The Rumpus Interview with Suki Kim

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Suki Kim spent half a year trapped in North Korea. As an English teacher at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, she was confined to a walled campus along with 270 elite students. Her months there coincided with the last of Kim Jong-Il’s life, but she didn’t know that then. No one did. Despite being the most powerful young men in the nation, PUST’s students were barred from even hearing news of their own families. They spent their days playing basketball, singing anthems to their Great Leader, and watching Kim as she watched them back.

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, Kim’s tender, frightening account of that time, is the first book to reveal the lives of North Korea’s future leaders. (Read a Rumpus exclusive excerpt here.) This memoir isn’t the only dispatch Kim’s sent to mainstream America. Her debut book, 2003’s The Interpreter, is a novel that exposes the darkness of New York City’s Korean immigrant community. Taken together, Kim’s books explore memory, secrecy, and hope. They remind you that you can’t go home again but insist that you still try.

Kim and I met at a South Korean coffee shop in Times Square. The smashed-up cultures on display—Korean cashiers vending Parisian pastries in the ugly heart of New York City—made a strange backdrop for the copy of Without You, There Is No Us that rested on the table between us. The profound isolation Kim describes in her memoir stays with you, even when you’re talking in a crowded cafe on Broadway. Sitting across from me, a world away from Pyongyang, Kim shared where she’s coming from, where she’s headed, and what she’s left behind.

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The Rumpus: You’ve written that you’ve been obsessed with North Korea your whole life. Did the quality of that obsession change when you went there? Are you satisfied now?

Suki Kim: I’m not satisfied, but my obsession has changed with this book. I poured everything into this book that I’ve been carrying with me all my life. In a way, I’m not that curious right now. I’m not saying I know everything, but I got to know it as much as I could. I thought about it as much as I can. I went there five times and experienced it from different angles. I interviewed all those defectors, and I traveled all the surrounding regions, from China to Mongolia to Thailand to wherever the defectors go. I did this entire research in South Korea, interviewing every single organization. I lived in North Korea for six months. I don’t know what more I could learn about this topic at this point.

Rumpus: So then it’s not sad to think that you won’t be able to go back?

Kim: Sad on a human level. But I knew with those students that I will not see them again. I felt so in love with them and motherly towards them, but in reality I’m not their mother—and the fact that I wrote about them does create a certain distance. I loved them when I was there, and I love them still, but it would be in a way disingenuous to pretend that I did not write about them as subjects.

Rumpus: Will your next book be nonfiction?

Kim: No, I have a novel finished that needs a heavy revision. That was actually finished during the researching of this book, but I was pursuing this book so heavily. I guess I can’t multitask. It was hard to focus on this, which is nonfiction brain with a political topic, and a novel, which is fiction brain. Travel between fiction and nonfiction is jarring. Some people can do both at the same time, but I found it really difficult to maneuver between the two. Anytime I could cover the North Korean topic, I would have to drop fiction, because North Korea won’t wait.

Rumpus: This story does feel so urgent. Was it written quickly?

Kim: The notes were. I had to write them there. I usually wrote at dawn for a few hours, and then at night, like a diary. Afterwards, I fine-tuned the writing, and I found that some language seemed—it’s like writing under adrenaline. That intensity comes through in the work. Fixing it took a while, but I wouldn’t say even that took that long. The Interpreter, my first novel, also didn’t take that long—its first draft was written in seven months—but there’s something about shaping a book that takes such a long time for me. Something about the character has to be formed. Suzy in The Interpreter was a very complex character, and it took a long time to arrive at that voice. And this one, although it’s memoir and it’s me, it’s also not me, in a way. The idea for this book really began in 2002, when I first went to North Korea. To arrive at this person, there is this germination. That takes a long time.

Rumpus: What do you mean when you say this character is you but not you?

suki-kim-new-bookKim: It’s hard to describe. It’s almost like I had to get to the most honest part of me. We always have this veneer or façade in some way—there is a sort of shield. But because this experience was so heartfelt, and goes back to my family history and heartbreak, there was a depth of honesty I had to get to. I had to shed layers and layers and layers in order to be as honest as I could be in the writing.

Humanizing North Korea was always the goal. It’s journalism, it’s all based on notes and investigation, but I had to deliver a human world. In order to do that with them, for these people to become people and the division to make sense, I had to do it with me, too—which is why in the book I am incredibly vulnerable. I cry a lot. I talk about the love interest or the difficulty of break-ups, things like that. The division of Korea was not just North and South. It’s millions of people missing each other. It’s mothers missing their sons and not being able to go to sleep, which is what I saw from my family. So it was really important that I had to miss someone, too. I was not just a journalist looking at my North Korean students as subjects; I was also experiencing a life of my own. To bare me to the reader took a lot of effort.

Rumpus: Did you achieve your goal? Have your readers connected to North Koreans as real people?

Kim: It seems so. I don’t think of the book as exposé. The point of the book is that these people in North Korea are real. I don’t care if they’re defectors or if they’re Workers’ Party leaders—they’re human beings. If you don’t look at them as real people, it’s very easy to think, “It’s an evil country and a lot of figures we can’t really relate to.” These archetypes don’t inspire you to care about them. But once we begin to look at them as real people, then it is important to understand the context. How did this happen?

