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The Reluctant Memoirist

An investigative journalist returns from an undercover mission in North Korea—only to face her critics.

Dadu Shin

It was in Miami, last December, while sitting on a panel at an international book fair, that I tried to piece together the chain of events that had brought me to a place I knew I did not belong.

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. How did we feel about the spiritual journeys we had undertaken? What lessons had we learned along the way?

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. In 2011, armed with a book contract, I went undercover to work as an ESL teacher at an evangelical university in Pyongyang. My 270 students—the elite of North Korea, the sons of high-level officials—were being groomed as the face of regime change to come under Kim Jong-un.

As a virtual prison state, North Korea is a place where the act of journalism is nearly impossible. Talking to citizens will get you nothing more than the party line, and most information about North Korea is related by Western journalists, who either visit the country on brief press junkets or record and repackage the unverifiable accounts of defectors. 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 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. 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. 

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. 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. Something caught my eye: Below the title—Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite—were the words, “A Memoir.”

I immediately emailed my editor. “I really do not feel comfortable with my book being called a memoir,” I told her. “I think calling it a memoir trivializes my reporting.” Memoir, after all, suggests memories—the unresolved issues of the past, examined through the author’s own experiences. My work, though literary and at times personal, was a narrative account of investigative reporting. I wasn’t simply trying to convey how I saw the world; I was reporting how it was seen and lived by others.

My editor would not budge. She noted that my book was written in the first person—a device I had employed, like many journalists, to provide a narrative framework for my reporting. To call it journalism, she argued, would limit its potential readership. I did not quite understand then that this was a sales decision. I later learned that memoirs in general sell better than investigative journalism.

I tried to push back. “This is no Eat, Pray, Love,” I argued during a phone call with my editor and agent.

“You only wish,” my agent laughed.

But that was the whole point. I did not wish that my book were Eat, Pray, Love. As the only journalist to live undercover in North Korea, I had risked imprisonment to tell a story of international importance by the only means possible. By casting my book as personal rather than professional—by marketing me as a woman on a journey of self-discovery, rather than a reporter on a groundbreaking assignment—I was effectively being stripped of my expertise on the subject I knew best. It was a subtle shift, but one familiar to professional women from all walks of life. I was being moved from a position of authority—What do you know?—to the realm of emotion: How did you feel?

It soon became clear that this was a battle I could not win, and I relented. The content of my work was what really mattered, I told myself. However it was labeled and marketed, my reporting would speak for itself.

Leading up to publication, I was nervous. The evangelical university in North Korea had sent me threatening emails, demanding that I send them my draft and cease publication. This was not unexpected: Investigative journalists who go undercover to gain access to institutions considered off-limits to the public—from private prisons to mental hospitals—don’t expect a warm reception from the institutions they infiltrate. The evangelical organization wanted to protect its close ties to the North Korean regime and the country’s future leaders. But I had entered the country under my own name, and gained the unpaid teaching job based on my qualifications.

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. As my publisher began to promote my book, several journalists took to the internet to denounce me. They called me “deeply dishonest” for going undercover. 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. “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 discussion threads on Facebook, people accused me of going to North Korea for “the sole purpose of using the experience to make money by producing a book,” which might or might not have to do with the fact that my book made the New York Times best-seller list. My inbox began to be bombarded with messages from strangers: “Shame on you for putting good people in harm’s way for your gain.” One morning, I woke up to a Twitter message that read, simply: “Go fuck yourself.”

When the first review was published by Kirkus, I was shocked to see the words “deceive” and “deception” three times in the first paragraph. The Chicago Tribune questioned my ethics: “Her book raises difficult questions about whether this insight is worth the considerable risk to these innocents, none of whom knew her real reasons for being there.” The Los Angeles Review of Books went even further: “Her dishonesty has left her open to criticism, and rightfully so. The ethics of her choice cast doubt on her reliability (another de facto peril of memoir), and her fear of discovery appears to have colored her impressions and descriptions with paranoia and distrust.”

My book was being dismissed for the very element that typically wins acclaim for narrative accounts of investigative journalism. When Ted Conover, author of the award-winning Newjack, posed as a corrections officer to investigate the prison system, he was lauded by The New York Times for going “deeper than surface” and reporting “for real.” Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the best-selling Nickel and Dimed, was widely celebrated for working undercover as a waitress, hotel maid, and sales clerk to expose the conditions of the working poor. Among journalists, undercover work is generally viewed as a badge of honor, not a mark of shame. (Miscategorizing my book as a memoir, as it happens, also had the effect of disqualifying it from any journalism awards.)

The backlash extended well beyond the media. At my book events, I began to notice that there was always someone in the audience—often white, often male, inevitably hostile—who raised his hand to challenge my work. The gist was always the same: He had been to North Korea himself, or knew someone who had, and it wasn’t as bad or dangerous as I claimed, so why was I lying, and putting people in danger, to sell a book?

The invariable pattern of such attacks gave me pause. Why did people with no real experience of North Korea feel such a passionate need to dismiss my firsthand reporting and defend one of the world’s most murderous dictatorships? My book had clearly wounded these men in some way. Perhaps it had undercut their male pride, their sense of being an expert on world affairs, even when they weren’t. Perhaps they felt accused of being complicit in North Korea’s horrors, and converted that guilt into denial, a basic survival instinct. Whatever their motives, they felt a need to assert themselves over me. Some even denounced me, a South Korean woman, as someone who had merely returned “home” to North Korea; to them, I hadn’t gone undercover at all. Which is another way of saying that what I had written was personal, and therefore by definition not authoritative.

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. Orientalism reigns.

For me, the systematic undermining of my expertise was further escalated by the review in The New York Times. What struck me was not whether the review was positive, but the selection of the reviewer, a former TV columnist of Korean origin, whose only past book-length nonfiction was on South Korean popular culture. Other than her ethnicity, it was hard to see why the editors felt that a pop culture expert was qualified to review a serious investigative book on a dictatorship. I wasn’t surprised, however, since any time in my career that I am asked to review a book by a leading newspaper, which is not often, the book is almost always by an Asian, regardless of its content.

As an Asian female, I find that people rarely assume I’m an investigative journalist; even after I tell them, they often forget. Having spent my formative years in America not speaking English, I know how to be mute; my accent sometimes makes people assume I am naïve. I am good at disappearing. I am aware that such apparent weaknesses can in fact be advantages. The less threatening your subjects perceive you to be, the more careless they are in revealing information, which makes it easier for the writer to infiltrate a world without being conspicuous. Joan Didion, in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, notes a similar quandary: “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate, that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.”

Such gender discrimination can manifest either positively or negatively. Most people I interact with as a reporter tend to be men, and generally, men like to explain things to women. So I let them. I listen attentively; I never talk about myself because I am discreet by nature, but also because I am sincerely fascinated by every detail they reveal about themselves. They are, after all, my work.

I recently spoke with Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family, who chronicled the lives of a single family in the South Bronx for a decade. When her book came out, she told me, it was her emotional bond with her subjects that received much of the praise, more than her meticulous reporting. “If I had written a highly detailed book about being embedded with a troop,” she said, “the magnitude of the actual legwork would have been recognized.” Yet she also believes that great literary journalism combines the heart and the brain. “I cannot imagine doing the reporting I did if I weren’t a woman,” she said. “You are who you are, and that includes when you go to report.”

I would like to report that I took the reaction to my book in stride, that I weathered all the accusations and dismissals with patience, that I understood their causes and effects. But I did not.

The rage I felt was deeper than any other emotion I had ever known, as if I had been holding it in for a very long time—not just since the end of my yearlong book tour, much of which I spent in bleak hotel rooms sipping bad wine from the mini-bar, but since I first arrived in America as a foreigner at age 13, mute and powerless. In immigrant ghettos, I learned that in my adoptive home, my skin was considered yellow, the color of the forsythia that had bloomed around my childhood home back in South Korea. All these years later, despite everything I had achieved, it was as though none of it mattered: I was still that girl. And this time the girl was not mute, but muted.

As I grappled with these feelings, I saw that my anger, the inner bits of it, reaches back to the reason why I write: to soothe that stirring within me, each moment I face the blank page, that beckons a heart so fearful of the wider world. When I sleep, I rarely dream; I am alone inside a darkness, and at the edge of my consciousness lurk the howling, stifled cries of what lies outside. In my own way, I write to make sense of these jarring worlds, from internal to external, and to save lives, both mine and others’. This is why I risked going into North Korea undercover: because I could not be consoled while the injustice of 25 million voiceless people trapped in a modern-day gulag remains part of our society. To have my reporting on this brutal truth so systematically undermined is symptomatic of what scares me about America.

I recognize the irony here: Sifting through my memories, recalling again and again what happened has turned me, in this essay, into a memoirist. My book is about North Korea, but this essay is about me, and for me, there is something deeply humiliating about being so self-obsessed. Here I am telling my story to you, the reader, essentially to beg for acknowledgment: I am an investigative journalist, please take me seriously. I had been excluded from the insular world of journalism; perhaps, in the end, my anger is a reaction to that exclusion. As a woman of color entrenched in a profession still dominated by white men, I have been forced to use my writing not to explore topics of my own choosing, or to investigate the world’s complexities, but as a means to legitimize myself.