This is what it's like to go undercover in North Korea | Suki Kim | Summary and Q&A

June 8, 2015
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This is what it's like to go undercover in North Korea | Suki Kim


This content is a personal account of an undercover experience in North Korea and the struggle to find truth amidst a regime built on lies.

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Questions & Answers

Q: Why did the author decide to live undercover in North Korea?

The author decided to live undercover in North Korea because they wanted to write about it with genuine insight and understanding, beyond the regime's propaganda. They believed that total immersion was the only way to achieve this.

Q: What was the author's role while undercover in North Korea?

The author posed as a teacher and a missionary at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, an all-male university in Pyongyang. They were there to educate the sons of the North Korean elite without proselytizing, as it is a capital crime in North Korea.

Q: How did the regime celebrate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-Sung's birth in 2011?

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-Sung's birth, the regime shut down all universities and sent students off to the fields to build the ideal of North Korea as the world's most powerful and prosperous nation. However, the author's students were the only ones spared from this fate.

Q: What restrictions did the author and their students face while in North Korea?

The author and their students faced numerous restrictions while in North Korea. The author could only leave the school on group outings accompanied by an official minder, and their trips were limited to sanctioned national monuments. The students were not allowed to leave the campus or communicate with their parents. They had no access to the outside world and were strictly controlled by the regime.


In this video, the speaker shares her experience of living undercover in North Korea for six months. She poses as a teacher and missionary at a university in Pyongyang to understand the country beyond the regime's propaganda. She discusses the heavily controlled and monitored environment, where everything revolves around the Great Leader and truth is scarce. The speaker tries various strategies, such as playing a game of "Truth and Lie" and assigning personal letter writing, to encourage her students to reveal their true feelings and thoughts. However, she realizes that the truth can be dangerous for them and decides not to risk their safety. Despite the darkness she sees in North Korea, she expresses hope for the students' future and encourages them to make their home beautiful.

Questions & Answers

Q: How does the speaker describe North Korea?

The speaker describes North Korea as a gulag posing as a nation. She explains that everything in the country revolves around the Great Leader, from books and TV programs to mountains and flower names. The citizens wear badges of the Great Leader at all times, and even the calendar system begins with the birth of Kim Il-Sung.

Q: How did the speaker try to uncover the truth about her students' lives?

The speaker played a game called "Truth and Lie" in which one student would write a sentence on the chalkboard and the others had to guess whether it was true or false. She hoped this game would reveal some truth about her students' lives, as lying seemed to come naturally to them. However, she discovered that the line between truth and lies was often hazy for them due to the indoctrination and lies they had been taught.

Q: Why did the speaker find teaching essay writing difficult?

Teaching essay writing was nearly impossible because these students were not accustomed to critical thinking or forming their own opinions. In North Korea, they were simply told what to think and they obeyed. Essay writing requires coming up with a thesis and making an evidence-based argument, which went against their education system and ideology.

Q: What assignment did the speaker give her students?

The speaker assigned her students the task of writing a personal letter to anyone they chose. Although these letters would never reach their intended recipients, the students slowly began to reveal their true feelings and thoughts. They expressed frustration with the sameness of everything and worries about their future. Interestingly, they rarely mentioned the Great Leader in these personal letters.

Q: How did the speaker feel about her students?

The speaker developed a deep fondness and admiration for her students. She spent lots of time with them, eating meals and playing basketball together. She saw them as gentlemen, often calling them that, which made them giggle. They blushed at the mention of girls. She found it deeply moving to witness their gradual opening up, even in small ways.

Q: Why did the speaker hesitate to share the truth with her students?

The truth was dangerous in North Korea, and sharing it could put her students at risk of persecution and heartbreak. The speaker wanted to tell them the truth about their country and the outside world, but she realized that their entire system and ideologies were built on lies. Encouraging them to pursue the truth could lead to severe consequences for them.

Q: What message would the speaker want to convey to her students if she could respond to them?

If the speaker could respond to her students with a letter of her own, she would urge them to prioritize their safety and not take risks. She acknowledges that someone is always watching in their world, and she doesn't want anything bad to happen to them. She expresses her hope that they have a long and safe life, suggesting that they become soldiers of the Great Leader. She also speaks about the city of Pyongyang, admitting that she doesn't find it beautiful due to what it symbolizes. However, she hopes that her students will one day help make it beautiful.

Q: How does the speaker perceive North Korea's capital city, Pyongyang?

The speaker initially couldn't answer truthfully when asked if she found Pyongyang beautiful. She explains that she doesn't find it beautiful because of what it symbolizes—a monster that feeds off the rest of the country, where citizens are both soldiers and slaves. She sees darkness in the city but acknowledges that it is her students' home, so she cannot hate it. Instead, she hopes that they will play a role in making it beautiful in the future.

Q: How does the speaker view her students' request to speak to them in Korean?

The speaker acknowledges that her students asked her to speak to them in Korean, emphasizing their desire to share the bond of their mother tongue. She finds it meaningful that they saw her as the same as them, despite their different circumstances. She reflects on how being gentle in Kim Jong-Un's merciless North Korea might not be a good thing, but she appreciates that the students considered her as one of their own.

Q: When did the speaker have to leave North Korea, and how did she feel about it?

The speaker had to leave North Korea on her last day, which coincided with the announcement of Kim Jong-Il's death in December 2011. She had to leave without a proper goodbye to her students, which made her feel sad for them. However, she believes that they knew how sad she was and that she adored them deeply.


The speaker's undercover experience in North Korea revealed the strict control and indoctrination imposed by the regime. She realized that truth was scarce and that revealing it could put her students' safety at risk. Despite the darkness and lack of freedom, she developed a deep admiration for her students. The speaker encourages them to prioritize their safety and not to take risky actions. She acknowledges the beauty they see in Pyongyang, even if she doesn't share the sentiment. Ultimately, she hopes that her students will play a role in making their home beautiful and wishes them long and safe lives.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • The author lived undercover in North Korea in 2011, posing as a teacher and missionary at a university founded by Evangelical Christians.

  • North Korea is a heavily guarded prison posing as a nation, where every aspect of life revolves around the Great Leader.

  • The author's students were sheltered from the regime's propaganda to some extent, but were still limited in their knowledge and critical thinking skills.

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