Tales Told Out of School in Pyongyang Cause Stir

Tales Told Out of School in Pyongyang Cause Stir

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/ 11/30/world/tales-told-out-of- school-in-pyongyang-cause- stir.html?smid=nytcore-iphone- share&smprod=nytcore-iphone


A memoir by a Korean-American author about teaching English to adolescent boys at a private university in Pyongyang was certain to anger the North Korean government.

But the author, Suki Kim, may have provoked even more anger among the university’s Christian educators. They have denounced Ms. Kim for breaking a promise not to write anything about her experiences and said her memoir contains inaccuracies, notably her portrayal of them as missionaries, which could cause them trouble with the North Korean authorities.

The private university, Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, was approved in 2001 by the North Korean authorities, despite their distrust of outsiders. Fenced and heavily guarded, the university opened eight years later. It was there that Ms. Kim secretly took notes as she taught English in 2011 to 50 teenage boys and young men drawn from North Korea’s most privileged families.

It is unclear whether the school will suffer any repercussions because of the book, “Without You, There Is No Us” (Crown Publishers), named for a lyric in an ode to the ruling Kim family, often sung by the students in their regimented routines.

Suki Kim wrote a book about her experiences teaching at a North Korean university. CreditFred R. Conrad/The New York Times
But the school’s president and founder, James Chin-Kyung Kim, said that because of the book, he had been sharply questioned by the North Korean authorities about Ms. Kim.

The book, which has been acclaimed by some Western experts on North Korea, has added another irritant to the troubled relations between North Korea and the United States. A Korean-language version is planned for this spring.

Ms. Kim, who is not a practicing Christian, conceded in an interview that she had been deceptive in applying for a teaching position at the school and clandestinely taking notes for the purpose of a book.

Ms. Kim said she would furtively scribble memorable quotes and anecdotes, destroy any paper notes after transcribing them secretly onto her laptop, then copy the transcriptions to thumb drives and erase them from the laptop. She wore the thumb drives around her neck like pieces of jewelry, she said, or stashed them in the garbage can in her residence on campus.

All faculty members, she said, were constantly monitored and North Korean officials subjected their belongings to occasional unannounced searches.

She hid her intentions not only from colleagues but also from Dr. Kim, a Korean-American entrepreneur who also founded a similar school in northeast China.

“I do feel really bad for hurting them,” she said. “Some of them were really nice, good, hardworking people.”

However, Ms. Kim argued, her fellow teachers also had what she described as another motive. “As much as they say they wanted to educate North Korean kids for no reason, and poured money – life’s savings – into this school, really the larger goal was to convert them, one day, if North Korea were to open up,” she said. “It’s a long-term project of turning them to Jesus, that’s really their larger goal.” Dr. Kim denied her allegations, saying that the school is committed to education, not proselytizing.

Publication of the book has come as both proselytizing and human rights in North Korea are in the news.

Two of the three Americans who were incarcerated in North Korea, and only recently released, had been accused of hostile acts by seeking to spread the Christian faith. And the North’s state media has reacted with outrage over the past few weeks to an American-backed resolution at the United Nations urging that North Korean leaders face prosecution at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

Ms. Kim, 44, immigrated to the United States with her family from South Korea when she was a child. A recipient of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, she had her first book, “The Interpreter,” a novel about a Korean-American court interpreter in New York, published in 2003. She has been traveling to North Korea as a journalist since 2002.

She said she had been drawn to teaching at the Pyongyang school partly because it offered an opportunity to get beyond what she called the superficial reporting that often comes out of North Korea.

“I realized this was the only chance that I have of actually telling a longer story,” she said.

Her most worrisome inner conflict, she said, was in causing inadvertent danger to her students, with whom she had established trusting relationships. She gave them pseudonyms and muddled their identities in the book, she said, so the North Korean authorities would not seek retribution by punishing them.

Dr. Kim sent her what she described as a series of angry and distressed emails when he found out about her plans to publish the book. At least two of her former fellow teachers also wrote, imploring her to scrap the idea.

In a telephone interview from China, Dr. Kim sought to rebut the entire book.

“I am really upset about the attitude, her writings, her telling lies, her cheating us,” he said.

He was especially critical of what he called the erroneous assertion that the other teachers were missionaries. “We are educators,” he said.

If the North Korean authorities thought that the school was seeking to convert the students to Christianity, Dr. Kim said, “We would have trouble.”

“They know we are Christian, we do not hide that,” he said. “But we are not missionaries. Christians and missionaries are different.”

Ms. Kim acknowledged that the university’s Christians did not want to be called missionaries or proselytizers. “It’s far more subtle than that,” she said. “It’s why they call themselves educators. It’s another code word for what they’re doing.”

A version of this article appears in print on November 30, 2014, on page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: Tales Told Out of School in Pyongyang Cause Stir. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe

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