Essay was a much-dreaded word among my students. It was the fall of 2011, and I was teaching English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea. Two hundred and seventy young men, and about 30 teachers, all Christian evangelicals besides me, were isolated together in a guarded compound, where our classes and movements were watched round the clock. Each lesson had to be approved by a group of North Korean staff known to us as the “counterparts.” Hoping to slip in information about the outside world, which we were not allowed to discuss, I had devised a lesson on essay writing, and it had been approved.
I had told my students that the essay would be as important as the final exam in calculating their grades for the semester, and they were very stressed. Each student was supposed to come up with his own topic and hand in a thesis and outline. When I asked them how it was going, they would sigh and say, “Disaster.”
I emphasized the importance of essays since, as scientists, they would one day have to write papers to prove their theories. But in reality, nothing was ever proven in their world, since everything was at the whim of the Great Leader. Their writing skills were as stunted as their research skills. Writing inevitably consisted of an endless repetition of his achievements, none of which was ever verified, since they lacked the concept of backing up a claim with evidence. A quick look at the articles in the daily newspaper revealed the exact same tone from start to finish, with neither progression nor pacing. There was no beginning and no end.
So the basic three- or five-paragraph essay—with a thesis, an introduction, a body paragraph with supporting details, and a conclusion—was entirely foreign to them. The idea they had the most difficulty comprehending was the introduction. I would tell them that it was like waving hello. How do you say hello in an interesting way, so that the reader is “hooked”? I offered many different examples, but still they would show up during office hours, shaking their heads and asking, “So this hook ... what is it?”
One morning, they shouted, “We beat Japan!” in unison as I walked into the classroom. Their national soccer team, Chollima, had just beaten Japan’s Samurai Blue team in a World Cup qualifying match. The match had taken place at Kim Il-sung Stadium and had been televised live.
Here, the rage against Japan remained as vivid as when Japan had colonized Korea more than half a century before. The students were exuberant, proudly telling me about Jong Tae-se, their national team’s striker, and another one of their players who had been scouted by Manchester United. They did not acknowledge the fact that Jong was in fact a third-generation Zainichi Korean, a term used for ethnic Koreans born, raised, and living in Japan whose loyalty lie with North Korea. In their eyes, Zainichi Koreans were Japanese, their sworn enemy, and yet at opportune moments they considered them North Koreans. I knew better than to comment on that.
“How exciting!” I said brightly. “Wouldn’t it be great if Chollima makes it to Brazil for the World Cup?” They all nodded, smiling.
It was not until later that day that I looked on the Internet (to which only the teachers were allowed access; the students were not aware of its existence) and learned that North Korea had already been knocked out, and the results had been announced some time ago. The match against Japan had to be played simply because it was a game owed. Either the students would not admit this, or they did not know the truth. Not only that, I learned that the game had not actually been televised live. Rather, it had been broadcast as soon as it ended, when the regime could be certain that their team had won. One student told me that it was very boring to watch only winning games. Moreover, no matter how hard I searched online, there was no mention of a North Korean footballer playing for Manchester United. As always, their government had sown misinformation, and my students’ claims lacked any basis in reality, so I could hardly expect them to back up their theses.
Instead of a lesson on sources, which was not possible there, I asked that they read a simple essay from 1997 that quoted President Bill Clinton on how important it was to make all schools wired. The counterparts had approved it because it related to our current textbook theme of college education. I hoped that they would grasp the significance of the Internet and how behind they were. I also gave them four recent articles—from the Princeton Review, the New York Times, the Financial Times, and Harvard Magazine—that mentioned Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook, and Twitter. None of the pieces evoked a response. Not even the sentence about Zuckerberg earning $100 billion from something he dreamed up in his college dorm seemed to interest them. It was possible that they viewed the reading as lies. Or perhaps the capitalist angle repelled them.
