Above the 38th parallel: Town Hall South speaker sheds light on North Korea
In North Korea, gathering any type of information beyond what the government feeds you is tantamount to spying.
“The punishment for that is unfathomable,” Suki Kim, who spent a year working undercover in the totalitarian regime, told the audience in the Upper St. Clair High School theater on Tuesday.
The award-winning journalist, who spoke for the Town Hall South lecture series, provided unparalleled insight to the secluded Asian nation, based on what she gathered in 2011 posing as a teacher at a school for the sons of North Korea’s elite.
And in a land where the truth typically is found to be lies, the name of the ostensible academic institution is a misnomer.
“It’s called Pyongyang University of Science and Technology,” Kim said, “but there were no science teachers. There were computer majors, but no computers,” at least for the majority of her tenure. “And they didn’t know what the Internet was.”
The native of South Korea wrote a best-selling book based on her experiences, “Without You, There Is No Us,” with the title based on a song of praise for The Great Leader.
Town Hall South announces its lineup of speakers for 2017-18, the 50th season for the lecture series:
• Marlee Matlin, Oct. 3. Matlin received critical acclaim for her film debut in “Children of a Lesser God,” for which she received the Academy Award for best actress. Having lost her hearing at 18 months old, Matlin has helped raise awareness for better hearing health for millions of deaf and hard-of-hearing children and adults in developing countries. In 2015, she developed “Marlee Signs,” the first celebrity-driven mobile app teaching the basics of American Sign Language.
• Michael Sandel, Nov. 7. A Harvard University political philosopher and author, Sandel, challenges audiences to examine ethical dilemmas that we confront in politics and our everyday lives. Sandel’s “Justice” course has enrolled more than 15,000 students and was the first Harvard course to be made freely available online and on public television. Through his book “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?”, Sandel has inspired public debate about numerous ethical and civic questions.
• Tom Gjelten, Dec. 5. Gjelten is a veteran journalist who covers a wide variety of economic and global-security issues for NPR News. During a 30-year career, he has covered wars in Central America, the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia, along with major stories in the United States. Gjelten’s latest book, “A Nation of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story,” tells about the transformation of the United States since the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.
• Theresa Payton, Feb. 6. As the first woman to serve as White House chief information officer, Payton oversaw information technology operations for President George W. Bush and his staff from 2006–08. She collaborated with IT expert and attorney Ted Claypoole to write two books focusing privacy protection, “Privacy in the Age of Big Data” and “Protecting Your Internet Identity.” Payton runs Fortalice LLC, a leading security, risk and fraud consulting company.
• Fabien Cousteau, March 6. As the first grandson of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Fabien spent his early years aboard his grandfather’s ships, learning how to scuba dive on his fourth birthday. Today, the aquanaut, business strategist and documentary filmmaker continues to fulfill his family’s legacy of protecting and preserving the planet’s extensive and endangered marine inhabitants and habitats. In 2016, he founded the Fabien Cousteau Ocean Learning Center, dedicated to the restoration of the world’s water bodies through active community engagement and education.
For information about series memberships, visit www.townhallsouth.org.
Like a nonfiction “1984” Big Brother, The Great Leader – the supposedly immortal Kim Il-sung, even though the first president of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea died in 1994 – is omnipresent. No one can go practically anywhere without seeing his portrait, often a late-in-life representation of his smiling, grandfatherly face, in chilling irony with regard to the landscape he created.
“It’s the most brutal nation. It has hundreds of thousands of people in the gulag system,” Suki Kim said about the rampant prison camps that have drawn comparison to those operated in 1930s-’40s Germany.
And North Korea is among the world’s poorest nations: The World Food Programme estimates that 70 percent of the population lacks reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
But the people who are starving have no idea about the possibility of a better life. North Koreans are prohibited from moving freely in their own country, let alone visit others.
And the information they do receive, all tightly controlled by the government, takes a page from the Dr. Goebbels playbook. Regarding the outcome of the stalemated Korean War, for example:
“They actually learn that The Great Leader won the war and conquered the United States,” Kim said. “That’s all they’ve known.”
Regarding her tenure at the “science and technology” school, she found it exceedingly difficult to provide any type of useful education, considering the material she was obligated to use.
“You cannot really teach anything if everything is a lie,” she said.
Risking the aforementioned unfathomable penalties, and despite being watched on a constant basis, Kim managed to record her observations within about 400 pages’ worth of notes that she stored on USB drives.
“I created a document within a document,” she explained about obfuscating the relevant text. “They real book began about Page 100.”
Kim often is asked why she put herself in so much danger for the sake of telling a story, and she replies with a brief history lesson: Following World War II, the United States and Soviet Union decided to split Korea, with its origins as a kingdom going back nearly 5,000 years, at the 38th parallel north.
“This is literally a line that got drawn one day, saying you can’t go over there,” she said. As a result, Korean families – hers is among them – were separated with, as the situation has stood for seven decades, no hope of being reunited.
“I think that’s ultimately what brought me to North Korea.”