North Korean students look out from behind cardboard used to form a background picture ahead of a mass gymnastic performance.
North Korean students look out from behind cardboard used to form a background picture ahead of a mass gymnastic and artistic performance in Pyongyang, July 26, 2013.
Jason Lee / Courtesy Reuters

In that relentless vacuum, nothing moved. No news came in or out. No phone calls, no emails, no letters, no ideas not prescribed by the regime. Thirty missionaries disguised as teachers and 270 male North Korean students and me, the sole writer disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher. Locked in the prison disguised as a campus in an empty Pyongyang suburb, heavily guarded around the clock, all we had was one another.

In July 2011, on my third day at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. The students collectively showed up at dinner around 7 p.m., far later than the scheduled 6:30 p.m. arrival. This was unusual since their timing had been exact until then. When I sat down with a few and asked why they were late, they looked nervous and hedged. Then I saw six students wearing khaki army uniforms rather than shirts and ties, and asked the others why. “They’re on duty,” one said. The rest lowered their heads and stared at their food. I asked them what kind of duty, but they would not answer. So I made a joke of it and said, “They look older in uniform, like fine young gentlemen!” At this, their faces softened, and they seemed to forget whatever they might have done that afternoon to make them so tense. The word gentleman always made them blush and giggle.

Teachers in this tiny, locked compound were like superstars. The students competed to sit with us at all three meals. For them, we seemed to be everything—walking English dictionaries, a window to the outside world. Although we were forbidden to tell them anything, they knew we had the answers. Some were bold enough to approach me directly and ask, “Professor, would you care to join me?” Others were so shy that we had to assign them to eat with us.

We had been warned against sitting with the same students more than once. We were told it was so that the students would have an equal chance to practice their English, but it also appeared that the school authorities did not want us to get close to any particular one.

The students usually led the conversation. “How can I learn English better, Professor?” was the question I heard at almost every meal. They admitted to being a bit daunted by the different accents they heard at the school. For example, one of my colleagues, Joan, who was in her 70s and originally from Alabama, spoke with an accent that was very unfamiliar to them, and they found it quite difficult to understand her. One student asked whether an American or British accent would be more advantageous for his future. It was a valid question, although I did not know in what capacity they were expected to use English, when so few North Koreans were allowed to travel.

Students rarely deviated from safe topics, but there were, of course, some moments when we let our guards down. My fourth day at the school was one student, Park Jun-ho’s, 20th birthday, and he was in high spirits. He began teasing Choi Min-jun, his roommate, at the dinner table. He told me that Min-jun was known among the boys as the serious one, and they often called him a “romantic.” Min-jun became embarrassed and waved his hands in denial. He said Jun-ho was always jesting, and that he regretted telling Jun-ho about his pretty younger sister, who was 16, because Jun-ho had said that if they ever met, he would say to her, “You just wait for me.”

They all cracked up at this. After all, their only interaction with the opposite sex was with their foreign teachers or the guards who occupied the lower floors of their dormitory. Dr. Joseph, our liaison with our North Korean counterparts, told me that initially the school had wanted to bring in male guards, but they felt that they might appear too threatening to the foreigners. With female guards, there were instead concerns that the boys might be distracted, but it turned out that they were from such different social strata that the boys pretty much ignored them. Thus, for the moment, girls and casual dating were just a fantasy. Jun-ho said, “Maybe Min-jun’s sister is pretty, but I bet she’s too shy for me.” It was then that quiet Ryu Jung-min at the table leaned in and said, “But the really funny thing is that this boy talks like this, but he has never had a girlfriend in his life! He is a disaster with girls!”

At the mention of Jun-ho’s disastrous ways with girls, all four of us burst out laughing. Disaster would become a favorite word for the boys that summer, almost a private joke. They loved saying it under any circumstances—sometimes they would say “disaster food,” or that an exam had been a disaster.

University students slide into a swimming pool at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang April 11, 2012.
University students slide into a swimming pool at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang April 11, 2012.
Bobby Yip / Reuters
At such moments, it was as though we were sitting in any school cafeteria anywhere. They were simply college students who were interested in the one thing most boys their age were interested in: girls. At moments like those, I forgot where I was. I would look across at their mischievous faces and feel pleased and relaxed until my eyes would catch the shining metal pins on their chests, the eternally present face of their Eternal President, there on each of their hearts, marking his territory.

