This is what it’s like to go undercover in North Korea | Suki Kim

This is what it’s like to go undercover in North Korea | Suki Kim

In 2011, during the final six months
of Kim Jong-Il’s life, I lived undercover in North Korea. I was born and raised
in South Korea, their enemy. I live in America, their other enemy. Since 2002, I had visited
North Korea a few times. And I had come to realize
that to write about it with any meaning, or to understand the place
beyond the regime’s propaganda, the only option was total immersion. So I posed as a teacher and a missionary at an all-male university in Pyongyang. The Pyongyang University
of Science and Technology was founded by Evangelical Christians
who cooperate with the regime to educate the sons
of the North Korean elite, without proselytizing,
which is a capital crime there. The students were 270 young men,
expected to be the future leaders of the most isolated and brutal
dictatorship in existence. When I arrived, they became my students. 2011 was a special year, marking the 100th anniversary of the birth
of North Korea’s original Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung. To celebrate the occasion, the regime
shut down all universities, and sent students off to the fields to build the DPRK’s much-heralded ideal as the world’s most powerful
and prosperous nation. My students were the only ones
spared from that fate. North Korea is a gulag posing as a nation. Everything there
is about the Great Leader. Every book, every newspaper article,
every song, every TV program — there is just one subject. The flowers are named after him, the mountains are carved with his slogans. Every citizen wears the badge
of the Great Leader at all times. Even their calendar system begins
with the birth of Kim Il-Sung. The school was a heavily guarded
prison, posing as a campus. Teachers could only leave on group outings
accompanied by an official minder. Even then, our trips were limited
to sanctioned national monuments celebrating the Great Leader. The students were not allowed
to leave the campus, or communicate with their parents. Their days were meticulously mapped out,
and any free time they had was devoted to honoring
their Great Leader. Lesson plans had to meet the approval
of North Korean staff, every class was recorded and reported on,
every room was bugged, and every conversation, overheard. Every blank space was covered with the
portraits of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, like everywhere else in North Korea. We were never allowed
to discuss the outside world. As students of science and technology,
many of them were computer majors but they did not know
the existence of the Internet. They had never heard
of Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. Facebook, Twitter — none of those things
would have meant a thing. And I could not tell them. I went there looking for truth. But where do you even start
when an entire nation’s ideology, my students’ day-to-day realities, and even my own position
at the universities, were all built on lies? I started with a game. We played “Truth and Lie.” A volunteer would write a sentence
on the chalkboard, and the other students had to guess whether it was a truth or a lie. Once a student wrote, “I visited
China last year on vacation,” and everyone shouted, “Lie!” They all knew this wasn’t possible. Virtually no North Korean is allowed
to leave the country. Even traveling within their own country
requires a travel pass. I had hoped that this game would reveal
some truth about my students, because they lie so often and so easily, whether about the mythical
accomplishments of their Great Leader, or the strange claim that they cloned
a rabbit as fifth graders. The difference between truth and lies
seemed at times hazy to them. It took me a while to understand
the different types of lies; they lie to shield their system
from the world, or they were taught lies,
and were just regurgitating them. Or, at moments, they lied out of habit. But if all they have ever known were lies, how could we expect them to be otherwise? Next, I tried to teach them essay writing. But that turned out to be
nearly impossible. Essays are about coming up with
one’s own thesis, and making an evidence-based
argument to prove it. These students, however, were
simply told what to think, and they obeyed. In their world, critical thinking
was not allowed. I also gave them the weekly assignment
of writing a personal letter, to anybody. It took a long time, but eventually
some of them began to write to their mothers, their friends,
their girlfriends. Although those were just homework, and would never reach
their intended recipients, my students slowly began to reveal
their true feelings in them. They wrote that they were fed
up with the sameness of everything. They were worried about their future. In those letters, they rarely ever
mentioned their Great Leader. I was spending all of my time
with these young men. We all ate meals together,
played basketball together. I often called them gentlemen,
which made them giggle. They blushed at the mention of girls. And I came to adore them. And watching them open up
even in the tiniest of ways, was deeply moving. But something also felt wrong. During those months
of living in their world, I often wondered if the truth would,
in fact, improve their lives. I wanted so much to tell them the truth, of their country and of the outside world, where Arab youth were turning
their rotten regime inside out, using the power of social media, where everyone except them was
connected through the world wide web, which wasn’t worldwide after all. But for them, the truth was dangerous. By encouraging them to run after it,
I was putting them at risk — of persecution, of heartbreak. When you’re not allowed to express
anything in the open, you become good at reading
what is unspoken. In one of their personal letters to me,
a student wrote that he understood why I always called them gentlemen. It was because I was wishing them
to be gentle in life, he said. On my last day in December of 2011, the day Kim Jong-Il’s death was announced, their world shattered. I had to leave without a proper goodbye. But I think they knew
how sad I was for them. Once, toward the end of my stay,
a student said to me, “Professor, we never think of you
as being different from us. Our circumstances are different,
but you’re the same as us. We want you to know that we truly
think of you as being the same.” Today, if I could respond
to my students with a letter of my own, which is of course impossible, I would tell them this: “My dear gentlemen, It’s been a bit over three years
since I last saw you. And now, you must be 22 —
maybe even as old as 23. At our final class, I asked you
if there was anything you wanted. The only wish you expressed,
the only thing you ever asked of me in all those months we spent together, was for me to speak to you in Korean. Just once. I was there to teach you English; you knew it wasn’t allowed. But I understood then, you wanted
to share that bond of our mother tongue. I called you my gentlemen, but I don’t know if being gentle
in Kim Jong-Un’s merciless North Korea is a good thing. I don’t want you to lead a revolution — let some other young person do it. The rest of the world might casually
encourage or even expect some sort of North Korean Spring, but I don’t want you to do anything risky, because I know in your world,
someone is always watching. I don’t want to imagine
what might happen to you. If my attempts to reach you have
inspired something new in you, I would rather you forget me. Become soldiers of your Great Leader,
and live long, safe lives. You once asked me if I thought
your city of Pyongyang was beautiful, and I could not answer truthfully then. But I know why you asked. I know that it was important for you
to hear that I, your teacher, the one who has seen the world
that you are forbidden from, declare your city as the most beautiful. I know hearing that would make
your lives there a bit more bearable, but no, I don’t find
your capital beautiful. Not because it’s monotone and concrete, but because of what it symbolizes: a monster that feeds off
the rest of the country, where citizens are soldiers and slaves. All I see there is darkness. But it’s your home, so I cannot hate it. And I hope instead that you,
my lovely young gentlemen, will one day help make it beautiful. Thank you. (Applause)


