 2015 conference.

Sony declined to comment on the possibility of a Netflix airing, a spokesman said.

Rogen and Franco play journalists involved in a CIA plot to kill North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Before the movie could be released, the Sony studio’s computer system was hacked by unknown assailants linked to North Korea, leading the studio to ditch plans to release the movie widely on Christmas day.

Even without Netflix, Sony Pictures Entertainment said this week that The Interview has been rented or purchased online more than 4.3 million times, totaling over $31 million in consumer sales. Sony says that has made it the company’s top online film ever; it has made $5 million in theater box offices.

The Interview has been available through Google Play, YouTube Movies, Microsoft’s Xbox Video and various video-on-demand services.


Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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Did North Korea Hack Sony? The Jury’s Still Out

by SUEVON LEE | @suevlee

Long after The Interview opened in some 300 independent theaters on Christmas Day and was made available to stream online following an unprecedented chain of events that saw the comedy nearly canceled, a question still dogs those following the Sony hack that started it all: who or what was responsible?

We thought we had an answer when the FBI on Dec. 19 said North Korea’s government was to blame for a massive cyber attack on Sony Entertainment Pictures that exposed a trove of sensitive data and embarrassing emails between studio executives before escalating into threats that terrorized major theater chains into pulling the film.

In the days and weeks following that announcement, however, some cybersecurity analysts and North Korea experts have expressed doubts about the FBI’s assertion, citing the circumstantial evidence against North Korea offered thus far by the U.S. government. (North Korea, meanwhile, vehemently denies involvement in the hack. Its excoriation of the film’s premise—a fictional assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—fueled speculation it was behind the cyberhack and provides a swift revenge motive.)

“It’s hard to take at face value when the U.S. government says, ‘Trust us,’ because we’ve done it before…WMD in Iraq, right,” University of Southern California international relations and business professor David Kang told Southern California Public Radio KPCC’s Take Two on Monday. “If it turns out it was North Korea, then the government will be vindicated. If it’s not, I think it will just be further evidence of how difficult it is to attribute something as murky as espionage—cyberespionage—where it’s really, as I understand it, more of an art than a science to be able to pinpoint who actually caused the hack.”

So, in efforts to better understand why the U.S. government believes North Korea is the group behind the Sony hack that calls itself “Guardians of Peace,” while cybersecurity experts say, ‘Not so fast,’ let’s take a closer look at the arguments for and against in this, yes, murky debate.

Why the U.S. is Blaming North Korea


The FBI Says They’re Responsible

In its Dec. 19 statement, the FBI mentioned three distinct reasons for pinning the hack on the North Korean regime:

* The “similarities in specific lines of code, encryption algorithms, data deletion methods, and compromised networks” to other malware the FBI says “North Korean actors previously developed.”

* The discovery of an overlap of several Internet protocol (IP) addresses the FBI says are associated with “known North Korean infrastructure” with those IP addresses found in the malware used in the Sony hack.

* Similarities of the tools used in the hack to a cyberattack in March 2013 against South Korean banks and media outlets by a group known as “DarkSeoul.”

In this detailed behind-the-scenes synopsis of the Sony hack, moreover, the New York Times cites anonymous Sony senior executives familiar with the course of the FBI investigation. These executives claim that even initially, federal investigators “did not strongly suspect an inside job” but found that the hackers “used digital techniques to steal the credentials and passwords from a systems administrator who had maximum access to Sony’s computer systems” in a style similar to that waged in the 2013 South Korean cyberattack by Dark Seoul.

Government Access to Classified Evidence

On Dec. 30, in the face of growing insistence among some experts the administration was too quick to point a finger at North Korea, the FBI issued a follow-up statement, saying its findings are “based on intelligence from the FBI, the U.S. intelligence community, DHS, foreign partners and the private sector.”

The NYT noted that senior administration officials say it is rare for President Obama to “blame a specific country so directly,” as the news outlet put it—in other words, the president wouldn’t pointedly assign blame in a cybersecurity matter unless he was certain. “But they [the officials] continue to insist that they cannot explain the basis of the president’s declaration without revealing some of the most sensitive sources and technologies at their disposal.”