During that first week, I kept noticing things that bothered me. Once we asked the students to put together a skit, and they chose to write about two Canadian teachers going to a local hospital. One of them was injured so the other offered to sell his blood to help him, but they discovered that medical care was free due to the solicitude of the Great General Kim Jong-il.

Katie, my TA, pointed out to them that this made no sense, since 1) a foreign teacher would be allowed only in a foreign hospital, which was not free; 2) people generally are not paid for donating blood; and 3) emergency rooms do not require patients to pay up front. The students became puzzled and said, “Well, okay, the friend who is not injured needs to tell the wife of the injured one, so he goes to the airport to fly to Canada to let her know.” Katie asked why he wouldn’t just call the wife instead of flying all the way to Canada. And on it went. Each answer depressed us further, because it was plain that a simple thing like calling a family member in a foreign country was inconceivable to them.

Another time, we played a game called Truth or Lie. We asked students to come up with two true statements about themselves and one false one, and the rest of the class had to guess which was which. When one student got up and said, “I visited China last year on vacation,” the whole class burst out laughing and shouted, “False!” They all knew that this was impossible.

Then another student said, “When I was a child, I ate tough beef,” and many students nodded and shouted out, “True!” I recalled a defector telling me that the first time he ate beef, it was strangely leathery. According to him, during the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, hardly anyone was buying beef, and the rumor was that Australia, instead of throwing aged meat out, had given it to the people of North Korea. It was entirely possible that my elite students had eaten this very beef. Indeed, many of them already had at least a few gray hairs. Perhaps it was the lack of nutrition, even for these privileged young men.

At times my students revealed a cluelessness that surprised me. Once a student asked me if it was true that everyone in the world spoke Korean. He had heard the Korean language was so superior that they spoke it in America, China, and England. I did not know what to say. Perhaps he was testing me to see if I would contradict all he had learned thus far and would later report me. Or maybe he was just curious. So I took the safe road: “Well, let me see, in China, they speak Chinese, and in England and the United States, they speak English, the way we speak Korean in Korea. However, I live in America and I speak Korean when I speak to my parents, so one might say that the Korean language does get spoken in America.”

Another time, a student asked me what my favorite food was. They often asked about my favorite flower, favorite sport, or favorite musical instrument. I wondered sometimes whether they had been given a list of safe questions. I soon learned to answer in the way I thought they expected. I liked tennis. I played piano. I enjoyed naengmyun, the Korean cold noodle that was popular in both Koreas but happened to be the regional specialty of Pyongyang. I did like naengmyun, but I could not tell them that I preferred pasta or soba noodles.

Sometimes a meal felt like an interrogation, either vocal or silent. Once, a student, who turned out to be a class secretary, motioned to another student to ask me a question. “Why must we write those letters?” the student asked, questioning a weekly assignment in which I had the students write me a letter about anything they wanted. His tone was suspicious. I had been expecting such a question for some time, and told them that a paragraph was the basis of any writing in English and that they must learn how to write it. I knew that the question must have come from the “counterparts.” The counterparts were the North Korean teaching staff that oversaw our lessons. Everything, from books to lesson plans, had to be approved by them before we could share it with students.

College students perform during an event celebrating the upcoming birthday celebrations of North Korea's late leader Kim Jong-il, which falls on February 16, at the People's Culture Palace in Pyongyang February 13, 2013

There were only a handful of times any student veered from the script. During our conversation about Park Jun-ho’s birthday party, one of the boys blurted out that he liked singing rock ’n’ roll, and then he turned red, quickly checking to see who might be listening. I had never seen anyone scan the room so fast, and the other students went quiet and looked down at their food. There was no explanation for such an instinctive reaction except for a sort of ingrained fear that I could never fathom.

In that fleeting moment, I realized that I had been waiting for that slip. It was even possible that I had engineered it. And when it came, the truth was so pathetic, just the revelation of a 19-year-old boy singing songs in his dorm room, yet for admitting that in public, he might now be in serious trouble.

