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 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. She is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. To them, everything in North Korea is the best, the tallest, the most delicious, the envy of all nations. Still, she cannot help but love them – their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished.
As the weeks pass, she 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. The students in turn offer Suki tantalizing glimpses into their lives, from their thoughts on how to impress girls to their disappointment that soccer games are only televised when the North Korean team wins. Then Kim Jong-il dies, leaving the students devastated, and leading Suki to question 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.”
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have a lot of thoughts about this book. Parts of the story I devoured. I got a lot out of it and I like the way the author tells a story. At the same time I had a lot of concerns that had a huge impact on my reading experience and the sourcing of the stories themselves.
I read this one for Life’s Library Book Club.
That being said I’d definitely recommend it for a book club pick as it merits a lot of discussion about the human condition, Korean history from a socio-economic and political standpoint, moral conflict, complex cultural norms, and conflicts of interest as it relates to integrity when it comes to humanitarian endeavors. The book banks uniqueness on the portrayal of more elite/upper class male student life. It’s a very accessible read for those less familiar with North Korea and goes into enough detail where anyone who knows any amount will be intrigued by the stories that the author told. And interestingly enough, I’d especially recommend it to anyone going on a humanitarian mission and is looking for a book of what NOT to do when it comes to assimilating culture.
It’s hard to comment on someone’s personal experience and how they present their art take liberty in artistic qualities in a book like this because you’re not only critiquing their story about their story as far as content and context, but also the delivery of their message, and all that comes with it, including author credibility, circumstances in how you view them, etc…
So grab a coffee, another long one!
I was pulled into the story right away.
Early mention of the author’s job qualifications, having had written several op-eds, framed her story as a very credible writer, an more authoritative source on the matter, and a trustworthy person. I didn’t realize it would entail going into more detail about personal feelings, opinions, and relationships, as opposed to sticking to the the facts and letting the reader decide in a more open-ended sort of way instead of a timeline of her personal experience. It was definitely more experience-oriented than data collection for investigative journalism type research.
I quite enjoyed that angle for the most part.
There was a certain mystery with several scenarios and the way she went about sourcing data for her own book though. One example is that she never really integrated other peoples’ experiences in the field or referred back to her own work, using only network names like CNN instead of the actual journal writer or the content matter of her work. She never gave credit to those who’ve gone before her or those who may have made provision for her to be there. I was somewhat surprised she never presented any statistics on the subject matter, but maybe that was purposeful in maintaining relevancy with time.
She integrated a lot of personal feelings about certain situations, embracing them for sake of telling a story, yet at the same time without underpinning or principle from her own work, which I would have probably enjoyed from an observational viewpoint, followed by analysis, followed by a more open-ended understanding for readers to be able to come to their own conclusion.
I think in either fashion, whether personal experiences about personal outlook and matters with investigative journalism for purposes of explanation and context makes sense, but the expectation was not set up that way. The outcome left me wondering whether she was there to observe or intervene.
Basically she went sort of rogue, telling on herself a lot. Which I both appreciated and felt a bit strange about.
That said, I’m not sure as to whether this was a good or bad thing or a middle compromise when it came to strengthening her story because I felt it a bit naive to not think there would not be any lifelong fall out from publication of this book, especially when developing and maintaining relationships with others in the industry and working toward improving diplomacy with the country in the future. From my perspective, a lot of boundaries were crossed when it came to ethical reporting, adhering to certain codes of conduct and ethics in not taking advantage of a host country and the very people you are wanting to help. As well as asserting a certain agenda to try to reveal a specific outcome of what she alone seemed to want. At times, the behavior was almost distracting from some of the other issues at hand that people in North Korea face as depicted in this book, but I appreciated it for what it was at the same time.
American and Western ideals is not what everyone in the world wants in their life. The idea to not only introduce but to impose on someone or make them feel less valued or disrespected was problematic. Her refusal in refraining from wearing shorts and the Forks and Knives chapter were just a few examples.
I was engaged nonetheless.
In a few parts I’ll categorize the story more as it relates to historical context, personal story, job teaching aspects, and credibility.
