The Exchange: Suki Kim and Bill Richardson Talk North Korea

Is the Hermit Kingdom truly malevolent—
or simply misunderstood?


In 2011, Korean-American journalist Suki Kim spent six months undercover as a teacher at an elite, all-male Pyongyang school for science and technology — her fifth visit to North Korea — where she collected stories for her memoir, Without You, There Is No Us. Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has visited the country eight times: first as a congressman in 1994, to discuss a nuclear arms deal, and most recently in 2013, as a private citizen with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt. Kim and Richardson recently connected to swap travel tales, debate North Korean diplomacy and language — and, of course, discuss The Interview.

Bill Richardson: Suki, can you describe what narrative journalism can do in articulating and understanding North Korea? Straight news, even fiction, and foreign policy simply can’t understand the country.

Suki Kim: I didn’t want to do fiction with North Korea because North Korea is already full of fiction. Nonfiction, however, is generally limited in that you can only deliver what you see. But in North Korea, it’s rarely the case that you know where the truth is. So literary nonfiction was what I ended up doing.

I lived there undercover for six months. I felt if I was embedded there, then I would get to see between the lines, go behind what was on the surface, and really deliver all the subtleties, perhaps their intentions or real thoughts. I thought creative writing could really get the depth of that humanity to those outside, to the rest of us in the world who forever question, What is North Korea? What are they really thinking? Who are they?

BR: On my visits to North Korea, I don’t believe I had the freedom that you did to talk to people and observe. They were very regimented and controlled. We stayed in guesthouses. We only saw certain high officials. All our phones were monitored. Our schedule was totally controlled. We had a chance to go into the city of Pyongyang and the rural areas and occasionally have conversations with ordinary people, but it was clear that our guides would always try to control who we saw and what we did.

Everything happens based on the cult of personality — the leadership of Kim Jong Il and now Kim Jong Un. The authority emanates from the top almost totally in a religious, centralized version. I never got the impression that anybody I spoke to, even outside of official circles, would be candid in their discussions with me.

SK: In negotiating with North Koreans, did you ever get an inkling that they were struggling with what North Korea has become?

BR: They always were sending the following messages: One, they’re a very proud, strong country. Nobody controls them — not China, South Korea, or the United States. They want to be considered on par as a major power with the United States. Number two: It was very clear that they had a total devotion to their leaders, the structure of the party, the military — they were paramount in any of their discussions. They never made a decision on the spot. In negotiating with them, their idea of a concession was not a quid pro quo, like in Western countries. Their idea of a concession was they’re not going to budge, but what they will budge on is they will give you enough time to come to their conclusion, eventually. Time for them is not of the essence.

SK: I was teaching the sons of the elite, who are 20‑year‑old young men, who are going to be the future leaders. And when you say the North Korean negotiators never, ever deter from their script, these boys didn’t either. Yet, there was a disconnect. They always sing about killing Americans. I asked them, “When you sing those songs, where do I fit in? I’m South Korean and American.” They were almost laughing. They can see the humor in it. I remember them awkwardly smiling and saying, “Oh, you’re different from that, because you’re our teacher.” You were also talking about the absoluteness of power, which I totally relate to. Everything was number one: They are Number One Hospital, Number One District. Every student had a number. The hierarchy was so labeled with each existence; they’re all soldiers. It is an incredibly vigilant way to live.

* * *

BR: For the North Koreans, I’ve found everything is very personal. I remember being there at a time when President [George W.] Bush called Kim Jong Il a tyrant in one of his memoirs. The North Koreans were very insulted. They saw that as personal. [Recently] they felt that The Interview was an attack on the deity, on their heart and soul. The North Korean government is rallying the people and saying, “See how the Americans have depicted our leader, with a lot of disrespect. This is why you have to continue listening to us and why we should fear the outside world.”

I’ve been criticized for saying this, but I believe North Korea was largely responsible for the cyberattack [on Sony Pictures]. However, they did, I believe, have some help. But I do think that a good part of this hacking did come from North Korea. They have a unit there that works on this full time in the cyber area, that is government‑financed, that is very skilled, and that is capable of launching these cyberthreats.

