Suk-Young Kim, a South Korea native, is a professor and cultural researcher at UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, and an expert on North Korean propaganda. Before taking part in a Zócalo/UCLA panel discussion titled “Is War With North Korea Inevitable?” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown Los Angeles, she spoke in the Green Room about the Demilitarized Zone, drinking with North Koreans in Moscow, and what the president needs to know about the isolated Asian nation.
Much Western pop culture depicts North Korea and Kim Jong Un in cartoonish, caricatured ways—from movies like The Interview, to the extensive media coverage of Dennis Rodman playing basketball in Pyongyang. Your research projects and books try to give a deeper cultural understanding of North Korea.
Most of what we know of North Korea comes through a media filter, and that is unfortunately focusing too much on the government or the regime. That’s not the entire face of North Korea. So I was really focused on recouping how this is all circulated, digested, and lived through by the North Korean people. And that’s very difficult to do, because we don’t know much about North Korea, we don’t have access to research sites, interviews. So most of my subjects were North Korean defectors who fled either as political refugees or economic migrants. It was very interesting to discover how much pride they have about the country they left, and a lot of them have trouble adjusting to the new place. We often think of North Korea as this tightly-knit system of surveillance, which is true. At the same time, it does foster a certain sense of community, and people really [have] these human ties and network and support that they don’t get elsewhere.
You’ve been to North Korea twice as a tourist. What made the biggest impression?
My first trip was 2005 to the Kumgang Mountain area, and this was a tourist operation, a joint-venture between North and South Korea. It came to a halt when one of the South Korean tourists got shot by North Korean guards after leaving the tourist-designated area. Ironically, I couldn’t see much because there was very limited contact between South Korean tourists and North Korean staff members. It looked like a small window box where they just wanted to absorb foreign currency coming from tourists, and not share anything on a more profound ideological level. But as a performance studies scholar, it was interesting to see what they wanted to show to South Koreans, which is basically nature, and it’s one of the most apolitical things that you can share. That was very different from my second trip, to the DMZ area in 2013, after I became an American citizen in 2011. Only American citizens can go to the DMZ area; South Koreans cannot, because they’re not seen as neutral parties to the Demilitarized Zone. This is the place I had wanted to visit, as a native South Korean. So the irony is sobering. And the proximity to North Korea is sobering. This is extremely close to most of the South Korean population, a quarter of which live in Seoul. And most people don’t think about it. The degree of denial and oblivion about what happened and what will happen with this volatile region is quite sobering.
Do you have any family in North Korea? Did your extended family get split up by partition after the war?
No, but my second book was about the tragedies particularly around separated family members, and those who always wanted to cross to find their lost family members. This was kinship that was separated forcibly. So I do carry this very strong sentiment about wanting to be together. I sort of had a vicarious experience of being reunited with lost North Korean “brothers” and “sisters.” When I was a student in Moscow, in the Soviet Union, in 1991, through rumors we heard that there were North Korean students living in the same dorm. And it was forbidden by South Korean national security law to have any unmonitored contacts with North Korean civilians. But out of curiosity we got together in a dorm room and we had such a good time.
What did you do?
We talked about our lives, and there’s so many common things that you wouldn’t expect would exist. We chatted, we drank together, we shared jokes that are popular in North Korea and South Korea. That’s why I wanted to write my second book, about longing to cross that line that can never be crossed.
What’s the one thing you’d like Donald Trump to know as he ponders what to do about the North Korean situation?
Even if they suffer—and they know that they’re suffering and economically backward—what keeps them going is their pride for the country. And I don’t think it’s necessarily identical to their loyalty to their leader. A lot of people are disillusioned because of the failures of the North Korean state. But North Korean people are extremely proud people, and whatever he tweets, whatever he casually makes remarks about, would not help at all. And it would greatly damage the relationship because it cracks on their pride. I hope he understands that.