U.S. officials are not backing down from rhetoric condemning the North Koreans. On Wednesday morning, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told an audience at Fordham Law School, “Cyber is a powerful new realm for them, where they believe they can exert maximum influence at minimum cost, and this recent episode with Sony has shown they can get recognition for their cybercapabilities, and that is why we have to push back.”

At Least One Major Security Firm Believes the FBI is Correct

Computer security and cybercrime blog KrebsonSecurity.com reports that the co- founder of CrowdStrike, described as “a security firm that focuses heavily on identifying attribution and actors behind major cybercrime attacks,” stands behind the FBI on this one.

“We have a high-confidence that this is a North Korean operator based on the profiles seen dating back to 2006, including prior espionage against the South Korean and U.S. government and military institutions,” CrowdStrike co-founder Dmitri Alperovitch told KrebsonSecurity.com. Alperovitch added, “We haven’t seen the skeptics produce any evidence that it wasn’t North Korea, because there is pretty good technical attribution here.”

Deterrence and Vested Interests

At the Atlantic, contributor Bruce Schneier cites an argument from the diplomatic perspective: be that it may the U.S. appears “overconfident” in blaming the Sony hack on North Korea, “the long-term U.S. interest is to discourage other nations from engaging in similar behavior.”

“If the North Korean government continues denying its involvement no matter what the truth is,” Schneier writes in summarizing this view, “and the real attackers have gone underground, then the U.S. decision to claim omnipotent powers of attribution serves as a warning to others that they will get caught if they try something like this.”

The article also raises the point that Sony has a vested interest in the hack being characterized as a state-sponsored act to help mitigate damage from the number of lawsuits brought against the corporation by employees who claim Sony failed to adequately prepare itself against theft of vulnerable, sensitive employee data.

Why Some Feel North Korea Is Not Necessarily Behind the Sony Hack (or Acted Alone)


The Timeline Doesn’t Compute with a Film Revenge Motive

Wired was one of the first news outlets to point out that the hackers’ first public statement on Nov. 21 made no mention of North Korea or The Interview—and that it was only after the media began drawing a connection between the film and North Korea around Dec. 8 that the hackers began denouncing the movie in statements and issuing threats against theater chains. The first public statement, Wired’s Kim Zetter noted, “appears to be an attempt at extortion, not an expression of public outrage or a threat of war.”

The Hacking Style is Not Demonstrative of a Nation-State Attack

In that same piece, Wired pointed out that certain stylistic elements used by the hackers, including the image of a glowing skeleton posted to computers, and the “catchy nom-de-hack like Guardians of Peace to identify themselves” don’t typically characterize a “nation-state attack.” Instead, the tech magazine argued, “these are all hallmarks of hacktivists—groups like Anonymous and LulzSec, who thrive on targeting large corporations for ideological reasons or just the lulz, or by hackers sympathetic to a political cause.”

Linguistic Analysis

The Sony hackers apparently used computers programmed to a Korean language setting, but as plenty of analysts have pointed out, any computer can be configured to another language. Cybersecurity consultants at Taia Global, upon analyzing the hackers’ online messages, “concluded that based on translation errors and phrasing, the attackers are more likely to be Russian speakers than Korean speakers,” reported the NYT. The Taia analysts identified 20 non-standard phrases from the hackers’ messages and concluded that 15 were literal Russian translations, while nine were Korean.

An Inside Job?

Last week, the cyberthreat intelligence firm Norse Corporation expressed its own conclusion that the Sony hack was perpetrated by a small group of individuals, including a Sony ex-employee who had the “technical background and system knowledge to carry out the attack.”

The Verge also reported in late November, when news of the Sony hack was first publicized, that it received an email from a purported hacker, stating, “We want equality. Sony doesn’t. It’s an upward battle.”

The FBI Has Been Wrong Before—Or Had Inconclusive Findings

According to Vice Media, in early 1998, the FBI blamed Iraq for network interference on U.S. government computer networks when further investigation revealed it was actually the work of Israeli and California teens.

In addition, although the U.S. blamed Iran for the 2012 cyberattack on computers in Saudi Arabia known as Shamoon, it was attributed to a group known as “Cutting Sword of Justice.”