Historical context I’d say as far as the intertwining of the author’s familial history made the narrative incredibly strong. It was very personal, much more than I expected. The cross-referencing with other world events was incredibly insightful.
Personal story: I didn’t feel I gleaned much through her personal love life story aside from a few nuances that told me maybe about what kind of person she was. Most of what I gathered was centered around this boyfriend, or “lover” as she calls him, or “the man” when she feels discontent or disconnected from him. He was absent in more ways than one. A George Glass type character. We never got to know him, or much about him, so I didn’t have much emotional connection to her lamenting about missing him to the extent that it appeared that she did. Maybe there was purpose in that? Even so, I didn’t see the parallels to the overall storyline compared to North Korea or the students other than a fleeting relationship with a boyfriend rather than a 9-year intimate relationship. It just didn’t work for me every time I came across the words “my lover.” I felt there was this wanting of comparison of sorts between her love for her lover and the students or perhaps N. Korea as a whole, but aspects of the relationship never developed to a point where I felt I missed him too. With the students, they played a much bigger and complex role in her life. Whereas the lover, was just a background memory of what was, what is, and what could be without any foreseeable, mutual impact. I guess my question is, can a relationship, whether over a long time period be just as fleeting or impactful as a short one? Of course, but without much context as to what she feels she attaches herself to or what draws her into a relationship or what she wants from a relationship, it’s hard to know the circumstances and therefore the conclusions.
It appeared she struggled with abandonment. Which was interesting to read but the lack awareness and reflection led to transference toward her students who became quick emotional attachments for her. When they displeased her, she had breakdowns and began disliking them, all while using words that expanded on an endearing positive, motherly relationship to possessive tones instead of professional ones which I felt to be peculiar. It started to take on a tone of a book about a lady writing a book who didn’t seem to take her work, professional life/career, and therefore, writing as seriously.
Job teaching aspects: I loved the inclusion of student writing exercises. The ones that were more appropriate at least. The level of detail and both the serious and funny situations that she decided to include in her story. I felt like this was where her creative writing skills really shined. The mix of historical context, dialogue, and both her and student reactions to everything was fun to read about. It was a bit harder to swallow the job teaching aspects though when she finally admitted to wanting to change them (which is not something you’d necessarily do while collecting data for investigative journalism), which is okay, it’s her story, but my expectations of what this book was going to be about just converged into the ulterior motive that I was less excited about.
There were inconsistencies of character as to what she was concerned about, such as regard for their personal safety in response to her telling them too much, other times she talks about slipping, other times she says it was purposeful. The thing about this, apart from her doings, wasn’t just about this moral conflict, which I can understand to some extent, but also picking apart aspects of their culture that make them who they are as people. At a point I would have thought she would have asked herself, with the journalism background and life experience, was to ask whether or not the students were hurting anyone. I could go on, but the Forks and Knives bit explains itself. I think it stemmed from this almost compulsatory moral duty to intervene on non moral situations.
I was surprised how she referred to them in this manner. Chapter 7: “ I taught them how to speak, this strange breed of children.”
The focus was sometimes off. She tried to take on this humanitarian effort without the social responsibility that would be required to help accomplish efforts in saving someone from their environment and demise.
Especially in part of the exercise where she asked students to write a Seventeen magazine type article essay about How to Successfully Get a Girl. I felt this to be extremely inappropriate. The students became almost a social experiment as she manipulated her way into their lives and manipulated them into getting answers for her deeply seated questions without asking herself if she had the right or whether it was uncouth to ask.
In addition some of the situations she pointed out are not exclusive to North Korea so I was surprised at some of the things she mentioned like squat toilets and lack of encouragement for critical thinking. Some of the concepts are common among those living as a foreigner and felt a bit naive. Some were just basic courtesy principles, again like the shorts wearing and forks and knives passages. If she was coming in with such expertise and had written so many journal articles about the people of North Korea like I felt it was set up to be, why did some circumstances shock to her personally? I was just a bit surprised.