  • feliciano bugtas says:

    shes brave!

  • gabby balicao says:

    “As the worlds most powerful and most prosperous nation in the world” .-. Damn North Korea rlly loves telling lies abt themselves

  • Rahul Pratap Singh says:

    Everything is fine but the background music makes things seem pretentious, as if she is working too hard to invoke emotions.

  • Danielle Cristiane says:

  • Cats Neko says:

    And I complain about school 😐…….

  • Rabbit TeaPot says:

    Damn… I actually cried

  • Arijit Sarkar says:

    everyone was listening to the background music ….. its so good its almost distracting

  • Michael O'Brien says:

    What a sweetheart.

  • sushma p says:

    She didn't cry but made all of us cry😭💔

  • R Montana says:

    All countries gather together, we breaking our North Korean brothers and sisters out of prison.

  • Simon Davey says:

    This was an incredibly powerful talk. I have been blessed to visit North Korea. I love the people and I’m a great advocate for truth. But, sadly, in a regime this totalitarian – the truth can literally hurt. But one day the light will shine on Pyongyang. Of that I’m confident.

  • hatice kaya says:

    Why this remind me 1984(book) ?

  • Sierrapac None says:

    The background music was a very bad idea. It was quite distracting and I had to "rewind" and watch parts again.

  • Adolf Hitler says:

    Her awful accent and obnoxious music it is all too much can't watch this

  • dracarys dragon bay says:

    Omg i did not know one day Sitting In India i would cry over a north korean guy 🤒🤒

    power of speech !! This lady just nailed it ..hats off to her

    One man can wield that much dominance in today's world is hard to fathom but I sincerely believe one day people of north koreal will rise . One day all will be free be from that fat tyrant manaic..

    God bless all

  • Yeshua is Lord. says:

    The end was so sad when she said long and safe lives.

  • Sümeyra Gamze Öztürk says:

    vay be..

  • Lu F says:

    Republic of Gilead, basically.

  • fedzalicious says:

    The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.