Furthermore, experts point out that while the FBI has stated there is common malware between the Sony hack and that used by the group “DarkSeoul” from the 2013 South Korean cyberhack, no definitive connection was ever made between “DarkSeoul” and North Korea. “The major problem with the evidence offered by the FBI is that it is self-referential, all of it pointing back to the 2013 attack on South Korean banks and media that was carried out by the DarkSeoul gang,” writes Gregory Elich at Global Research. “At that time, without supplying any supporting evidence, the United States accused North Korea of being behind DarkSeoul.”

So what are we to conclude from all this?


As the Atlantic’s Bruce Schneier argues in a piece posted to the magazine’s website Monday, there are the FBI’s assertions on one hand, and then there is all the countervailing evidence—or at least arguments rebutting or challenging the FBI’s conclusion—on the other. As his headline succinctly states, “We still don’t know who hacked Sony.”


South Korea Says North Korea Has 6000-Member Cyber Army

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

South Korea said on Tuesday that North Korea has boosted its cyber army to 6,000 troops, twice the number of cyberwarfare specialists Seoul estimated last year, reports the Associated Press.

Seoul’s Defense Ministry disclosed the new figure in a report and claimed that the North is advancing efforts to inflict “physical and psychological paralysis” in South Korea by launching cyberattacks that will disrupt military operations and national infrastructures.

The report also noted that North Korea may have also gained the ability to strike the U.S. mainland due to its progress in missile technology, which was demonstrated in several long-range missile tests between 2006 and 2013. However, the ministry did not elaborate on how it made its assessments.

This unsettling announcement comes after the FBI accused North Korea of hacking Sony Pictures over the studio’s lowbrow comedy The Interview, which depicts the fictional assassination of Kim Jong-un. In response, the White House has issued sanctions against North Korea’s defense industry and 10 government officials.

Pyongyang has denied involvement with the cyberattack–despite calling it a “righteous deed”–and expressed fury over the sanctions, accusing the U.S. for stirring groundless hostility.

Meanwhile, South Korea continues to accuse the North or conducting at least six high-profile cyberattacks since 2007. In March 2013, hackers froze South Korea’s banking system and broadcasters, crippling activity for days.

According to Reuters, North Korea has been actively strengthening its cyberwarfare cell Bureau 121, comprised of the country’s most talented and sophisticated computer experts. The isolated state may be eying telecoms and energy utilities as long-term targets, according to some defectors.


Photo courtesy of Korean Central News Agency/Reuters


Get to Know Charles Rahi Chun of ‘The Interview’


Looking back at 2014, there was no movie quite like The Interview. A comedy about a fictional assassination attempt of North Korean’s current sitting leader Kim Jong Un, The Interview‘s release was preceded by the largest corporate hack in history, an online terrorist threat, and a last minute cancellation of the release which was quickly amended to a limited and online release after Sony, the distributor, was criticized by none other than President Obama himself. We spoke to one of the actors from The Interview, Charles Chun, who plays General Jong.

Audrey Magazine: What made you decide to become an actor? 

Charles Chun: My dream as a kid was to be an actor, but despite enjoying it in junior high school and performing and choreographing dance at Connecticut College, I didn’t honor this dream [until] a friend of mine took me to a dive bar in the lower West side of Manhattan to check out a cajun rock band called the Cowlicks. Physically, they were standing on stage, but emotionally, spiritually, and artistically, they were so into their music as if nothing else mattered, because they were doing what they love. In that moment, I realized I needed to pursue my dream of being an actor, and whatever the result, to know that I went for it.

AM: Can you explain your role in the movie?

CC: Sure. I play General Jong, the right-hand general to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. He’s an amalgamation of some of the hard-line generals of Kim. Seth and Evan, the movie’s co-writers along with Dan Sterling really did their research and wanted to illustrate the real life dynamics of North Korea, which is naturally comedic in a very tragic way. My hope is that the film will bring much needed attention to the atrocities that have been happening in North Korea under this fear-based totalitarian regime for way too long.

AM: What was the audition process like?

