CRF Blog

Land of Darkness

by Bill Hayes

In Land of Darkness for Lapham’s Quarterly, Suki Kim reports on her time spent in North Korea.

I pursued coverage of the country for a decade, every step of the way nearly paralyzed with fear. I was not one of those intrepid foreign correspondents who jump into war zones, nor did I have a team of editors, fixers, and photographers working alongside to help figure out the logistics and arrange the precautionary backups. Although I signed a book contract long before 2011—when I finally dove into Pyongyang for those six months—my meager contract was just a piece of paper with a vague deadline, never a support network I could rely on for protection. In Pyongyang I was watched around the clock by the minders who lived directly below me in a dormitory under complete surveillance. My classes were recorded and reported on, and I had to get permission for every lesson from the North Korean staff. I saved my notes on USB sticks, which I kept on my body at all times. I made sure to delete my traces from my laptop every time I signed off. I saved a backup copy on an SD card, which I hid in different spots in the room, always with the light off. I created a document within a document, burying the notes in the middle of what looked like class lesson material. I was utterly on my own and knew no one who could come to my rescue if I were caught with the four hundred pages of notes I had taken in secret. The most likely scenario was that I would vanish in that bleak, dark unknown.

North Korea is the most inaccessible country in the world, and its regime has committed human rights abuses at a scale, according to the United Nations, “without parallel in the contemporary world.” It is a society built entirely on fears. Its dictators have manipulated and exploited human frailties to incorporate them into its system of control and abuse. Its citizens cannot leave the country, and their movement within it is restricted. Information is censored, and every interaction is surveilled. Education is only about the cult of the Great Leader, as is the media, and the citizens are treated as slaves and soldiers to uphold the myth. Those who enter its borders without permission or who commit acts that are forbidden by the regime—even something as seemingly innocuous as ripping a poster of their Great Leader—can face sentences of more than a decade of hard labor. Public execution is sanctioned by the regime, which is also known for kidnapping foreigners. No one with any sense of self-preservation would sneak into North Korea to write a book.

This leads people back home in the United States, or in South Korea or Europe, where I’ve traveled in recent years to give talks—the same people who like to call me fearless and brave—to ask the inevitable questions: Wasn’t I scared? And why did I go? [more]