UPDATED: Thoughts on Suki Kim and North Korea

First things first; I enjoyed Suki Kim’s memoir about her months teaching in North Korea, and would freely recommend the book to anyone interested in journalism, closed societies, East Asia, the Korean War, memoirs, missionaries, or the social sciences.

suki kim

Kim’s memoir is remarkable in large part because of the tone in which she writes. It is dispassionate, distanced from itself even while relaying deeply emotional events. There is a sense of detachment running through the narrative that feels both natural (Kim is, and described herself throughout as, a journalist) and utterly out of sync with the content.

Kim’s exposition of her own family’s history in Korea and connection to the war is an important counter-balance to the journalistic aloofness that frames her description of the school and her students. When discussing how her parents and grandparents survived the war, her writing is rich with emotion and color. She speaks from her own heart, and also from a sort of collective heart of the Korean people, all still suffering the terrible effects of the sudden and brutal severance of their country.

Multiple times throughout the book I found myself thinking first, “Well, this isn’t so bad,” and then, “Oh, god, how do they live like that?” At times, Kim’s description of North Korea made the country seem like a caricature of itself – the Potemkin villages, the apparent malnutrition, the manic worship of the central leader. Other times, it seemed merely like a fairly backwater, but otherwise mostly regular sort of place. It defies categorization. I don’t know what or how to think about this place. I need to know more.

UPDATE: This review was originally posted on November 19, 2014. On June 27, 2016, The New Republic published an article by Kim about the publication of this book, and it has dramatically changed my understanding of her work. In it, Kim states clearly that this book is not a memoir, and that the decision to publish it as such was a marketing strategy in the wake of the runaway commercial success of works like Eat, Pray, Love. This decision is problematic for a number of reasons, the first being that it is rage-inducingly sexist.

By casting my book as personal rather than professional—by marketing me as a woman on a journey of self-discovery, rather than a reporter on a groundbreaking assignment—I was effectively being stripped of my expertise on the subject I knew best. It was a subtle shift, but one familiar to professional women from all walks of life. I was being moved from a position of authority—What do you know?—to the realm of emotion:How did you feel?

This assumption that the book will have better appeal if confined to the stereotypes of lady-lit is not only condescending as fuck, it’s incorrect. Kim’s book makes no sense as a memoir. Look above – you can see how confused I was by it. I knew Kim had related important information, but I struggled with how to conceptualize it all. It’s packaging as a memoir was utterly “out of sync with the content.” In her article, Kim noted of her argument about the framing:

It soon became clear that this was a battle I could not win, and I relented. The content of my work was what really mattered, I told myself. However it was labeled and marketed, my reporting would speak for itself.

Unfortunately, Kim was wrong about this. The packaging matters. And while her book did receive some success and did make progress toward unmasking life in North Korea, her work in that regard was seriously hampered by the publisher’s ass-backwards presentation of it.

Knowing that this is not and was never supposed to be a memoir has snapped into sharp focus my previously blurry and confused images of the narrative. It may be that this is the most important work published on modern North Korea, period. Do yourselves a favor and go read Kim’s article, and then get yourself a copy of her memoir groundbreaking investigative triumph.

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