CC: I’ve played a variety of roles now in North Korean themed films and tv episodes, from U.N. Ambassador in The Art of War III, to a defecting North Korean scientist in Undercovers and a terrorist in Lie To Me, and it’s the job of casting directors in the entertainment community to know this. The casting folks at Sony reached out to my manager for a meeting, at which I performed two key scenes in the script and I was hired. Once I arrived on set in Vancouver and Seth and Evan saw that I worked well with their improvisational film-making style, they kept adding me to more and more scenes. It was a blast.

AM: What was it like on set? I imagine it must have been a set full of laughter, so what was the funniest joke that someone made? 

CC: I find Canadians to be amongst the friendliest and good-natured people I know. Seth and Evan, the co-creators and co-directors, have been best friends since pre-Kindergarten in Vancouver, and Seth and James Franco have been friends since their years on Freaks and Geeks.  Randall Park, who is amazing as Kim Jong Un, is a friend who I’ve known for 15 years as well.  So given all of these familiar dynamics, the set was very open and friendly, which is the best atmosphere for creativity, particularly for their improvised film-making style.

The funniest gag was probably when [spoiler] one of my North Korean comrades’ head explodes and his brain matter splatters onto my face. They use this machine that blows a chunk of red corn syrup with bits of fake brain matter with a kind of force that simulates… well, not that I would know, but a head exploding.  We had to get it in one take, given the mess involved and this huge splatter of blood and brain matter landed squarely onto my face. But as I was grieving for my comrade, a glop of brain matter began to slowly slide over my left eye while I was crying and I had to stay focussed and serious in grief, while this gross goop was sliding down my face. Everyone had a good laugh with that sequence.

It was a really fun shoot, and at the time, no one sensed the crazy escalating series of events that would make this such an international controversy and symbol for America’s freedom of speech and expression.

AM: What was it like for you when Sony announced that they would cancel all the screenings of the film? How did your friends and family react? Have you had to worry about any of your personal information being leaked?

CC: Everyday since our world premiere on December 11th, there has been some new twist or development. It feels like a gripping Netflix series. I was really bummed that Sony cancelled the Koream/Audrey red carpet premiere because it’s the kind of film to celebrate with our community. I’m just returning from my annual kundalini yoga retreat, and having been without news for just a few days, now that I’m back, it’s like catching up on several missed episodes of a Korean soap opera.

My friends and family have been really supportive and also in disbelief over this unbelievable series of events. It’s a comedy that’s gotten our President, the Republican National Committee, the far left and far right to all agree on saying, “go see this movie!”  It’s become a symbol of American freedom.

I’ve been asked by a number of reporters whether I’m concerned about my safety and I feel it’s shocking that this has become a legitimate question to ask. I’m an American actor living in Los Angeles, not in some Communist state and yet, this is a valid question to ask given the circumstances, which is just crazy. I love my freedom and choose not to live in fear.

AM: Have you been in contact with any of the other cast or Sony? How have they reacted?

CC: I’ve been in touch with both Randall and Diana since shooting the film and since our premiere. Can I just say that Randall is really amazing as Kim Jong Un. The film really hinges on his role and performance and the way Randall plays him is so smart and pitch perfect. Diana Bang, who they discovered in Vancouver and plays Sook, is also really excellent and I know audiences will be seeing a lot more of them both and rightly so. I think everyone involved with the film was really disappointed when Sony cancelled the opening, and equally elated when they decided to release it. It’s a very funny movie and it should be enjoyed by audiences who want to see it.

AM: What do you hope to take away from all this and what is next for you?

CC: It’s my greatest hope that what WE take away from all of this, as a society, is that the US and the world refuses to be intimidated by the fear tactics of others, whether it’s this corrupt North Korean government who is cruelly oppressing their own people or some other entity. And I hope the take away for the international community is that we cannot continue to allow for North Korea to treat their own people in such soul-crushing, horrific ways.

As for me personally, in addition to enjoying playing doctors, dads and North Koreans in tv and films, my other passion is holistic health and somatic healing, to expand the body’s natural capacity to experience energy and pleasure. You can find more detailed information about the health benefits of these sacred practices and my work here. I’m happy to go into more detail about my journey with this specialized modality, but that would constitute a whole other interview. Suffice it to say, that as an actor, holistic healer and Korean American, I believe we are here to realize our dreams, and hold nothing back within our mind, body and spirit in realizing this.


