Suki Kim's memoir about teaching in an elite North Korean school run by evangelical missionaries highlights the dangers and absurdities of life in a closed society.
Perhaps we should stop being surprised by North Korea. From shocking purges to secret nuclear tests, from the mysterious disappearance of Kim Jong Un to his grinning reemergence last week, North Korea’s internal logic feels unknowable. Equally surprising but less well known is the role that foreign Christian missionaries play in North Korea — a country where the state is the religion.
The country ranks at the bottom of practically every survey of political and religious freedom — and yet many, if not practically all of the American NGOs that operate in North Korea are evangelically Christian. Under strict rules and surveillance, Pyongyang allows dozens, if not hundreds, of missionaries to operate in the country. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the only known foreign university in North Korea is the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) — a school funded by evangelical Christians for North Korea’s elite, and which operates with the express goal of converting North Koreans to Christianity. "It’s the last frontier, the hardest place to crack," says Suki Kim, author of Without You, There Is No Us, a memoir of her 6 months spent teaching at PUST in 2011. And it attracts "hardcore evangelicals," she said.
Kim, a 43-year-old South Korean-born writer living in New York, went to North Korea in June 2011 to take the exceedingly rare opportunity to live in the world’s most closed country. "Thirty missionaries disguised as teachers and 270 male North Korean students and me, the sole writer disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher," she writes. "When I asked the other teachers why they had come to PUST, each of them had a similar answer. ‘God brought me here.’ When I asked how much longer they would be here, many answered, ‘For however long God wants me here. He knows everything. He will decide,’" writes Kim.
One of the few countries in the world with no Christians, it’s easy to see why North Korea attracts missionaries. But why does Pyongyang allow them? Money is one reason: the school cost an estimated $35 million to stand up, with an unknown but presumably sizable chunk of that enriching North Korea’s elite. And perhaps Pyongyang feels the chance of conversions is so small that it’s worth the risk.
Indeed, the missionaries have practically no opportunities to speak to North Koreans outside the campus. And Pyongyang is a very hard place for anyone, missionary or otherwise, to live for an extended period of time. Better known internationally for its autocratic oddities, North Korea’s daily life is far more about strictness, isolation, and poverty: Kim had to bring her own toilet paper, a refrigerator, and butter. The dreariness of PUST, a small campus on the outskirts of Pyongyang, overwhelms. "There was a lot of concrete, and the dull heaviness of the buildings imbued the place with a sense of the forlorn," she writes. The days drag. She notices a tall stone monument, which bears the words "Our Great Leader is Forever With Us"; nightmarishly, the students call it the Forever Tower.
Like North Koreans, Kim finds her life and the life of her fellow teachers governed by strict rules. She jots down a long list of what she can and cannot say or do, which is itemized in the book. "Avoid jackets with sequins," because that could appear too ostentatious. "Do not approach or start a conversation with anybody," she writes. "Never hint that there is something wrong with their country." Rarely is she allowed to go into the city.
The most resonant rules are those governing how the teachers could and couldn’t evangelize. Kim writes: "Do not say anything about religion and do not use religious titles to address each other. If a student comes to you and asks for a Bible, you should be very polite and say that you cannot do that."
But for her colleagues, there was always a way to get god’s message across, says Kim. While you can’t "bow your head or fold your hands or close your eyes to pray at meals," the school administrator suggests that teachers "[p]ray with your eyes open." One teacher assigns his students a fill-in-the-blank grammar exercise where the quotes come from the Bible. Another tries to prevent Kim from showing her students Harry Potter, (wizardry is sacrilegious); the missionaries instead choose The Chronicles of Narnia, "for its Christian message." One teacher tells Kim that she was in the school "solely to bring the Lord to the land. The Lord has his ways and his designs for these people, she told me, and it was her job to wake them up to be ready for his grace." (Colin McCulloch, PUST’s director of international relations, disputed that any prosletyzing "subverted" the school’s academic agenda.) And yet overt evangelism of any kind was strictly forbidden.
Kim’s job was to teach English several hours a day to the precocious 19- and 20-year-old sons of the North Korean elite. (McCulloch says that students from PUST come from "a range of backgrounds.") She offers great details about their blinkered worldview: the only two English-language writers she ever hears them mention are Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone with the Wind, and the romance novelist Sidney Sheldon. They had never heard of the Taj Mahal or the Great Pyramids of Giza, but inexplicably, they all knew the English expression "brain drain." "When we decided to make origami together," she writes, "we learned that they knew how to make nothing except war planes." Kim writes that she grew to feel "motherly" towards her students, an enthusiastic but somewhat bedraggled group. Because they were born at the start of North Korea’s great famine, many "had at least a few gray hairs," she writes plaintively.
Kim grows to resent some of the missionaries who she feels are trying to take advantage of a vulnerable population. That feeling of resentment, it seems, was mutual. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but PUST didn’t seem to realize that Kim was a writer working on a memoir about the school. The president of PUST, James Kim — a well known figure in Korean evangelical circles, who likes to boast that he has "unlimited credit at the Bank of Heaven" — apparently found out after Suki Kim published a Dec. 2013 op-ed in The New York Times that mentioned her experience. "I got a very, very angry email. He was very, very upset," she says. "He asked me to not publish the book. And he asked me to send him the draft. And I said that’s something I could not agree to."
Openly running a Christian university in Pyongyang is one of the most sensitive projects imaginable. "There were multiple emails from him, and from other teachers, cc’ed to everyone," she says. "They said the same thing — that they wanted to see the book, and were afraid that I would cause harm to the school." Apart from herself and President Kim, Suki changed the names and some identifying details about the North Korean students and the other teachers; she also said that she occasionally changed the chronology as well to make the story flow better. Yet the book’s frank depiction of North Korean life — which officials in Pyongyang may find embarrassing — could cause problems for the school. PUST released a statement which "deplored" the book’s publication, and claiming that the book "has been produced in direct contradiction to explicit requests by the PUST leadership and is unauthorized and repudiated by us." (The statement also noted "errors of fact and interpretation," in the book, and claimed that the school was well aware that Kim "did not share the faith of the majority of our staff.")
Kim left PUST in Dec. 2011. For now, the school appears to still be running. "Students are generating new exciting business ideas," reads one Oct. 4 post on the school’s Facebook page, accompanied by a photo of students writing on a piece of paper taped to a wall. "This one is about to be paper recycling company that produces toilet paper and insoles."
Kim has little hope for North Korea’s future. One evening, she writes, "as a sun the color of mournful pomegranate fell behind the Forever Tower, behind the smoke stack, behind this city, this school, behind the children of the elite who were now my children for a brief time, these lovely, lying children, I saw very clearly that there was no redemption here."