This incessant circling around the boundary and our efforts not to breach it were exhausting. We wanted to discover things about one another, yet if we stumbled across such information, we both froze. I wanted to push them but not too much; to expose them to the outside world, but so subtly that no one would notice. Was this really conscionable? Awakening my students to what was not in the regime’s program could mean death for them and those they loved. If they were to wake up and realize that the outside world was in fact not crumbling, that it was their country that was in danger of collapse, and that everything they had been taught about the Great Leader was bogus, would that make them happier?

There were mornings when I looked out my window and stared at the wall that separated Pyongyang University of Science and Technology from the outside. Some teachers whispered that this was a five-star prison. We knew that we could never pass through the gate except when minders planned our outings down to the minute and accompanied us. Even in my room, I never felt free. This vigilance was so exhausting that I welcomed it when Sarah, a teacher from New Zealand came over one night and said, “Let’s see if the students would invite us to play soccer with them!”

Basketball and soccer, and sometimes volleyball, were the sports of choice among the students, for the obvious reason that the only equipment required was a ball. After dinner, they gathered and played either in the cement basketball court by their dormitory or in the grass field in the center of the campus. On hot July evenings, they played with a zeal I had not seen them show anywhere else. They shouted at each other in jest, burst into laughter, and sweated profusely. I often sat on a rock nearby and watched their heartbreaking youth and energy. I wished then that they could have the whole world, all of it, that which had been denied to them for 20 years of their lives, because none of them had any idea that as their bodies bounced, their minds stood so very still within that field in that campus locked away from time.

On that particular evening, Sarah and I walked past them and lingered, hoping for an invitation, until one of them asked, “Professor, would you like to play with us?” Sarah broke into a huge smile and said, “Yes!” and it was as easy as that. Surprisingly, the counterparts, who must have been informed, never intercepted her. Before we knew it, it became a ritual for Sarah to play with the students in the evenings. She had played back in college, just a few years ago. The boys were impressed. They weren’t used to playing with girls. But this wasn’t just any girl. This was one of the first foreigners they had ever met. Their professor, no less. They loved the novelty of it, and Sarah became a mini-star on campus.

During a break in the game, Sarah came up to me and said, “Oh, I feel good being here now, really good, I could really imagine living here.” The boys must have felt just as relaxed because some who had been standing in front of the big gray building across the road walked over to watch as well. They were wearing the same uniform Choi Min-jun had been wearing a few nights ago at dinner. “So why are you wearing that?” I asked casually. “Oh, we guard our Kimilsungism Study Hall,” one said. I learned that, from dinnertime until breakfast, six boys took turns guarding the large, austere building into which students disappeared to study Juche, the ideology of Kim Il-Sung, in the afternoons. I could not imagine what could be inside that needed guarding; it seemed that their demonstration of devotion was itself the point. The mystery of the uniform was not that mysterious after all, so why had some of them been so afraid to tell us? Still later, I learned that the building they guarded each night, even in icy cold temperatures, consisted only of empty classrooms.

Of course, not all of us knew it then, but summer 2011 was a time of upheaval in North Korea. During my first week, at a staff meeting, the president of the university told us that every other university in the entire country had shut down. The reason Pyongyang University of Science and Technology had been spared, he said, was that the Great Leader “believed” in him personally. This bit of news was related to us with no further explanation, but it was consistent with outside reports that Kim Jong-un, the “Precious Leader,” was being positioned to take over for the 69-year-old Kim Jong-il, who had suffered a stroke in 2008, and that every university student had been taken out of school and sent to do construction work until April 2012, when the entire nation would celebrate Kim Il-sung’s 100th birthday.

I was not sure what to think. I wanted to know why my students had not been sent to do construction like the others, but there was no one I could ask. It wasn't until much later that I had a realization: These young men were from the upper echelon of North Korean society. The fathers of many of them were doctors and scientists. Of course they would not be sent to construction fields, but instead sent here, to a boarding school within their own city, where they could practice their English and wait for the political storm to pass. It was our job, then, to provide these sons of the North Korean elite with temporary sanctuary.

Adapted from WITHOUT YOU, THERE IS NO US: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite Copyright © 2014 by Suki Kim. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Random House LLC

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  • SUKI KIM is the author of The Interpreter and the recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Open Society fellowships.

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