The Good Student in North Korea
Janill Gilbert stashed this in North Korea
By SUKI KIM
The student was not interested in small talk.
“Have you heard of ‘The Song of General Kim Jong-il’?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said cautiously.
“What do you think of it?” he asked.
I froze. Complete honesty was out of the question. He was a student at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea, and I was his teacher. The students and teachers — all evangelicals besides me — were isolated together in a guarded compound, where our classes and movements were watched round the clock.
“We Americans have a national anthem,” I replied. “I understand that that particular song is basically your national anthem, and I respect that.”
The other two students at the table looked nervous and remained quiet, until one blurted out a question about soccer. But the first student was not deterred.
“National assembly — tell me about it.”
“Which national assembly?” I said, slightly panicked. “The U.S. Congress? They’re all different.”
“Any country, doesn’t matter,” he said. “You are American, so tell me about how it works there.”
I took a deep breath and answered in the simplest way I knew. I told him that the United States is made up of 50 states and that the people in those states elect representatives and senators to Congress. We have an elected president too, I said, and the president and Congress have to work with each other to pass laws. So in fact it is the people who make decisions.
“But I think the president is the one who should make decisions,” the student fired back. “He has the power, no?”
Suki Kim This was the kind of discussion we had been warned against. This student might be trying to trap me, or worse, I might get him in serious trouble.
“It’s like this,” I said cautiously. “This entire school is about the students, not its president. It’s the same in our system. Our country is not for the president but the people. The president is just the face, the symbol, but the real power belongs to the people.”
What I had just described was, more or less, democracy. I could not read his expression, but he thanked me and excused himself.
That evening, I discussed my growing fears about the student’s motives with my teaching assistant. There was nowhere we would not be overheard, so we took a walk around campus, hoping it would look as though we were discussing the day’s lesson, stopping occasionally to take pictures of each other. Maybe, I said, he was on a mission to earn some sort of reward by trading information about us.
“But what if that’s not the case?” my assistant asked. “What if he’s genuinely curious?”
The second possibility made us both grim. What if we were the instigators of his doubt? What if he was starting to think that everything he had known thus far was a lie?
The next day at dinner, a student near my table leaned in and said, “My roommate, the one you talked to yesterday — he’s with you.”
“He’s with me?” I asked, haltingly.
“Yes, he thinks like you,” he said shyly.
That night I lay awake, anxious and scared. The student was thirsty for information, not trapping us to make a report.
One vocabulary word I had to teach my class was “fleeting.” I would use the phrase “Youth is fleeting,” repeating it aloud in class. But anytime I imagined the gloom of my students’ futures, I shook it off quickly so that I could be exactly and only what was expected of me, an English teacher in Pyongyang.
Now, a few years later, their faces come to me, and a motherly feeling overwhelms me. I taught them how to speak English, these children unaware of the world outside. Yet I hope they have forgotten everything and have simply become soldiers of the regime. I do not want to imagine what might happen if they retained my lessons, remembered me, began questioning. I cannot bear the idea that any of my students — my boys who so eagerly shouted: “Good morning, Professor Kim! How are you?” every time I walked into the classroom — might end up somewhere dark and cold, in one of the gulags. The thought keeps me awake at night still.
Suki Kim is the author of a memoir from which this essay is adapted, “Without You, There Is No Us,” published by Crown Publishers.
Do you think we'll see real change in North Korea in our lifetime?
I think it's really a 50/50 chance. If North Korea doesn't bother any other country too much, they will be left alone, and it seems so well controlled inside, that I don't really see the people rising up.
The 3 generation rule is quite an effective control:
"For the perceived disloyalty of just one relative, three generations of a family -- grandparents, parents, and children - are sent to perform hard labor on the brink of starvation in brutal North Korean prison camps, according to a young man who says he was born in one of the camps."
Entropy is always increasing. At some point something happens.
Maybe they'll be foolish enough to bother another country.
Maybe revolution will happen from within.