  • ameyah mendes says:

    2019 and dictatorship!…I never thought this could be a thing till I found out about north Korea..I hope north Korea gets its freedom and develope
    s as a Democratic country🙏

  • Дмитрий Чернавин says:

    Can't even believe that 1984 by George Orwell can someday become truth.

  • J R says:

    Im hitting 👎🏻 bec of the annoying music being played at the background that cause me not to finish this clip.

  • Samantha Whitworth says:

    North Korea reminds me so much of panem in the hunger games

  • dirt man says:

    Her gentlemen have been starved to death by now

  • Deepu chandran says:

    Did they think the music gives really good no it's not… It's really annoying… Just tell her who was sitting on keyboard keep her hand out of the keyboard

  • Juviais bbg says:

    The music was so annoying

  • qutlaw says:

    Get rid of the music. It's irrelevant and distracting.

  • Only With Buts says:

    It will come back to him 10 times, i guarantee you that. Sooner or later every evil burns by its own greed, power, pride and all that garbage they seek.

    One day, Kim will be the one publicly executed, finally the country will be able to breathe, people will have their rightful lives back, their land will prosper, tourism will be a thing there and the " Depressive Cold Concrete Slab " of a country it is now will change into colorful place.

    I really hope North Korea will be freed soon as possible. It's been going like this for too long and just seeing any photo from that place it makes me want to scream from how unfair it is towards the people living there. " Gulag posing as country " is the best description she could have ever give it.

  • Curdt Million says:


  • Stop Fake Korean Defectors BS says:

    Yeonmi Park, Shin Dong Hyuk didn't lied? 🤣😂😆🤡👎👎💩🤖🤖🤖🤖💩💩💩

  • djs12007 says:

    Sadly, it's an historical fact that "Some other young person" never comes around to start a revolution, it always has to be you, or someone you know that steps forward to take that risk.

  • Ongmu Lepcha says:

    Why Kim jun un is doing this?? What he is getting from all this??

  • SANDRA SMS says:

    The piano is annoying in this video.

  • Invalid Opinion says:

    North Koreans are s h o o k
    Then again im pretty sure they don't know.

  • Disco Biker says:

    My heart breaks for the North Koreans. They're slaves in their own land.
    BTW, the music in this video is distracting.

  • It’s me눈_눈 says:

    When she talks she has this type of sass

  • Cynthia Schwab says:

    The music in the background is so not needed and annoying!

  • Anon Anonymous says:

    Is south and north are they all not Koreans. I have seen a few south Korean dramas, they show a lot of awful Korean people, if dramas are a slice of society. This woman does not understand other people that are living in FEAR, N and S Korean seems a lot like Berlin. The wall has to come down. South Korea seems too matialistic and vain, swopeing one form of poverty for another.

  • bug enthusiast says:

    at 2:10 i don't understand…did they kill the students? why?

  • Tell me why says:

    I rlly wanna know how North Korean citizens feel about their country and their leaders u know like I wanna her an insight on. how they feel about the entire situation. like for me when I see these ppl I pray for them it may be a normal thing and they are used to it or actually made even like it or appreciate it. as many. other countries for an example India and how it is a developing country but ppl there are used to it. male that may e the cause with north korea? idk I just feel very interested to talking to an actual North Korean citizen that actually grew up there and lived there and witnessed all these things happen. may they could make that happen here where a Korean citizen made gives a ted talk and tells ppl how to its like in the eyes of a North Korean citizen???

  • ajones21606 says:


  • Astolfo says:

    Turn the fucking sad music off, this isn't anime

  • Heidi MacLeod says:

    That is so sad… we should try to help them as much as possible…

  • Estefania be says:

    Why the music? The speach would be more geuine without it

  • Nagesh B says:

    It's not just deprivation of what the rest world possesses but a deep dissatisfaction of everyday living. That you can't pray your leader everyday leading to death and a constant fear of a simple mistake leading to Gulag. That you can't explore and exploit the best possible avenues of human mind in itself is so dreadful.

  • Ujuani Abelsen says:

    6:03: Then… what if you are a pathological liar…living in NK?? 🤔 Will you then tell the TRUTH..??

  • Christopher Melville says:

    Weak. Yes big words in the safety of the west but how can you hope for a safe life for those boys in the confines of a dictatorship. Hope for a revolution and a meaningful death in the hopes that it creates a future for North Korea.