The next day, several students stopped by during office hours. They all wanted to change their essay topics. Curiously, the new topics they proposed all had to do with the ills of American society. One said he wanted to write about corporal punishment in American and Japanese middle schools. Another wanted to argue that the American government’s policy of deciding a baby’s future based on IQ tests should be forbidden. A third student wanted to write about the evils of allowing people to own guns so freely in America. A fourth student said biofuel was toxic and America was the biggest producer of it. A fifth wanted to change his topic to divorce. There was no divorce in the DPRK, but in America the rate was more than 50 percent, and divorce led to crime and mental illness, according to him. “So what happens when people are unhappy here after being married for a while?” I asked. The student looked at me blankly. Still another student wanted to write about how McDonald’s was horrible. The same student then asked me, “So what kind of food does McDonald’s make?”
One student asked me which country produced the most computer hackers; he had been taught that it was America. This question stumped me, especially since I had just seen a news item on CNN Asia about cybercrime by North Korea. Instead, I told him that computer crimes could be committed anywhere, by anyone, even a visitor, so it would be hard to pinpoint one country as the source.
Their collective decision to switch their essay topics to condemn America seemed to have been compelled by the articles about Zuckerberg. What I had intended as inspirational, they must have viewed as boasting and felt slighted. The nationalism that had been instilled in them for so many generations had produced a citizenry whose ego was so fragile that they refused to acknowledge the rest of the world.
My efforts to expand their awareness kept backfiring. When I had them write a paragraph about kimjang (the annual kimchi-making tradition), I was handed a pile of preachy, self-righteous tirades. Almost half the students claimed that kimchi was the most famous food in the world, and that all other nations were envious of it. One student wrote that the American government had named it the official food of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. When I questioned him, he said everyone knew this fact and that he could even prove it since his Korean textbook said so. A quick Internet search revealed that a Japanese manufacturer had claimed that kimchi was a Japanese dish and proposed it as an official Olympic food but had been denied. Somehow this news item had been relayed to them in twisted form and was now treated as general knowledge.
To correct my students on each bit of misinformation was taxing and sometimes meant straying into dangerous territory. A colleague said to me, “No way. Don’t touch that. If their book said it was true, you can’t tell them that it’s a lie.”
They would show up during office hours, shaking their heads and asking, “So this hook ... what is it?”
Sometimes they would ask why I never ate much white rice. They piled their trays with huge heaps of it at every meal, whereas I always put just a little on my tray. I explained that I liked white rice but did not care for it all the time. They asked what kinds of food I ate other than rice and naengmyun, their national dish. I couldn’t exactly go on about fresh fruit smoothies and eggs Benedict, so I named two Western dishes I knew they had heard of: spaghetti and hot dogs. I knew that North Koreans enjoyed their own version of sausage because I had seen them lining up for it at the International Trade Fair. One of the students then wrote in his kimjang homework, “Those Koreans who prefer hot dogs and spaghetti over kimchi bring shame on their motherland by forgetting the superiority of kimchi.” Nothing, it seemed, could break through their belligerent isolation; moreover, this attitude left no room for any argument, since all roads led to just one conclusion. I returned the paper to him with a comment: “Why is it not possible to like both spaghetti and kimchi?”
After several lessons on the essay, a student said to me at dinner, “A strange thing happened during our social science class this afternoon.”
They never volunteered information about their Juche class, so I listened intently.
The student continued, “We had to write an essay!” He explained that they normally wrote short compositions in Korean, and he had never thought of them as essays before, but now he did, and it made him feel strange.
“What was so strange?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, pausing thoughtfully. “I looked at it as an essay, and I realized that it was different now. Writing in English and writing in Korean are so different, but then it is also the same, and I kept thinking of the essay structure as I was writing it, and it made me feel strange.”
