Suki Kim spent 10 years researching and visiting North Korea. In 2011, she spent six months teaching at a university in Pyongyang — and working undercover as a journalist.
During that time, Kim secretly documented the lives of 270 of North Korea’s elite — young men who were being groomed as the country’s future leaders — at the center of the country’s regime change.
Kim’s reporting turned into the book Without You, There Is No Us, which — much to her dismay — was marketed as a memoir. She wrote in The New Republic recently that the book was not only miscategorized as a North Korean Eat, Pray, Love — a memoir of self-discovery by the writer Elizabeth Gilbert — but it was also trivialized. Kim argued that her investigative reporting would not have been confused for a personal narrative account were she not Korean or a woman.
“As an Asian female, I find that people rarely assume I’m an investigative journalist; even after I tell them, they often forget,” Kim wrote. “Having spent my formative years in America not speaking English, I know how to be mute; my accent sometimes makes people assume I am naïve. I am good at disappearing. I am aware that such apparent weaknesses can in fact be advantages.”
Kim spoke with Morning Edition’s David Greene about reaction to her book, and how all that’s intertwined with her identity as a South Korean-born American journalist.
On calling her book a memoir
I did not know that this was going to be a memoir until the very last minute when the book cover arrived and I saw the words. And I immediately said, ‘I don’t under[stand]. I mean this is not a memoir.’ I never thought of it as that. The book has personal perspectives but all of that was used to explain this foreign world. Now suddenly my reporting was not acknowledged once you call it ‘memoir.’
On being a Korean female journalist
At the time all the professionals who are book makers were certain and said to me, ‘We need to put memoir on the cover because that’s what this is.’ But you know, that decision, when I finally said yes to that, had a whole chain of reactions and wrong path that I had not envisioned. Much of it had to do with, you know, the racist and sexist reception of it. But to be honest also to look at this as a memoir whether its a shrewd business decision or not, if my name was not Suki Kim, if I were not Korean female, that would have never happened.
On whether or not it was better business to brand the book as a memoir
I just think that in a general way, if I were a white male who is the only person to have infiltrated to live undercover into the biggest gulag nation in the world, and I’ve come out with documentation that marks the final era of Kim Jong Il living with future leaders, there’s no way that the public, or the publisher, or the reviewers would look at that fact and say, ‘Let’s call it a memoir.’
On whether ‘cultural cluelessness’ was at work in how her book was marketed
I think that racism and sexism, even when they’re naive, are racism and sexism. The result is the same. There’s an invaluable information that was investigative and it was not credited as that or looked at as that.
On having to ‘beg for acknowledgement’
It’s constantly having to explain myself, you know? Like, I wrote the book — that’s what writers do. You research it and then you write it as best as you can. It took me a decade to do that on this book. And once it was published I had to constantly explain who I am and what I did. And it’s as if I was being muted. I came to America and actually English is my second language and I felt mute in my teen years. And this book that was unbelievably impossible for me to pull off when I finally did, I felt muted here in America.