A novelist and freelance journalist relates her experiences, both grim and gratifying, as an English teacher in a small North Korean university.
Kim (The Interpreter, 2003) was undercover, teaching with a group of devout Christians bent on conversions, a group she managed to deceive successfully, her more liberal views emerging most patently during a debate about showing a Harry Potter film to her classes. She also deceived her North Korean hosts, privately keeping a journal—which, feeling paranoid, she stored on multiple flash drives concealed in her room and on her person. But her deception allows her to tell a most enlightening tale about the North Korean darkness. The author spent her childhood in South Korea and immigrated to the United States when she was 13. Although she shared the Korean language with her students, as an English teacher, she (and her superiors) insisted on English-only with them, and it’s not until the end that—at their request—she addressed them in Korean. Kim keeps our focus on a number of issues: the abject poverty of people she sees outside the school; the absolute devotion of the North Korean media to Kim Jong-il (whose death in 2011 frames Kim’s story); the feelings of paranoia she experienced; her periodic bouts of depression about being in such an intellectually and otherwise stale environment; the ignorance of her students (most were very bright) about history, geography, technology and cultural differences; and the inability to acquire all but the most basic consumer goods. But she also repeatedly reports her deep affection for the young men she taught (there were no female students) and her profound worries about their futures. A few minor quibbles: She occasionally slides into cliché (“weak in the knees”) and records perhaps too many student comments praising her teaching skills.
Directs the lights of emotion and intelligence on a country where ignorance is far from bliss.