A Note on the Ethics
of Writing This Book
A recent article in the New York Times reports that James Kim, the president and founder of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), has “denounced” me for “breaking a promise” not to write about my experiences there. Subsequently, several people on Twitter have accused me of putting both students and teachers at the university in danger by writing about them. The questions they raise are serious, and I would like to address them.
There is a long tradition of “undercover” journalism—pretending to be something one is not in order to be accepted by a community and uncover truths that would otherwise remain hidden. In some cases, this is the only way to gain access to a place. North Korea, described only recently by the BBC as “one of the world’s most secretive societies,” is such a place.
Since 2002, I have traveled to North Korea five times. The first three times, my experience was similar: the prescribed story was handed to me with a press package. The goal of my handlers was clear: I was to sell the North Korean regime’s propaganda, functioning more as publicist than an investigative journalist. In pieces that I wrote for Harper’s and the New York Review of Books, I did my best to go beyond the propaganda. Yet each time I came away feeling that writing a meaningful story about the DPRK was impossible unless I could find some way to be “embedded” there. When I learned of the opportunity to teach at PUST, the only privately-run university in North Korea, I saw it as a way to gain a deeper understanding of how the regime indoctrinates young people, especially in the upper echelon of society.
I did not break any promises. I applied to work at PUST under my real name. I was not asked to sign and did not sign any kind of confidentiality agreement, nor did I ever promise not to write about PUST. President Kim was aware that I had previously written a novel about a girl who had emigrated to the US from South Korea, and he and other PUST administrators could at any time have done a simple internet search and pulled up my articles about North Korea, which might have put an end to my teaching aspirations. But they did not, and I did not disclose my intentions, because I believed it was more important to expose the suffering of North Koreans today.
President Kim told the New York Times reporter that he and his colleagues are not missionaries. It is true that they conduct themselves very differently from the two American missionaries, Jeffrey Fowle and Kenneth Bae, who were recently detained by the North Korean government. Those men entered the country on tourist visas but then engaged in proselytizing activities, which are illegal in the DPRK. Staffers at PUST, on the other hand, cooperate with the regime, which is fully aware that almost all of them are evangelical Christians. Staffers understand that they are not permitted to proselytize, and they do not. (Two colleagues I trust told me that in the early days of PUST, a teacher was deported, not detained, for handing out scripture in the men’s bathroom, but I cannot confirm whether that is true. In any case, I have not heard of any other transgressions.)
I call them missionaries not only because they are deeply religious, but also because all that I have read and observed about President Kim and my colleagues suggests to me that their long-term goal is to convert North Koreans. PUST has a sister school in China called YUST (Yunbyun University of Science and Technology) where most of the professors are also Christian. Although they are not permitted to “witness” on campus, some have invited students home for dinner and read Bible verses with them. The cost of building PUST has been estimated to be $35 million, and its construction and continuing operations are almost entirely funded by evangelical Christians.
The result is this: evangelical Christians from the United States, South Korea, and other countries around the world bankroll the education of many of North Korea’s future leaders, the sons of the elite, in cooperation with the regime, following its strictures. In return, they gain a foothold in a nation that is, to their minds, ripe for conversion. The fact that President Kim will not openly say that does not mean it is not true. And none of it benefits the remaining 25 million North Koreans, who are far less privileged than the students at PUST. With this book, my goal was to humanize North Korea in hopes that the outside world would come to care more deeply about the suffering of its inhabitants, and to do everything possible to help bring about change.
The moral obligation I feel is not to PUST’s educators but to the students there. A journalist has a duty to protect anybody who could be compromised by her reporting, and I did my best to protect my students. Not only did I change their names, I blurred their identities, even though it got in the way of portraying them as unique, and uniquely lovable, individuals. Because of this, I am confident that they cannot be individually identified. Perhaps more important, as readers of my book will see, they were not rebels but obedient servants of the regime.
The gist of the negative emails and Twitter messages that I have been receiving seems to be that I have blood on my hands. I disagree. The blood, I believe, is on the hands of all of us who sit back, debating the moral guidelines of journalism, waiting for North Korea’s permission to tell North Korea’s truth according to North Korea. There are so few unfiltered portraits of life inside North Korea, and our understanding of this brutal nation remains dismal.
Meanwhile, in the seven decades since Korea was divided, millions have died from persecution and hunger. Today’s North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation, keeping its people hostage under the Great Leader’s maniacal and barbaric control, depriving them of the very last bit of humanity.
So what are our alternatives? How much longer are we going to sit back and watch? To me, it is silence that is indefensible.