Suki Kim, a journalist who risked imprisonment and possibly her life to go undercover in North Korea, has written a piece for the New Republic about how her book was received. The publisher insisted it be soft-marketed as a “memoir,” while reviewers condescendingly called her “deceptive” for “betraying” the students at the school where she taught.
Kim’s book, Without You There Is No Us, was published in 2014, and chronicles the time she spent teaching at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), where the sons of the country’s ruling class are sent. Kim spent years carefully preparing to go undercover, then a nerve-wracking school year hiding in plain sight among her fellow teachers, all evangelical Christian missionaries. It’s an invaluable look at how North Korea’s ruling class is shaped, and at the isolation, claustrophobia, and misinformation about the outside world that make up life in a totalitarian dictatorship. (A particularly telling detail: Kim’s students were computer majors who didn’t know the internet existed.) She was there when Kim Jong-il died, the only outside witness to the seismic outpouring of grief and shock among her students.
The magnitude of the journalism she achieved went under-recognized, to put it mildly. In her piece for the New Republic, Kim describes her realization that the book was going to be sold as a memoir, because she’s a woman:
I tried to push back. “This is no Eat, Pray, Love,” I argued during a phone call with my editor and agent.
“You only wish,” my agent laughed.
But that was the whole point. I did not wish that my book were Eat, Pray, Love. As the only journalist to live undercover in North Korea, I had risked imprisonment to tell a story of international importance by the only means possible. By casting my book as personal rather than professional—by marketing me as a woman on a journey of self-discovery, rather than a reporter on a groundbreaking assignment—I was effectively being stripped of my expertise on the subject I knew best. It was a subtle shift, but one familiar to professional women from all walks of life. I was being moved from a position of authority—What do you know?—to the realm of emotion: How did you feel?
And then there were the other journalists who accused her of writing a “kiss-and-tell memoir,” Kim writes: “In their eyes, it seemed, I was a memoirist treading on journalistic turf, a Korean schoolteacher who sold out her students for a quick buck.”
Ki was also shocked, she says, by the the condescending reviews, which accused her of “betraying” her students or colleagues. The Chicago Tribune worried that her students would be endangered by the “memoir”:
Kim clearly believes the good knowledge can do outweighs the risk. Her memoir, if nothing else, is a reminder of the costs of such work. Her portraits of her students are tender and heartbreaking, highlighting the enormity of what is at stake.
The risk to her students was a slight possibility that Kim directly acknowledged, arguing that exposing the situation in the country was essential. (She also masked the identities of her students, assigning them pseudonyms.) Kim was forced to defend the book again to the New York Times, explaining why she “hid her intentions,” as the paper put it.
While promoting the book, Kim remembers numerous interactions at readings where someone—“often white, often male, inevitably hostile”—would challenge her work, claiming North Korea wasn’t that bad. Her Asian-ness, her status as an immigrant, her accent—all of them seemed to prove to these critics that she couldn’t possibly know what she was doing:
Some even denounced me, a South Korean woman, as someone who had merely returned “home” to North Korea; to them, I hadn’t gone undercover at all. Which is another way of saying that what I had written was personal, and therefore by definition not authoritative.
She adds, dryly, “As an Asian female, I find that people rarely assume I’m an investigative journalist; even after I tell them, they often forget.”
It’s a fascinating and enraging look at the backstory behind an essential book; it’s also a familiar story to female journalists, whose work is often bundled into the tiniest, most inconsequential box, where it can’t possibly make anyone feel threatened or outshone.
Kim during a March 2015 TED talk. Screenshot via TED.