Four years ago journalist Suki Kim travelled to North Korea where she would spend months teaching English to university students from the families of the elite. She documented her time there and was unsettled by just how pervasive the influence of the North Korean government is. She found students cut off from the outside world and fearful when they accidently let on that they knew anything about life beyond their home country.
Excerpts from an interview with Mark Colvin of Australian Broadcasting Corporation:
SUKI KIM: I ate every meal with my students, three times a day. And their knowledge is incredibly limited only about the ‘Great Leader’ and also everybody’s watching everyone, so even if they did know some things that they’re not supposed to know, they can’t ever show it.
MARK COLVIN: There’s a moment when one of them tells you he loves to sing rock and roll songs, and then what happens?
SK: He just stopped, you know. He just lowered his face and he looked around instantly to see who might have heard him because there, everybody’s watching everyone. And the pure fear that I saw on his face. … normally they’re supposed to say they only sing songs about the ‘Great Leader’ or about friendship.
MC: And they had access to computers but no access the outside world, only a sort of intranet rather than an internet.
SK: Right, they thought the internet was intranet. By the end of my stay, not all of them realized, but some of them realized there was some difference. … And these were the students of science and technology.
MC: And there was an extraordinary moment where you actually showed them a couple of Western movies. First of all, how were you allowed to do that?
SK: Well, we were allowed one movie a semester, which was meant to be Narnia, and Narnia was actually rejected by the North Korean side because they thought that Narnia was chosen for a religious connotation.
MC: A Christian allegory.
SK: Right, well the school was set up by evangelical Christians. So they had presented that movie as an option, but the school rejected that. Amazingly my students knew what Harry Potter was [as] it was mentioned in the text book as something incredibly popular in the rest of the world. So … I was allowed to show that to one group of my students and … I thought they would be amazed by the special effects actually. I’d been teaching essay writing to my students which ended up being really impossible because essays are about actually coming up with your own argument and proving it with evidence, which is critical thinking, and they really couldn’t do it. So essay became this headache classroom lesson. And in that movie Harry Potter there’s a scene where Hermione says, I have to write an essay for Professor Snape’s class, and she rolls her eyes, and they realized that she also didn’t like writing essays. And my students really connected with that moment and they couldn’t believe there was a girl outside in the outside world who also were writing essays. So I think that moment was really special and also heartbreaking for me, realizing that’s what they really want, as 19 year old kids, to connect with the outside world, which their country will never let them.