Originally published on Audrey Magazine.


South Korea, Japan and U.S. to Share Intel on North Korea

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

South Korea, Japan and the U.S. will sign their first joint intelligent-sharing pact on Dec. 29 to better prepare and respond to the increasing nuclear and missile threats from North Korea, reports the Associated Press.

Although the U.S. currently has separate, bilateral intelligence-sharing pacts with South Korea and Japan, the two Asian countries do not have such agreements, partly due to the unresolved tensions stemming from Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945. In 2012, Seoul and Tokyo almost signed an intelligence-sharing pact, but it was ultimately scrapped after public uproar in South Korea.

Under the new trilateral agreement, South Korea and Japan would share intelligence only on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, with the U.S. serving as the mediator, according to a statement from Seoul’s Defense Ministry.

“We believe that the arrangement will be very effective in deterring the communist country from launching provocations in the first place,” a ministry official told Yonhap. “The cooperation between the three nations is expected to boost the quality of the intelligence on North Korea, which will enable the allies to respond to possible provocations in a swifter fashion.”

The agreement comes after Pyongyang’s recent threat to carry out nuclear strikes in protest of a United Nations resolution on the regime’s human rights abuses. North Korea has also threatened to retaliate against the U.S. over Sony Pictures’ satirical comedy The Interview.

The vice defense ministers of South Korea, Japan and the U.S. will formally sign the trilateral pact on Monday.


Photo courtesy of AFP Photo/Saul Loeb

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North Korea Calls Obama a ‘Monkey,’ Blames U.S. for Internet Outage

by HYUNG-JIN KIM, Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea blamed its recent Internet outage on the United States on Saturday and hurled racially charged insults at President Barack Obama over the hacking row involving the movie “The Interview.”

North Korea’s powerful National Defense Commission, which is headed by country leader Kim Jong-un and is the nation’s top governing body, said Obama was behind the release of the comedy that depicts Kim’s assassination. The commission described the movie as illegal, dishonest and reactionary.

“Obama always goes reckless in words and deeds like a monkey in a tropical forest,” an unidentified spokesman at the commission’s Policy Department said in a statement carried by the country’s official Korean Central News Agency.

The White House’s National Security Council declined to comment Saturday.

North Korea has denied involvement in a crippling cyberattack on Sony Pictures but has expressed fury over the comedy. Sony Pictures initially called off the release of the film, citing threats of terror attacks against U.S. movie theaters. Obama criticized Sony’s decision, and the movie opened this past week.

It wasn’t the first time North Korea has used crude insults against Obama and other top U.S. and South Korean officials. Earlier this year, North Korea called U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry a wolf with a “hideous” lantern jaw and South Korean President Park Geun-hye a prostitute. In May, the North’s official news agency published a dispatch saying Obama has the “shape of a monkey.”

A State Department spokeswoman at the time called the North Korean dispatch “offensive and ridiculous and absurd.”

In the latest incident, the North Korean defense commission also blamed Washington for intermittent outages of North Korean websites this past week. The outages happened after Obama blamed the Sony hack on North Korea and promised to respond “in a place and time and manner that we choose.”

The U.S. government has declined to say whether it was behind the Internet shutdown in North Korea.

According to the North Korean commission’s spokesman, “the U.S., a big country, started disturbing the Internet operation of major media of the DPRK, not knowing shame like children playing tag.” DPRK refers to the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The commission said the movie was the result of a hostile U.S. policy toward North Korea, and threatened the U.S. with unspecified consequences.

North Korea and the U.S. remain technically in a state of war because the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty. The rivals also are locked in an international standoff over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and its alleged human rights abuses.

A United Nations commission accuses North Korea of a wide array of crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment and rape.

The U.S. stations about 28,500 troops in South Korea as deterrence against North Korean aggression.


Associated Press writer Josh Lederman in Honolulu contributed to this story. Photo courtesy of The White House.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.



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 con- nection 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).