The Secret Shame of North Korea’s Slave Workers

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Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite, by Suki Kim. Random House

When Korean-American writer Suki Kim traveled to North Korea to teach the sons of the Workers' Party elite, she was kept from seeing what life was like for ordinary workers. Then she went on a visit to an apple farm.

After two weeks, the teachers were elated to be taken on our first excursion outside the city, to an apple farm thirty minutes away. It was a weekend, yet on either side of us we saw people working in fields so lusciously green that they looked as though they had been painted.

For a moment, the stories of bare land and bare mountains and the SOS from the World Food Program and the sanctions from the United Nations condemning the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the North Korea regime] for human rights violations seemed like stuff that people had made up out of boredom or malice. For a moment, I wanted to believe what was before my eyes—an immaculate landscape and clean air.

I could almost imagine families with picnic baskets in tow on their way to pick apples, but the road remained empty the whole way there.

At one point, in the distance, we saw what looked like dark straw houses. The minders told us they were part of a model folk village for tourists that was under construction, and that this land had once belonged to the capital of Koguryo Kingdom from Korea’s Three Kingdom Era.

For a moment I felt excited, remembering how, as a schoolchild in South Korea, I’d learned about this fantastic kingdom famed for its horse-riding warriors and exotic costumes for much of the first millennium. And here it was, this land still here with the low mountains shadowing the horizon, and green patches of land stretching in front of us.

Then the bus swerved closer to the edge of the road, and I saw a few people walking alongside it. Their faces were ghastly, as though they had not been fed in years. A skeletal woman held out a pack of cigarettes as though offering it for sale to any passing bus, although there was none but ours.

When we passed closer to one of the construction sites, the workers became visible, with hollowed eyes and sunken cheeks, clothing tattered, heads shaved, looking like Nazi concentration camp victims. The sight was so shocking that both Katie and I drew in sharp breaths.

We could not say anything or show our feelings, since the minder sat nearby, but we exchanged glances and Katie mouthed the exact word that struck me at that moment: “Slaves.”

It was clear to me that there was one set of people in Pyongyang—among them my students, the party leaders, the minders—who were well fed and had healthy complexions and were of regular height, and then there were all the other people, the ones I glimpsed through the windows of the bus.

On weekend shopping trips, I had seen them on the streets, cutting trees or sweeping the sidewalk or riding trams. They were often bony, their faces almost dark green from overexposure to the sun or malnutrition or something worse. They were generally shorter and markedly smaller in every way, with haunted eyes. The old ones almost always walked stooped, and I always wondered whether any of them could be my mother’s brother.

He would have been seventy-five years old if he were still alive, but the more I saw of North Korea, the more certain I was that he could not have survived. They seemed to belong to almost an entirely different race than my students. Yet these people we had just passed appeared even more emaciated.

Extracted from Suki Kim’s Without You, There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Copyright © 2014 by Suki Kim. Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of Random House LLC.

Correction: This article originally incorrectly stated that Suki Kim is a university professor. Kim is a writer. In addition, this article incorrectly stated that Kim taught the sons of the Communist Party’s elite. She taught sons of the Workers' Party.