Credibility: I felt she crossed a lot of ethical boundaries, both personally and professionally, and it came across in the writing as being dually motivated, fighting this conflict of interest in multiple ways. Whether it was her undercover in her job role, being a Christian which she lied about on the basis of omission, or indoctrinating her students with Western pop culture in any ways she could. I don’t know if she thought about the ramifications of her behavior even after publication of the book. Potential fallout from not only her presence but interventionist behavior was never mentioned and I kept waiting for some little morsel of self-reflection and self-awareness. I expected it and when it never came when I realized maybe this is more of memoir style of book. Her specific qualifications and experience, as I felt I was led to believe, would have allowed her to take a more seasoned approach when stepping into a country that doesn’t share in the same core values, beliefs, and respect.
When she first mentioned she was a novelist, who sought out to write a book, I couldn’t help but wonder who she expected the audience to be. Or her boundaries as far as content and angle was concerned. I wondered what her other bodies of work looked like. Were there no expectations or limitations in the information she gathered and published? Who was she writing this for? In the end she calls her students “insane” which was bothersome to me. Obviously in her teachings of English, she never intended them to read her book.
She lived a lot of lies in this book. She was honest in some of the telling of storytelling as she tells on herself, but not so honest with herself if that makes sense. I’d be curious as to what her thoughts were about the organization that she chose to be a part of. It didn’t sound like they required much of her, but I often wondered, did she not need references for this endeavor, either personal or professional? What about an essay asking about her testimony or personal worldview?
If so or not, what does it say about the organization? She mentions an apology in the author’s notes, but is this really the extent of it? Did she not have any conscience about the matter for a book she took quite some time to write? Or was it more an ignoring of sorts? And maybe the organization’s secret cover makes them just as guilty in the situation, but does this type of situation make an example of where you ask if two wrongs make a right? Also it seems that they did not try to make their English teaching consistent. Accents, colloquialism. I can’t imagine how this organization she worked with felt nonetheless. Probably betrayal. I could go on, but I’ll stop here.
I loved that it was very personal. At times though, I felt she was two people writing this book. Not only in storyline because there were bits of contradiction and some hypocrisy, but the style. Not so much in a layer a story with writing type of way but more or less made me wonder again, what story did she exactly want to tell? I don’t think that was defined in her mind or her writing contract. Again, who was her audience? As it became more personal, I was hoping for personal diary entries to read. Maybe real excerpts from her lover’s emails/texts. I felt that this would have made the narrative even stronger especially because she had to hide the thumb drive that contained them. I would have liked to have seen how she took notes.
I really liked some of her tell it like it is style when she tells on herself. Yet it was also the writing also seemed to have an identity crisis. Sometimes it came across as personal essay, the inclusion of the personal love story in the way it unfolded, but without much deeper substance other than longing. There was some adult-like, emotional themes, but they were less reminiscent, so overall I felt like in that absence, perhaps it was geared toward a younger audience. Maybe because it was the way the lover bits came out and the lack of self-reflection and lover’s quirks, cherishes, and building of memories that I would expect most adults to be comfortable with sharing, especially when forming adult relationships with other people, like Katie.
There was a dramatic tone to it. Mostly the countryside descriptions where it feels like she is searching for a real life North Korean experience/encounter at an interment camp among her elite teaching position. Or perhaps some remote village experience that would feed her soul and justify her other expectations in being there. These things didn’t really materialize for her on a larger scale, but I saw the reaching for them and mystery in knowing in such a shrouded country as an idea, which felt quite powerful.
Part of the tense change I thought was going to be a meaningful tool as she uses present tense, but it wasn’t consistently used during the most thrilling of situations. There is also 2nd person POV that I thought was meant to be impactful. Also 3rd POV that I viewed as her detachment to the situation, but again it wasn’t consistent, so maybe it should go into category of oversight from author and copy editor?
There are timeline jumps that force the reader into context and scenarios that are less connected. Some of them make sense and were golden, but certain passages disrupted the flow. Context is needed as a warm up for situations to come so I can see how there would be jumps. But comes back again to choosing story approach as memoir or journalistic, deciding which topics or timelines warrants either personal experience or historical background.
I would be curious to read more from this author. More of a memoir part 2, lessons learned, and if her outlook on previous situations and North Korea has changed over time. Perhaps that would be more like an autobiography at some point. It was definitely a book I was glad I read. It’s a book that sparks interesting conversation.
View all my reviews