I did not question him further, but I thought I understood. It must have been deeply confusing to approach his writing on Juche like an essay. In his country there was no proof, no checks and balances—unless, of course, they wanted to prove that the Great Leader had single-handedly written hundreds of operas and thousands of books and saved the nation and done a miraculous number of things. Their entire system was designed not to be questioned and to squash critical thinking. So the form of an essay, in which a thesis had to be proven, was antithetical to their entire system. The writer of an essay acknowledges the arguments opposing his thesis and refutes them. Here, opposition was not an option.
I stared across at him and felt a familiar sick feeling. Perhaps this was only the beginning. The questions they would have. The questions they should be asking. The questions they would realize they had not been asking because they did not imagine they could, or because asking meant that they could no longer exist in their system.
Adapted from Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim. Copyright © 2014 by Suki Kim. Adapted by permission of Crown Publishers, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this adaptation may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Correction, Dec. 2, 2014: This article’s headline originally misstated that Suki Kim taught English to graduate students in Pyongyang. She taught English to college students.
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite
Twenty years after it began changing lives in other countries, the internet isn’t even a concept for the average North Korean—so much so that most people in the country of 25 million literally don’t know what they are missing.
And that’s by design.
One of the pillars of Kim Jong Un’s vise-grip on the lives of his people is propaganda: All news originates from the same government propaganda bureau, photographs and video of Kim are tightly coordinated, and there is absolutely no independent media. There’s no satellite TV, no foreign newspapers. Radios are fixed so they receive only domestic broadcasts. Illegally modifying a radio to tune stations from neighboring South Korea can land someone in jail. If widespread access were ever allowed, the internet would pose a massive threat to the regime.
But keeping it out completely would deprive the ruling regime of some important benefits. In a country that’s been hit by waves of sanctions, the internet can assist with international trade and communications. So in 2001, the government had a company called Sili Bank set up an email relay between Pyongyang and Shenyang, a border city in China. Messages were held in each city and exchanged in a batch once an hour at a cost of at least $1.50 per message. The line was upgraded to an always-on connection in 2006, but the system was still limited to email and restricted to official use by the government and major trading companies.
The first full-time, high-bandwidth internet connection started in 2010 when Star, a North Korean joint venture with Thailand’s Loxley Pacific, started offering service in Pyongyang to expats, the offices of foreign organizations, and some government officers and ministries
Because access to the service itself is physically restricted, there’s probably only a few tens of thousands of users at most. So the government doesn’t appear to bother devoting any resources to filtering or censorship. In fact, for a long time, visitors from China noted they could access sites like Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter with more ease in Pyongyang than they can in Beijing.
Since 2013, internet service has also been available to resident foreigners and visiting tourists through Koryolink, a national cellular operator that was launched in 2008 with Egypt’s Orascom Telecom. It has more than 2 million subscribers, but only foreigners get internet access. And it’s not cheap, either—it costs 10 euros for 50 megabytes of data. In contrast, $10 will buy 1 gigabyte of data on the T-Mobile network in the United States. Nevertheless, it has been valuable for North Korea watchers like me, as it has delivered some truly intriguing glimpses from tourists posting pictures as they travel. For instance, Jaka Parker, a worker at the Indonesian embassy, ran a popular Instagram account with photos from his daily life that included sights across Pyongyang and even Friday prayers at the Iranian embassy’s mosque. Some foreigners have even live-streamed from the city. But perhaps because of this, earlier this year Koryolink was forced to start censoring access to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and some South Korean news sites.
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In recent years, internet access has also been extended to elite universities. Dedicated internet rooms have been set up at places like Kim Il Sung University, the country’s top seat of learning. When then–Google Chairman Eric Schmidt visited North Korea in 2013, he was shown students accessing Google at the university and quickly picked up on one reality of internet access for these elite citizens: surveillance. “It appeared supervised in that people were not able to use the internet without someone else watching them,” he wrote in a blog post at the time.