It really goes back to the division—what was the Korean division? The history that we were told was such a one-dimensional story: the Korean civil war that Americans went to help. But that’s part two of the story! Part one was that America divided Korea. It was the United States that created the 38th parallel, and that part is never, never, ever being talked about. Once you care who these North Koreans are, then you question what was the division. Wait a minute—why were Americans there? Why are we there now, today, in South Korea?

When we do question what the division was, then we can begin to fathom what 75 million people missing each other might mean. This is a very horrific portrait of this society. We are talking about people who got separated in 1953 and never…A whole generation, my grandmother’s generation, every one of them died missing somebody for the rest of their life who is just on the other side of the border. This is also a culture that went through the war in 1950, and right before that they were colonized by Japan for 35 years. There’s a sort of powerlessness and obedience. My grandmother’s generation was just waiting for Korea to unify. It’s not like there were two countries—they don’t know why this war happened. As much as it’s now painted as some sort of tribal fight, no, it was actually a kingdom with a 5,000-year-old history. There was no North and South Korea, historically. That generation just took it like it’s going to open. It never did. And everyone died. I couldn’t imagine anything more horrifying than knowing someone is just on the other side, maybe an hour away, and you can’t get to them, and 60 years pass. This is actually real people feeling that sorrow for so long. Missing someone, longing for someone, your child or your husband or your mother, what does that mean for a generation? That’s how Korea is today. These are the descendants of that very recent time.

Now it’s as if what we consider evil of North Korea has overtaken the actual sorrow of the division. The existence of North Korea is horrific, but there’s also the process that has led to this. By bringing in my personal history, I wanted the reader to question that. It’s like falling in love—you want to know their history once you’ve fallen in love. Up until then, it’s like… oh, he’s cute. [laughs] It’s only then you’re like, “I want to see the house you grew up in. What were you like when you were seven?” That’s the world that I wanted to bring out in a reader. You only question it once you begin to care.

Rumpus: You describe so well the fear and constraint you were under while you were there. Do you still feel that fear now, or did it go away once you left North Korea?

Kim: No, it goes away. It’s odd how that goes away… it’s more odd when you go there how quickly you adjust to that system. It’s human instinct, survival instinct. I was actually thinking today… you know how it’s so cold suddenly, and we put on a coat so naturally? As if it’s always been cold. And it’s really hard to remember the summer. It’s a little like that. Your body remembers. Coming back, you adjust so quickly.

What is always daunting when you come out of North Korea is the abundance of the world. How rich it is outside. The light. Even the cups that people throw out. They just have nothing there. That is heartbreaking.

I felt that last time. I always fly back through South Korea, because I have to see family. South Korea’s airport is one of the best airports in the world—they have a sauna in the airport. Their duty free is known as literally the best in duty free. And you just truly can’t believe it. Truly you feel like there’s got to be no God. If God existed, how is this possible? That place has nothing, nothing, nothing, and just a little bit away you have the 13th richest country in the world. It makes you feel a bit dirty for letting it happen. Is this really the best we can do as human beings? There’s gulags and people dying of malnutrition, 80% are experiencing food shortages, and right next to it is a land of plenty. It feels unconscionable to be part of the outside world.

Rumpus: The end of your author’s note, the very last bit of the book, acknowledges that the book will cause distress to the university and the regime but explains that you felt you had an obligation to write it. That seems like something many memoirists think but not everyone says. Why did you include it?

Kim: The university had already gotten in touch with me incredibly upset, so I felt like I owed them some acknowledgement. I also genuinely felt bad, to be honest. This book had to be written, but I can see why they would be upset. They invited me there. Some of them were incredibly kind to me. They didn’t want any book to be written about the place. At the same time—one can’t really justify, though I guess that’s what I’m doing—they shook hands with the North Korean regime. The school is a propaganda. It presents a whitewashed image of a North Korean school with the most perfect-looking students, sons of the party leaders, the crème de la crème of North Korean youth. If that’s what they have agreed to present to the rest of the world in order to convert North Koreans to Christianity one day, then they must expect that some cost will follow. Still, I don’t, I generally just don’t hurt people, on purpose or not on purpose. That aspect is something I’m still uncomfortable with. I personally didn’t want to hurt anybody. And I think I owe them that for having gone in there with them, whatever their own agenda was.

Rumpus: In the book, you describe leaving South Korea as a child and feeling strangely at home when you first visited North Korea in 2002. It must have been so jarring to move to the US. And it was all of a sudden, right? You moved in the middle of the night?

Kim: Right. [laughs] You can see The Interpreter. Oh my God—

Rumpus: Is that scene from the novel very similar to how it happened?

78Kim: Yes. Yes. The middle of the night, fleeing home. Ending up in America very suddenly. I really did not speak a word of English. My parents lost all their money, so I went from very rich to very poor overnight also. My home, the country—everything I ever recognized was gone instantly. That happened when I was 13, which is a very sensitive age. Because I was a child, it’s not my choice; I think that’s a big thing. Something happened to you which makes you feel powerless. The world disappears and you’re powerless to it.

