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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.
Having been born and raised in South Korea, I am fluent in the country’s language and culture, which enabled me to glean the subtleties beneath the surface, without the censoring presence of an official translator.
As I taught, I lived in a locked compound under complete surveillance: Every room was bugged, every class recorded.
I considered the writers sitting next to me, three women who had written memoirs from places close to their hearts—stories of loss, family, selfhood.
The questions from the audience, also mostly women, focused on each author’s emotional awakening and growth.
I backed up my research on an SD card, which I hid in the room in different spots, always with the light off, in case there were cameras.
After six months, I returned home with 400 pages of notes and began writing.
As it turned out, the moment took place in New York City, after I had finally finished my draft.
Six months before publication, my editor sent over the design for the book cover.
The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists states that reporters should “avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.” It is hard to imagine any subject more vital to the public, or more impervious to open methods, than the secretive, nuclear North Korea; its violations against humanity, the United Nations has declared, “reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” My greatest concern had been for my students, and I had followed well-established journalistic practices to ensure that they would not be harmed.
But when my book was finally published in the fall of 2014, the backlash came not from North Korea, but from a source I had not expected: other reporters.