His daughter Sophie, who accompanied him on the trip, picked up on something else. “One problem: No one was actually doing anything. A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared,” she wrote. “More disturbing: when our group walked in—a noisy bunch, with media in tow—not one of them looked up from their desks. Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.”
There is regular debate among analysts about how much reality any visitor to North Korea sees, but Sophie Schmidt’s observations seem to suggest the students were just going through the motions to impress their VIP visitors. It’s something that is entirely possible in an entire country that is so closely controlled.
But, whatever the truth of that visit, a foreign lecturer who worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology says the internet access is something that’s real. “The graduate students have it, the undergrads don’t,” he told me in an interview in 2014. He also confirmed the physical monitoring of internet access. But despite the Koryolink mobile network censorship, blocking at the universities is still limited—because it’s not really necessary. North Koreans learn self-censorship from an early age. It’s key to survival, so few would ever dare attempt to sneak visits to websites that might get them in trouble. The stakes for their lives and those of their families are too high.
In place of the internet, the North Korean government is doing something that no other country has done: building a nationwide intranet that offers email and websites but is totally shut off from the rest of the world. It’s an audacious attempt to usher in some of the benefits of electronic communications while maintaining complete control on an entire population. It probably wouldn’t work anywhere else in the world, but the North Korean government keeps its people in such fear that few dare attempt dissent.
Blocking is limited, because North Koreans learn self-censorship from an early age.
The network, called Kwangmyong, currently connects libraries, universities, and government departments and is slowly making its way into homes of better-off citizens. It houses a number of domestic websites, an online learning system, and email. The sites themselves aren’t much to get excited about: They belong to the national news service, universities, government IT service centers, and a handful of other official organizations. There’s also apparently a cooking site with recipes for Korean dishes.
One of the newest services is a video-on-demand system from state-run television. The “Manbang” service is accessed through a set-top box and provides live streams of four TV channels. It can also be used to access an on-demand library of recent TV programming and was recently featured in a program on state TV.
But it’s no Netflix. The output of state TV channels, like the rest of the media, is concentrated on the activities of Kim Jong-un, the ruling party, and the military. For the most part, either the movies are dramatic tales of bravery against the invading Japanese forces during World War II or American forces during the Korean War, or they’re dramas that idolize ordinary citizens who make sacrifices for the good of the ruling party or their love of Kim Jong-un. This summer, Korean Central Television broadcast the Rio de Janeiro Olympics—roughly 45 minutes each evening of competition, about three days late.
So North Korea’s internet hookup might not be bringing much information in to the country. But we are seeing a growing number of Pyongyang-based websites, accessible to the real internet, that send the country’s propaganda to the outside world. Surfing them provides a glimpse of the unrelenting information diet that North Koreans consume daily.
Top and center of most such sites is a section dealing with the activities of Kim Jong-un—a key piece of propaganda that is meant to show him working tirelessly for the good of the nation. Most of the rest of the news deals with political statements, stories of citizens doing good for the nation, scientific breakthroughs, and other items intended to give the impression of a nation moving forward. To a media-savvy foreign eye, it’s not very convincing. Take, for instance, the major site Naenara. It comes from the Foreign Language Publishing House, the government outfit responsible for translating and publishing propaganda books and magazines in several foreign languages, and is full of the propaganda that is fed nonstop to people inside the country.
Voice of Korea, the country’s international shortwave broadcaster, also puts online clips of its broadcasts every day. Other major sites include the state-run Korean Central News Agency, the Rodong Sinmun national daily newspaper (which includes PDFs of each edition), and Voice of Korea shortwave radio station.
But despite the growing range of options available, no electronic channel offers a truly secure means of communication. In a social system where people are hesitant to share dissenting political views with members of their own families, putting such thoughts in text messages or on the domestic web is unthinkable. So instead they rely on word of mouth—whispered conversations with their closest friends that could result in them being reported and sent to a prison camp. Or worse.
This article is part of the “Who Controls the Internet?” installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Future Tense is a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate.