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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.
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 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.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.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 my publisher began to promote my book, several journalists took to the internet to denounce me.They called me “deeply dishonest” for going undercover.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.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.