Seven years ago Suki Kim took an unpaid job teaching English to the sons of the North Korean elite at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
She had been visiting North Korea since 2002, and in 2011, with a book contract in tow, the novelist and investigative journalist spent six terrified months there, making notes for what would become her 2014 book, Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite.
Kim, who was born and raised in South Korea, and had moved to the United States in her teens to study, is a Guggenheim fellow, author of the award-winning novel The Interpreter. and contributing editor at The New Republic. She is appearing at Dalkey Book Festival on June 15th, after the date for the possible summit between the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and President Donald Trump, which may or may not take place on June 12th, in Singapore.
For the 270 19-year-old boys she taught in 2011, the summit is “going to be all about the Great Leader”, she says. “I’m sceptical. There is a real amnesia or a blind spot. The fear of war is so great here in the Korean peninsula. It’s complicated. I’m really struggling with what’s beneath all this pretence.
“Suddenly Kim Jong-un’s a good guy? What changed? He was a mass murderer, and now he’s just the opposite, and there is something really disturbing about that. Media are saying now how utterly charming and normal North Korea is. It’s not. It has never been a normal country. North Korea doesn’t have the basic human rights for its citizens.
“But this is about wanting to believe that peace is possible – peace for the world, not just for North Korean citizens. There is a complicity in pretending North Korea is not as bad as it really is. We are shaking hands with a gulag system just so they don’t threaten us any more.
“We want to believe they became good guys overnight and will get rid of all the nuclear weapons and everyone will live happily ever after. But in that equation there is no consideration for North Korean citizens and their human rights.”
What about the moment when Kim Jong-un took the president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, back across the demilitarised zone into North Korea?
“I don’t know if I was really moved the way the rest of the world seemed to be, I guess because everything had been moving towards that since Moon Jae-in took office. We had the whole Winter Olympics fiasco, with all those young North Korean ‘beauties’ coming over and becoming the centre of attention. Who remembers anything else about the Pyeongchang Olympics? It was a public-relations moment for North Korea.
“The positive media spin has been going nonstop, so by the time Kim Jong-un met Moon Jae-in it was almost expected. Everything was so orchestrated. Ten years ago, when the New York Philharmonic played in Pyongyang, the media also went wild. People get so little out of North Korea it’s like that when something happens: the media feel a need to compensate. Somehow scepticism goes out the window.
“Money is driving this new closeness, but it is also Moon Jae-in, because what they are trying has been attempted in the past, but it didn’t work.
“And Trump is another factor. It’s moving so fast because all three leaders need it so desperately. The nuclear test in November meant they had to make a deal, and it’s not like they were actually going to go to war. They made the last possible war threat, so the next step is negotiation.
“All three leaders really need it, and that’s what making the moment possible. But it doesn’t mean North Korea has changed, because those are two different things, even though it’s something the world would love to believe.”
What about the Irish peace process as a model? The North Koreans dislike the German unification model, as it means they would cease to exist.
“It’s certainly not going towards reunification, because reunification is basically just another word for regime change, isn’t it? What other option is there? The other option would be to somehow coexist with a lot of animosity. The Irish model would be an interesting option, if they thought it was a good idea. That would depend on North Korea, as always.”
Do people in South Korea really like Trump now because of the negotiations and possible summit?
“People in South Korea don’t really care about Trump, but they care that this is happening. Everyone’s in it for themselves. America doesn’t care about the summit; they just really don’t want North Korea having nuclear weapons that can reach their country. All the South Koreans care about is peace in their peninsula.”
Could China’s opening up and reform be a model?
“In theory North Korea is modelled after China and Stalin. It’s like a combo of Mao and Stalin. North Korea is a different animal from China. They had three generations of leadership who were kings with a God-like mandate, and they never had an elected leadership. It’s so much smaller, and the level of control is different. The whole personality cult is an entirely different system from China.”
What does Suki Kim hope will be the outcome of the talks, if they happen?
“North Korea’s system will pretend to change as long as they get the money. They have done that very well for decades. And the rest of the world can pretend to believe them just to keep the temporary peace going. That’s how relationships have been.
“But fundamental changes? I don’t see how that’s possible. North Korea has to change fundamentally, because it’s not a fit place for a human being to exist in any civilised way.”
What is she really expecting from the talks?
“I think the summit will be a very dramatic theatre. You have the world’s two biggest narcissists meeting together, and both very dramatic, too, so it’s going to be a show. I don’t know how any of that would be relevant. The song and dance can continue, but in reality I don’t see much changing.
“You will see a flurry of joint projects, where South Korea gives economic help to North Korea, just like the ‘sunshine policy’ in the past. All it means is giving money to North Korea.
“Look at the Kaesong joint industrial zone, with South Korean firms operating in the North; all the money that was generated there benefited the North Korean government, but it didn’t open up anything, because it’s an isolated city. It was nothing to do with the rest of North Korea.
“Kim is not a reformer, because he doesn’t want the system to change. The North Korean system runs on absolute control, and it’s directly linked to the regime. Why would he threaten the regime? It would be suicide. It would directly question the legitimacy of his own power.”
Suki Kim is at Dalkey Book Festival on June 15th, at 2.30pm, discussing Undercover in North Korea with Matt Cooper. She will also participate in a panel discussion at 7pm that day, Has #MeToo Gone Too Far or Not Far Enough? with the author Lionel Shriver (who is interviewed in today's Ticket supplement); www.dalkeybookfestival.org