Without You, There is No Us by Suki Kim
Publisher: Crown Publishers
Publication Date: October 14, 2014
Length: 285 pages
Source: My own copy
Without You, There Is No Us is journalist/novelist Suki Kim’s interesting memoir about the year she spent teaching at a college in North Korea. North Korea, of course, is one of the most closed societies of modern times, and Kim’s book sheds light on the strangeness of that world under dictator Kim Jong-il. Without You . . . is a fascinating and intensely personal account of life in an intimidating and repressive regime.
Kim, who was born in South Korea but moved to the US as a young teen, posed as a Christian missionary in order to get a job teaching at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). During most of the year 2011, Kim taught English to the privileged sons of the North Korean upper class—young men likely to become the future leaders of the country.
As a teacher at PUST, Kim had the deeply disorienting experience of giving up her own personal freedoms. She was kept a virtual prisoner on the university grounds, with her movement on and off campus tightly controlled, for example. Kim had to provide each lesson plan for review, and felt under constant surveillance by the “minders” provided by the regime. At the same time, Kim kept up the charade that she was an evangelical Christian, because PUST is funded, in large part, by Korean-American Christian churches. Kim operated, in a sense, like a spy, secretly taking notes for this book and hoping that no one—either the North Koreans or the missionaries at PUST—would unmask her true identity as a journalist.
Kim found her young North Korean students to be bright and enthusiastic, and yet oddly uninterested in learning about life outside of their own country. The students had been brainwashed all of their young lives into believing that North Korea was the best and most powerful nation in the world. At a university for science and technology, these students were unaware of the Internet—and Kim, frustratingly, was not allowed to tell them. It is sobering, indeed, to think of these young men as the future of North Korea. They seem quite unlikely to question the regime or stage protests for democracy, as young people have done in other regions of the world.
Kim’s book will no doubt anger the regime of Kim Jong Un, the son of Kim Jong-il and the current leader of North Korea, as well as the leadership of PUST. Kim changed the names of PUST staff and students so that they would not suffer reprisals from the regime. She notes that, although her book will cause waves in North Korea, she felt obligated “to tell the stark truth” about what she witnessed, “in the hopes that the lives of average North Koreans, including my beloved students, will one day improve.”
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Without You, There Is No Us. As a reader very interested in the topic, I would have appreciated a bit more background on PUST itself and its funders, as well as, perhaps, a chapter at the end of the book with Kim’s thoughts on the new leader of the North Korea, Kim Jong Un. Nevertheless, this is an unsettling and powerful account of life in a frightening and restrictive world, and I do recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about North Korea.