Teaching Essay Writing In Pyongyang

As a virtual prison state, North Korea is a place where the act of journalism is nearly impossible.

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How did we feel about the spiritual journeys we had undertaken? I had no idea how I was supposed to answer, for a simple reason: My book wasn’t a memoir.

As an investigative journalist, I had been researching and visiting North Korea for over a decade.

I scribbled down conversations as they happened and buried my notes in a lesson plan.

I wrote at night, erasing the copy from my laptop each time I signed off, saving it to USB sticks that I carried on my body at all times.

“What she wrote is nothing too shocking or new,” went a typical tweet.

“She lied and risked people’s lives for financial gain.” When I was interviewed by the BBC, the radio hosts read aloud a damning letter they received from the university in North Korea, and accosted me for betraying my employer.

In reexamining a terrible tangle of a situation, one can sometimes pinpoint that single moment when everything went wrong.

During my decade-long research, I had always feared that this would happen in North Korea, where I would have no control over my fate.

They slammed me as a “selfish person” for using my access at the university to write a “kiss-and-tell memoir.” They accused me, without any evidence, of “putting sources at risk.” In their eyes, it seemed, I was a memoirist treading on journalistic turf, a Korean schoolteacher who sold out her students for a quick buck.

For the most part, the attacks ignored the substance of what I had written—my investigative findings—and focused instead on my methods.


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