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.”
I didn’t even know about this book until a couple weeks ago when I saw someone’s review of it on their blog. And as someone who has never read any book on this subject, I thought why not and added it to my Asian Readathon TBR. But now I’m having trouble articulating what I feel.
This is a memoir of the author who worked as an English teacher in a university in North Korea. I have no clue about the DKRK at all because I’ve never read books on the subject, except listening to the sensational news items about its current leader. So I definitely went in to this to understand how the country works, from the perspective of someone who got to experience it atleast for a time. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but the narrative is pretty bleak. The constraints on freedom, being completely cutoff from the world, being scared to even email family members who live in other countries, the same exact routine everyday – I could feel in the author’s words her despair over what was happening and how helpless she was feeling. At the same time, she is also surrounded by evangelical Christian professors whose aim is completely different, and I thought there were quite a few parallels between the DPRK regime and the religious professors, especially in the way they tried to control what could be taught and what couldn’t, how to manipulate the thinking of other people, and how they believed in their own made up reality which had nothing to do with the real world.
It’s a world unto itself and just like the author, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pity her students who were so brainwashed about the greatness of their country that they couldn’t accept anything else from their professor, or if I should be angry that they were just being willfully bling to all the faults. It’s hard to judge them by our morals and standards, because the consequences for them even asking a question about the outside world can be too much and their living in denial (willfully or not) is probably their best survival mechanism.
I don’t know if it was the nature of the book or the writing style, but I felt like the author’s despair permeated my head too and I have only felt dreary day after day since I started it. It obviously doesn’t help that the outside world is currently scary as hell because the pandemic is wreaking havoc in my country, and I’m trying to live in denial so that I may keep my sanity. But I have to mention that the author does get very repetitive at times, which might bore us as a reader, but I also thought it reflected the kind of repetitive life she had to live there. The audiobook helped in making me want to continue reading, because I’m pretty sure I would have ditched it if it was a physical copy.
In the end, I think this is a unique perspective because we see how the life and education of the children of the elite in NK is, and how insular and manipulative their lives are. I just think you need to be in the right mood to read it, because it’s not very engaging and it’s bleak nature can put off a reader, despite the bleakness being a major feature of life in the country and the feeling is completely unavoidable.