Must listen: Suki Kim, on teaching undercover at PUST

Kurt Achin, who hosts a series of outstanding podcasts for NK News, interviews Suki Kim, who went undercover as a teacher at the experimental Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. PUST teaches an elite, hand-picked group of male students, ostensibly as a strategy to open North Korea to the world, but the regime’s restrictions on both Kim and her students were so severe that Kim calls PUST “a five-star prison.”

Among other verboten topics, Kim wasn’t allowed to mention the internet. At a technology university.

At about 5:30, Kim describes how the PUST leadership urged its teachers never to talk to the press, even after they return to their countries of origin. In other words, PUST saddled them with the censorship of Pyongyang, and told them to carry it with them, wherever they go.

Engagers don’t change Pyongyang, engagers change for Pyongyang.

What struck me the most was Kim’s statement, at about 23 minutes in, about the way young North Koreans learn to lie casually, habitually, and convincingly. Here’s another interview with Kim via NPR. Her book is called, “Without You, There Is No Us.”

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Update: Evan Ramstad reviews Kim’s book for the Minneapolis-Star Tribune.


  1. Edward Snowden damaged our security. Laura Poitras tells Astra Taylor of The Nation, “There’s a strong culture of fear among journalists right now, because the government is cracking down on both journalists and sources.”

  2. The comment I found so striking in Kurt’s interview with Suki was near the end when she observed: “How can you write about North Korea in any truth with their permission?” Her book is different from other reporting of NK that comes from people who compromise themselves, or are compromised by the goals of their employers — whether government, academic, news media — to be in the good graces of the NK regime so they can keep going there. A review I wrote touches briefly on that notion:

  3. @Glans:

    Poitras is free to follow her star source and go to Russia, and see how long she can handle being a journalist there. I give her three months before she gets Politovskaya’d.

  4. @Blackshoe, you’re free to go there, too. You’ll then enjoy the security provided by a government that can keep its secrets.

  5. @Glans: No thanks, I don’t like cold winters, and I don’t reflexively and pathologically hate Western culture and civilization.

  6. Jumping in, perhaps foolishly, but I think the big point here is that we need to support free journalism. We need to support it here at home, and I think it is in danger. And we need to call out it’s open suppression abroad, like in Putin’s Russia. The “team” each of us belongs to shouldn’t be U.S., or Russia, or China or North Korea – it’s the team that is fighting for a more free, open, democratic, and just society. (And if anyone tells me those values aren’t “compatible” with whatever local culture, I’m going to throw up.)

  7. Glans, Do you suggest that a functioning civil democracy never allows its government to keep secrets about things like defense technology, espionage, counter-terrorism, or battle plans? If that’s so, then there are no functioning civil democracies. You can’t have a civil society without security, law, and order, and there has to be some reasonable, law-bounded balance between security and openness, but one in which the government is accountable to the people for abusing that power. Similarly, if you want diplomacy to work, you must allow that some negotiations have to remain secret until they conclude. And if you want government to have frank and candid internal deliberations about which policies it should implement, then some of those pre-decisional deliberations have to remain confidential.

    All of these principles are well recognized by law, and have been for decades. Snowden’s revelations included the beneficial revelation that NSA’s domestic surveillance was overinclusive and improper. It also spilled much information about national security, diplomacy, and espionage to our enemies, in a way that will damage the security of this country for years, and might have gotten people killed. There was nothing that Snowden should have revealed that he couldn’t have been revealed to an Inspector General or a member of Congress. We have Whistleblower Protection laws for that very purpose. Instead, he delivered it to Putin, the ChiComs, and Al Qaeda. Those are the actions of a traitor, not a hero. And regardless of what you think of how the Obama Administration handled the Snowden affair–rather badly, I think–it doesn’t cleanse Snowden of that.

    To suggest that free speech and secrecy are two mutually exclusive extremes, and that one must choose between them, is to transform the Constitution into a suicide pact.

  8. Joshua, please demonstrate that Snowden delivered anything to Putin, the ChiComs, and Al Qaeda. They already knew we were spying on them.

    You’ve raised a good question. Why didn’t Snowden go to the Inspector General?

    “In a rare public accounting of its mass surveillance program, the United States Postal Service reported that it approved nearly 50,000 requests last year from law enforcement agencies and its own internal inspection unit to secretly monitor the mail of Americans for use in criminal and national security investigations.” Atrios links to the New York Times. I didn’t go there because it’s behind a pay wall.

  9. Thanks for the heads up on this book. I picked it up and read it over the last three days. To anyone considering it, I would offer a word of warning not to schedule anything once you get it, because you will probably not want to put it down.

    I would love it if it was possible to get a follow up or different perspective from Suki Kim’s assistant “Katie” to see if her personal feelings towards her observations were similar.

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