In her article for New York magazine’s The Cut, Suki Kim exposes award-winning public radio host John Hockenberry for sexual harassment and in some cases, sexual assault and workplace bullying.
Kim first started investigating him after she became the object of his unwanted and repeated attention in December 2014 after appearing on his show to discuss her investigative nonfiction book about going undercover in North Korea, “Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.”
For more than a year, Hockenberry sent her sexually suggestive emails that made her very uncomfortable. She eventually filed a complaint with his employer in February 2017.
“While [my experience] is obviously mild stuff in a world of dropped pants, rape, and secret buttons to lock women in rooms, I live near WNYC’s Manhattan office, and each time I walked by the building, I imagined the young women working for Hockenberry,” she wrote in the article.
For over a month this past summer, Kim spoke with former WNYC female interns and producers. She was surprised to find how little power women weilded, especially women of color.
“I didn’t know that history of there being no women who didn’t have any power on that show, how management never protected them in any way,” she said.
Kim’s story on Hockenberry was among the most difficult and emotionally draining reporting she’s done, she says.
“It was so hard … I feel totally depleted. Everyone is scared. They are really scared to talk,” she says.
But it wasn’t the first time she tackled a tough topic.
When Kim went undercover to North Korea for six months in 2011 to work on her book, she went posing as a missionary and teacher. She wasn’t even sure she’d make it out alive.
“I was scared every day that I would get caught. The fear was always there,” she said.
Before she left her New York apartment that summer, she created a new email address that she could use to send out an emergency or more ominously, not use, a hint that she might have been detained. The email existed for a select few— those who might wield some power if she were in trouble.
Two American journalists had recently been rescued from North Korea at the time. “Would America do it again?” she wondered. “That’s where I really felt despondent.”
She imagined the news headlines not working in her favor. Even as an American journalist, she would have been seen as a Korean-looking girl held captive in Korea, she says.
In 2014 when she published her bestselling book about her North Korean undercover work, she writes she was “intoxicated” by the mysterious regime. It was her obsession to find a deeper understanding of the country that led to her undercover work.
Born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, Kim moved to New York when she was 13. Like many Korean families, Kim grew up hearing stories of families torn apart between the North and South, never to be heard from again.
For 10 years prior, Kim interviewed and researched North Korean defectors in their hiding places, embedded herself with smugglers, followed a North Korean soccer team to South Africa, spent time with aid groups, and visited North Korea five times, writing about her experiences for Harper’s Magazine and the New York Review of Books.
“In order to understand this topic, I had to follow every trail that I could to be certain of what I was getting into,” she said.
But every time she visited, minders (government-appointed North Koreans assigned to visitors) were pushing forth their false narratives, she says. She was told who to interview and when. If she wanted to write about North Korea beyond the regime’s propaganda, she would have to live there and keep her intentions a secret. Her only option was total immersion.
In her undercover gig teaching English to the sons of North Korea’s elite in an all-male university, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, she was under constant surveillance by the staff. She kept notes on anything and erased everything from her computer, keeping it on USB sticks and her camera’s SIM card. She would hide her notes in lesson plans and work in the dark in case she was being filmed in her room.
In her book, Kim says that teachers were never allowed to discuss the outside world. The school was heavily guarded, “a prison posing as a campus,” she says. Teachers weren’t allowed to leave unless it was a special occasion and even then, they couldn’t talk to locals. Students weren’t allowed to leave or communicate with their parents. Rooms were bugged. Traveling within their own country required a travel pass. Computer majors didn’t even know about the existence of the Internet.
As her students grappled with concepts like truth and critical thinking in their writing exercises, Kim tried to find ways to communicate with them, truthfully.
“I wanted so much to tell them the truth of their country and the outside world,” she said during a 2015 TED talk. “For them, the truth was dangerous.”
Even then, they slowly began to reveal how they worried about their future and how fed up they were with the monotony. One young man even admitted to listening to rock and roll.
When Kim left North Korea and published her book two years later, she continued to think about her students often.
“I think the system works them to become the tools that serve the nation. So I had happened to meet them at very formative years, when they were young and vulnerable during their regime change [from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un].”
Soon after the publication of her book, the critics turned up. First, it was Korean American PUST president James Kim, denouncing her for breaking a promise not to speak about her experience. Then, the tweets rained down, accusing her of putting teachers and students in danger.
While she didn’t disclose her intentions to PUST, she didn’t break any promises either, she says. She never signed an agreement promising not to write about her experiences and she did her best to protect students by changing their names, blurring identities and purposefully leaving out material in the book.
“The goal of going undercover is not to put anyone in a compromising position. The goal is to reveal truth [that is otherwise impossible to attain]. A deeper truth,” she said.“Going undercover taught me that the truth was so blurred …the more rotten it is, the more buried it is.”
An investigation like hers had never been done before.
When Kim’s book came out, she encountered more readers abroad than domestically who identified with her story.
But over the last year, readers have written to her about deeply disturbing things they’ve observed.
“I really noticed that shift,” she said. “We are living in a time when our sense of truth is challenged on a daily basis, not just as a society in general but coming from the top, that sense of confusion we’re facing in the last year,” she says.
“So it’s no longer the story of the other. We’re maybe seeing a little of us in that story and that’s a change that is happening just because we have a leadership that challenges our sense of truth,” she said. “Perhaps we are able to maybe look at this problem not so much as a distant one but maybe a warning.”