  • Gordon Wiebe says:

    "…Was founded by evanglical Christians, who co-operate with the regime…" you mean like you did by teaching there? " I think this presentation was more about you promoting you than about the plight of North Koreans. Christians, as usual, are the boots on the ground in places where humanity is most abused. "They said 'we are not afraid of nuclear weapons … we are afraid of someone like you bringing religion into our country and use it against us and then everybody will turn to God and this will become God's country and we will fall." — Kenneth Bae, a Korean-American pastor, who was held hostage in North Korea from 2012 to 2014.

  • Bill Paci says:

    It seemed like propaganda with the band accompanying her.

  • Johnny Coolness says:

    Music at 5 mins is like Yoko Ono screaming when Chuck Berry and John Lennon sang duets.

  • Johnny Coolness says:

    Beautiful Story, but damn the music was annoying.

  • Vaibhav Joshi says:

    How many children and families has she put at risk cause she wants to be famous. Whilst this is a story for her and us, a tale of tragedy, and a tale of she earning wealth and popularity – it is a reality of those people there. They cannot escape it. Selfish to make a show out of this and to make this about herself.

  • Ajitha Rajendra says:


  • Pradumna Nemade says:

    What a irritating sound she is playing in the background??

  • Kim Jong Un says:

    Welp I hope kim jong un stops doing all of this… it’s just too much for the North Koreans 😭

  • HOBOJO says:

    The one TED talk where delivery and content were equally unmatched. Wow. Hands down the most articulate and meaningful TED talk I have seen to date. Thank you Suki for your bravery and for sharing your story.

  • Jesus rocks says:

    Ignorance is bliss she's right they should be happy
    Wait they knew she was s Korean?!! Hmm maybe they hired her?

  • Gamer boy says:

    tell your kid that who are not interested in studies that i will sent you a north korean school ,, then he/she will be scientist next week

  • 落英解语 says:

    wtf is that background music. It is simply weird.

  • Rutuja Chavan says:

    " It was because I was wishing them to be gentle in life , he said " …. GOD BLESS HIM !

  • Sebastian Melmoth says:

    Why is there a concert going on in the background?

  • Jack Wise says:

    Very interesting talk… however, the "background music" is nothing but terribly annoying. She had to raise her voice to be heard. My hearing is bad to begin with and the music made it very hard to hear her. Secondly, whose idea was it to play music while someone is trying to speak? Bad idea….

  • Nilly K says:

    The piano music background is NOT NEEDED.

  • Happy Derpina says:

    The fact that she went to North Korea in order to know more about the system and find out of ways to help them, BUT when she has returned she didn’t want any of her students to risk their safety by doing anything suspicious is HEARTBREAKING.

    She must’ve seen and felt how seriously unlikely it is to fight or even escape for your freedom.

  • Allison Gharagozlou says:

    So she only spoke English to her students?

  • LMSPetRescue says:

    So many people call to arm the people of North Korea so they can start an uprising…and I think they miss the point of this, the chains aren’t just physical ones, everyone there must serve in the military they are armed…they’re captive in their minds. They don’t have access to new ideas. They don’t see the outside world, they truly believe they are in the best place in the world despite it being the worst. Many are illiterate despite what the government says and even if they had access to the information…it’ll just put them in more danger, they’ll be punished for knowing what they shouldn’t even if their own beliefs are so deeply rooted and enforced by fear that it actually stomps out them ever even believing the truth if they had access to it. I don’t have the answer to how to liberate these people without causing more pain and suffering. I can’t say what steps the world should take to help without a bloodbath and leading to a situation like Iran and Iraq and Saudi Arabia who were driven into war and terror after their governments were destabilized. All I can do is hope that maybe the next generation and next leader will bring change for the better, that maybe something will happen to bring these people hope and strength without anymore bloodshed or loss

  • Ethan Erfani says:

    Who else heard the guy cough in the backround?

  • John Wallace says:

    I find it suspicious she randomly left the day the granddaddy got killed

  • MagBlueRoses says:

    God I'm crying….
    North Koreans shouldn't have to go through that torture! I wish there was a way she could have gotten her students out of that ruthless country.
    Can ppl from other countries travel to N Korea? I just want to know…

  • kyra manpula says:

    The great leader acts like a god

  • deepak limbu says:

    nothing lasts forever , everything has its peak. this is the peak of your leader before falling

  • Joe Om says:

    Kim Suki, you are an extraordinary woman. We need more like you.

