Review: Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim
A haunting memoir of teaching English to the sons of North Korea’s ruling class during the last six months of Kim Jong-il’s reign.
Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. It is a chilling scene, but gradually Suki Kim, too, learns the tune and, without noticing, begins to hum it. It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the 270 students at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has accepted a job teaching English. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them to write, all under the watchful eye of the regime.
Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic, especially for Suki, whose letters are read by censors and who must hide her notes and photographs not only from her minders but from her colleagues—evangelical Christian missionaries who don’t know or choose to ignore that Suki doesn’t share their faith. As the weeks pass, she is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. At the same time, they offer Suki tantalizing glimpses of their private selves—their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished. She in turn begins to hint at the existence of a world beyond their own—at such exotic activities as surfing the Internet or traveling freely and, more dangerously, at electoral democracy and other ideas forbidden in a country where defectors risk torture and execution. But when Kim Jong-il dies, and the boys she has come to love appear devastated, she wonders whether the gulf between her world and theirs can ever be bridged.
Without You, There Is No Us offers a moving and incalculably rare glimpse of life in the world’s most unknowable country, and at the privileged young men she calls “soldiers and slaves.”
“Sometimes the longer you are inside a prison, the harder it is to fathom what is possible beyond its walls.”
― Suki Kim,
I immediately sought this book out after reading this excerpt of it on Ideas.TED. It was gripping to me because it was both so unfathomable and so eerily familiar. As an English teacher myself, I recognized so many of the small moments, which makes it even more heartbreaking to consider the plight of the North Korean people.
To Suki Kim’s credit, she clearly and deliberately notes that her book is not a definitive or all-encompassing account of life in North Korea. I do think that it is an important account though, because so many other Western representations of North Korea are so dehumanizing. To be frank, I’m often disgusted by how Western media portrays North Korea as laughable. An entire nation of people are being horribly oppressed by their government, and the focus is on how “wacky” their oppressive leader’s antics are.
The best parts of the book were: 1) The details of Korean immigration stories. Kim shares her own family’s story, as well as many other family’s stories, during the Korean War. Knowing the historical facts is one thing—understanding on a human level about how arbitrary political lines and destructive wars can tear families apart is a whole other thing. 2) The complicated relationship Kim had with her students. Sometimes startlingly lovely, mostly erratic and heartbreaking. The genuine fondness she feels for them is constantly marred by the context of their lives.
After finishing Without You, There Is No Us, I want to read more accounts of North Korea. I’m particularly looking for accounts by North Korean people themselves. I don’t think it’s helpful to read through another foreign lens (Kim is American and South Korean). If you’ve read any memoirs/articles by North Korean defectors, I’m definitely open to recommendations.