“The level of fear is unimaginable.” —author Suki Kim

In 2011, American journalist Suki Kim secured a job teaching English at an all-male university in North Korea. Pyongyang University of Science and Technology had just 270 students, all of whom were the sons of North Korean elites.

Kim spent six months at the college, recording notes for what would become her 2014 book, Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.

Four months ago, after North Korea had conducted yet another missile test, I reached out to Kim by phone. (The latest North Korea missile test was conducted around 3:17am local time on Wednesday.) Her perspective is valuable and rare; few Americans have spent much time on the ground there. I wanted to know what daily life was like for average citizens of North Korea, the world’s most reclusive country.

“The level of fear is unimaginable,” she told me. “It’s possible to be both happy and terrified all at once, and I think that’s the case for many North Koreans.”

Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Sean Illing

Tell me how you ended up in North Korea in the first place.

Suki Kim

Well, I was born and raised in South Korea, with family separated on both sides of the line, so I understood the layered depths of tragedy that divided Korea. In 2002, I had spent about eight days in North Korea as part of an aid organization and was utterly devastated by what I witnessed. After that, I returned a couple more times, trying to understand this world from the inside.

 Courtesy of Suki Kim
Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport. The woman is holding a sign that reads “The Sun Read More Here