  • Khushbu Luhar says:


  • Ning Ning says:

    Ok. Now, I’m depressed

  • A Látó Malbeth says:

    A Facebook egy nagy rakás szar,zukkerberget meg meg kellene korbácsolni érte…😀

  • A Látó Malbeth says:

    A zongora mi a fasznak kell…,ott bohóckodik a háttérben…?🧐🤔

  • Brew Colthup says:

    This is a load of crap.

  • E hhh says:

    These totalitarianism and dictatorship are common in communist countries not only in North Korea but, China and Russia as well. And, even in some SE Asian countries and Middle East. Try criticizing the Chinese president on the street in China and see what happens. Its much likely same as what will happen in NKorea or even worse. One thing for sure, you'll get picked up and never to hear from again. In some SE asian countries, you can get arrested, beaten or even purged if you say anything bad about their leaders or kings and its families in public. These things has been going on for centuries and, there is no way it will change. This clearly shows you how free you are in the US. just like those "Jihad Squad" , criticizing the gov. and the president in public and nothing even happens to them. Except of course, for being "requested" to go back to their crime infested shitholes. oops..

  • T McC says:

    And those guys are gonna be the future leaders of North Korea…..

  • Harsh Raj Always free says:

    5:05 they literally hire musicians to make background sound effect

  • John Lujan says:

    Listening to these first hand accounts about this repressive regime makes me want to smack my own countrymen upside their damned heads when they try to say that America is worse than NK!

  • Evangelyne Marwein says:

    It's very shock to now that they are computer students but not allowed to say about Steve jobs
    Why this much unhuman in this country God help the innocent people

  • marble5 says:

    What the heck is up with that stupid background music?

  • Anonymous Polar bear says:

    Suki Kim: "I would rather you forget me"
    Me: cries

  • Deleted Account says:

    If WWIII happens, I hope it’s against North Korea.

  • Deleted Account says:

    The lies were kinda similar to what happened in my country, Lithuania.

    (My dad experienced this)

    When the russians took over, they took away our freedom, we were all very poor. The lines to buy bananas and fruit were sooo long, the cheapest things we coukd eat was bread, we were not aloud to hear anything about the outside world. People were robbing everyone to live, so they dont die from hunger.

    My dads dad was a nice guy and NEVER robbed, which made it very hard to live.
    Everyone thought this was normal, that the outside world was just as trashy as our country, thats what Russias president told us. We thought America was poor. We were controlled by Russia living in WWII whilst every other country was living nicely. We were told that we were living perfectly, and that the outside world was rubbish.
    Finally in 1991 everyone took a stand and were fed up with the Russians. In English it was named “Day of Restitution of Independence of Lithuania”. My dad was at the “Baltic road” (I hope I translated that right) along with SO MUCH more people holding hands (idk to fight back like that i guess).

    My grandad was at the TV tower, were 14 people including students died. Two of which my dad knew. The russians knew they would get a bad reputation and so they left us alone.

    Now in Russia a lot of people believe what the president of Russia is telling them. They believe that they are the best country. They believe that everyone else is poor and they are living in luxury. Apparently some people went to shops in other countries and thought that everything was being set up and that whatever they were seeing was planned and fake.

  • Strange Brownies says:

    Their leader is one of the biggest narsissists to ever walk this earth.

  • Manisha Raut says:

    I have only one question:

  • Prince Yama says:

    This sounds like a lie

  • Ayushman Tiwari says:

    Show this to all bureaucratic hypocrites who still ally with North Korea for power.

  • Ky Toh says:

    why the piano , who's idea ?

  • G Pon says:

    The only solution for North Korea is Military Mutiny

  • OZ creation says:

    Kim Jong Just hit the likes
    김종은 그냥 좋아하는

  • Cameron Nguyen says:

    The music is nonsense

  • totallyfrozen says:

    Someone needs to tell the North Koreans about VPNs. They may be able to access the internet without being detected by the regime.

  • Jackie B says:

    The music is incredibly distracting. Man, my heart hurts for her.

  • Phoebe Kemp says:

    i feel so sorry for those students and people.

  • I Unicorn says:

    I'm crying

  • Julie Murphy says:

    Wow.. that ending was strong & bittersweet. It's better for them to live in a fantasy world made up lies & follow the regime than have them rise up & risk being hurt/killed. I pray that these young men are well.

  • Arohi verma says:

    "ideologies built on lies"
    That hit my heart

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