That’s what I related to with the Korean division. This was a division people of Korea didn’t choose. It really was superpowers, Russia and the United States, that created that division historically. Your entire life is forever changed because of it, with a huge side effect, which is basically your heart, a sense of home, grounding. That is really at the core of the Korean division, which is probably why I did identify with it when I first went to North Korea. There was something that I recognized.

Rumpus: You always wanted to be a writer, even when you were a young girl in Korea. I wonder about the transition between this girl who wanted to be a writer in Korean and then this woman who’s a writer in English. When did one become the other? When did you start writing in English? Or do you write in Korean as well?

Kim: Never. I didn’t ever study writing in college because I didn’t think that I could, but in my twenties I realized that I could possibly create in a foreign language. And it is still a foreign language.

Rumpus: In both your books, you talk about Korean words having an impact that English words don’t have. In this book you say they pierce the heart.

Kim: To me, right away, when I think about winter, it actually in my heart is a Korean word. It’s a very basic feeling. I do talk about that here. I talk about it in The Interpreter. English doesn’t move me the same way. My head goes before my heart. There’s a constant sense of conflict, tension, when it’s something that in some way doesn’t come naturally. At least to me.

Rumpus: Do you think that helps your writing?

Kim: I don’t know because I feel like I didn’t get a chance to become a writer in Korean. There’s what could have been, always. What should have been. It again goes back to the division because I think those people are always questioning what should have been and what could have been. And I feel like I’ve spent my life doing it. What could have been.

I remember when The Interpreter came out in Korean language. I was actually giving an interview, and I hadn’t seen the book yet. When I finally held that book in Korean, I burst into tears. I always wanted to be a writer and I always in my mind was going to be a writer where my book is in my language. I did become that, here I am giving an interview, but I had to travel so far, write in a different language, then that gets translated into Korean. The interviewer asked, “Why are you crying?” It was a hard thing to try to explain. It was a little bit like—I felt America was like my stepmother. It is my mother figure, but I’m never, never forgetting the fact that it’s a stepmother. Somehow, something about giving an interview in Korean made me feel like I was with my mom again.

It’s a circle I was trying to make, but it’s not a circle. This Korean book I was holding in my hand was not a perfect circle. It wasn’t a book I wrote in my language. Everything got into somewhere else. I kept having to travel somewhere else to arrive at home.

Rumpus: Both of your books also have in common—you went undercover of a sort when you were researching The Interpreter, right? You worked as an interpreter.

Kim: Right. Oh my God. [laughs] I had no idea. That didn’t occur to me, oh my God, it’s so creepy.

Rumpus: Creepy that I asked that or creepy to think about?

Kim: No, it’s so creepy that that never occurred to me. But you’re right. You’re right.

Rumpus: It seems like it would have been an extremely different situation. Was your mindset similar at all?

Kim: Yes, my mindset was very similar. I was always very discreet. I never talked about the book. I just observed. A lot of people knew me as an interpreter—I did it for a long time, for a year. I think they were shocked when the book came out. Undercover by definition is lying, isn’t it? You’re pretending—passing yourself off as someone else. But what I found was in order to understand something, you can’t say you’re writing a book. Everything changes. Absolutely everything changes. Especially with North Korea, there was no way that could have happened with their permission, it would be a press release.

For The Interpreter, every interpreting session felt like research. A lot of it went straight into the book. At these depositions, I was always observing the dynamic between the lawyer and the person who’s being questioned, the subtleties that are involved. When you have to be translating a language, you are traveling two worlds constantly. The Interpreter was a really fascinating experience because I was actually the only one who knew what was going on, the only one who knew both languages. It was a position of power and truth.

There is something very similar about it. I didn’t even think about that. Writing and researching this book was very difficult because I was with missionaries, hardcore missionaries. Very fundamental Evangelicals. I think I only got away with it because they were pretending not to be missionaries so they weren’t out in the open. It was very, very hard. It was such a concentrated time. They were meant to be my colleagues. I had to just be discreet, and observe.

Rumpus: I don’t want to ask about the content of the new novel you’re working on, but did you go undercover for that?

Kim: No. No. I don’t think so, at least, but now I have to check. [laughs]

Now it’s coming back to me that I might actually be good at it because I spent my formative years not speaking a word of English. We kept moving. I went through all the worst schools in Queens and Jersey City. It felt like a horrible injustice. Some of these places had ESL classes, and you’d think all the immigrants would get along, but then I was actually a really rich girl in Korea, so there was a class difference. I was so used to being an outsider. Those many years I didn’t speak the language, just didn’t fit in either among English speakers or among Koreans, I was just invisible. So I think it’s possible that those were years of learning how to disappear. And observe. I think when you keep your mouth shut and watch, a lot happens.


Julia Phillips has written fiction and essays for Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, The Brooklyn Quarterly, The Morning News, The Cut, and Jezebel. She's working on a short-story collection about Kamchatka. Find her on Twitter @jkbphillips. More from this author →