I recall vividly being in North Korea with Eric Schmidt of Google, and we went in, and it was very obvious that only a very small percentage of North Koreans, the elite, had access to the Internet. They weren’t about to expand it, because they knew if they did that, it would possibly fuel an Arab Spring reaction.

SK: Absolutely. My students didn’t know the existence of the Internet. I taught at a school for science and technology computer majors. They had no idea what the Internet was. It’s not possible to open that world up to the Internet, because then that would break the myth of the great leader.

* * *

BR: In the past, the North Koreans didn’t care about any international organization or the criticism. But in the last year they have become sensitive, in reaction to the United Nations’ efforts to refer them to the International Criminal Court on human rights violations. They were hit very hard by this U.N. report [that accused North Korea of crimes against humanity and recommended prosecution of the country’s leaders] and are starting to react, possibly in a positive way. I foresee them allowing some access by some U.N. inspectors. They don’t want their leadership referred there for possible war crimes.

But what protects North Korea at the United Nations is China. China’s a member of the U.N. Security Council and can veto any measure that adversely affects North Korea, as they have in the past. Everyone wants to know who North Korea listens to. But I don’t think they listen to China all the time. It’s a very complex relationship.

SK: The fact that North Korea is seriously nervous about all of that — ultimately that is one good thing, no? Because nothing will make them do anything.

BR: I do believe they’re nervous, and I believe they’re trying to weigh their response. Another issue is that I think North Korea gets very bad publicity. I made the mistake in an interview, saying North Korea was a victim, but I meant it was a recipient of bad publicity. But I was waking up early in the morning in Santa Fe to do a TV interview, and I said “a victim,” so everybody jumped on me.

Their propaganda machine is very much a part of their cult of personality. They’re very warlike; they threaten annihilation of the United States, of South Korea. They get personal with the president of South Korea, calling her a prostitute. They make racist statements against President Obama. It’s part of not their mystique, but of their tactics. It’s something that’s also done for the country’s own domestic consumption.

SK: Some of the reason for that — and I think actually one of the shocking things when I’m in North Korea, because I grew up in South Korea and I’m fluent in Korean — is how violent even the language is, and crude and crass. All curse words. Back to back to back. When they called the [South] Korean president a prostitute, that’s not really an accident because the rest of their language is like that. It’s almost like linguistic violence. Because of that, violence pervades their entire culture in some way. Bad publicity also gives them such a one-track image, as if they’re not human beings and there is no human emotions within that country. I would think the only thing I can do, if I had the right, is to describe that world so that we have some empathy for that country beyond looking at it as this one‑dimensional cartoon, which is how it’s coming across now. The rest of the world really relates to Americans as human beings, as real people, because of all the publicity we’ve generated, whether it’s through movies or whatever. But I don’t think we feel that way at all with North Korea. Who is Kim Jong Un? We have no idea. Now we have a portrait from the movie The Interview. But we have no idea about that world.

* * *

BR: In terms of American policy, I’ve always felt that it’s better to have a dialogue with your enemies than not. That doesn’t mean when you talk you’re giving up anything, but there’s so much mutual mistrust. Admittedly, North Korea’s very difficult. But I do believe there’s potential grounds of compromise because they need food, they need humanitarian assistance. They want technology; they want investments; they want sanctions lifted. Their people are starving. Their agriculture is totally unmechanized.

SK: So we should just keep engaging?

BR: That’s my view. I think you have to talk to them and bring South Korea in. There are areas of potential compromise between North and South Korea — possibly human rights, family reunification, family exchanges. I think reunification of the peninsula is a ways off, but maybe they should start talking. Nobody said the two Germanys could come together, but they did.

SK: I did really love my students so much, and I felt the degree under which they were controlled, and their humanity was completely suppressed beyond belief. I actually did not feel any hope. You say, yes, we have to keep engaging, but we engage at what expense? Because I just didn’t see any light at the end of the tunnel, and these were the elite. I don’t know how we engage with a regime that does that to its people, because they don’t behave any other way.

BR: I can understand the frustration and the losing hope. My only worry is that when you push somebody into a corner, it breeds very irrational responses.

Richardson: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images; Kim: Ed Kashi

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