Investigative Journalist’s Report On North Korea Sold As ‘Eat, Pray, Love’-Style Memoir, Because All Books By Women Are The Same

Here’s yet another entry in the endless list of Why We Need Feminism: a female undercover journalist’s book was sold as a memoir, because a woman couldn’t possibly conduct a serious investigation worth reading. When Suki Kim published a groundbreaking investigative report on a North Korean university, it was marketed as an Eat, Pray, Love-style book. Yep, risking incarceration and death in one of the world’s most tightly controlled dictatorships is exactly the same as a rich white lady “finding herself” in the mystical land of brown people.

Without You, There Is No Us chronicles Kim’s time going undercover as a university lecturer for the sons of North Korea’s elite during the end of Kim Jong-Il’s administration. Born and raised in Seoul, Kim was able to get past the language barriers and some of the cultural barriers that non-Korean journalists often face when attempting to report on North Korea. Nevertheless, as she noted in a piece for the New Republic (and, of course, detailed in the book), she was constantly under surveillance: teaching in classrooms that were bugged, having to hide SD cards containing her research around her room, and erasing her writing from her laptop every night. If she’d been caught, she could have gone to prison for a very long time and/or been executed.

How could any agent or publisher even think of marketing this like Eat, Pray, Love? Simple answer: they’re both lady books, written by ladies.

Suki Kim book
CREDIT: Crown Publishing

In the New Republic piece, Kim notes that because the book was in first person, her editor qualified it as memoir, not reportage. Women can’t report on facts, you see, because our emotions get in the way. (Her editor didn’t actually say that, but I’m assuming it was understood.) It’s not far off from the ancient belief in female hysteria that alleged women’s wombs would travel around their bodies and literally block off important faculties; in other words, our lady parts make us irrational. Irrational people can’t be journalists. Women’s work is memoir at best, and we should be content with the scraps of credibility thrown to us.

A Portrait of North Korea
CREDIT: Jonas Gratzer/Getty Images

As if that weren’t bad enough, The New York Times then questioned the integrity of Kim’s reportage. Not only did it quote claims of inaccuracy from the president of the university, it accused Kim of “hiding her intentions” during the investigative process. Do they not understand what investigative journalism is? She could hardly have been clear about her intentions if she ever wanted to get back home. Look at what happened to Euna Lee and Laura Ling, the two Asian-American journalists who were interrogated for several months in prison and almost got sentenced to 12 years of hard labor for crossing briefly into North Korea from China without visas.

Also, The New York Times’ headline, “Tales Told Out Of School In Pyongyang Cause Stir,” depicts Kim as a petty gossiping child rather than a professional investigative journalist. The paper’s patronizing tone was only slightly lessened by an accidentally ironic correction after they got the name of the university wrong. Who’s inaccurate now?

Suki Kim 2
CREDIT: TED Talks

In the New Republic piece, Kim states that her treatment was likely shaped by racism as well as sexism:

“There are only two kinds of books on North Korea: those by white journalists who visited the country under the regime’s supervision, and ‘as told to’ memoirs by defectors. The intellectual hierarchy is clear — authority belongs to the white gaze.”

That is, as an Asian woman, she couldn’t be an authority or even a valid factual source on North Korea. Asian women are meant to submit to the superiority of white men. So, when an Asian woman like Kim stakes a claim to journalistic authority, it threatens that dynamic.

While it’s possible that Kim’s work does contain inaccuracies (nobody’s perfect), these should be critiqued with the respect that authors afford to equals. The more people try to pigeonhole Kim’s work or tear down her credibility, the more they’ll reveal themselves to be motivated by racism and sexism — or, to use words they can understand, biased and irrational.