BOOK REVIEW: Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite


Author: Suki Kim
ISBN-13: 9780307720658
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/14/2014
Pages: 304
Source: I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

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.”

I have always been fascinated with learning more about the secret state of North Korea. To me it has always been very interesting to see photos and videos of a people that seem to have lost track of time, stuck in the past. I knew some of the conditions that North Koreans experience because of documentary, photos, videos and books I had read, but never was I given a glimpse into the elite of North Korea. After reading this book in reality there seems to be no major difference between the elite and poor in North Korea other than the fact that the elite have a little more, materially speaking. But both sets of people in this type of society face the same fears everyone their faces on a daily bases.

This book is divided into two parts. In the first part of the book we are taken on a small journey as you learn about the life of the author. I was moved to think what culture shock she must have experienced when she explains having to move to the United States during her early teenage years and having to adapt to a new language and society. I love how Kim uses these experiences in order to relate them to the subject of the book which in turn would be her stay as a teacher at the PUST School in North Korea. The first half of the book speaks concerning her first visit years before to North Korea and the impact it had on her life.

I did sense a feeling that Kim suffered from depression, because many times in the book we are taken back to her personal life and memories and in this I felt that these memories brought tears and sadness to her life. I couldn’t help but think how she must have felt as she was writing this book. Could she have stopped writing and reminisce on the words that she was typing? Could she have stopped for a moment to take a deep breath? Kim’s writing style is fascinating and one I could relate with.

The writing style as mentioned before at times was smooth and almost poetic. During the first half of the book she experiences many different emotions as she is challenged with the task of teaching while guarding her words, actions and even expressions. I just can’t imagine what she went through in order to get research. I think as she was there with one task at hand, and that was to write a book, I believe she was drawn in by the innocence she experienced with her students. At times Kim seemed more like a mother desperately trying to help her children, but to no avail. The last scene in the first half of the book is packed with emotions as Kim has to depart, though knowing she will be back, yet the scene of not being able to express ones emotions is terrifying for any human being.

In the second half of the book we find Kim returning to North Korea for another semester. Though she knew what was ahead of her, yet she is still taken back with the fact of having to go through all the rituals per say of living in North Korea again. We see how Kim has grown in her own self and a new challenge lay ahead. Having gone in disguise as a Christian missionary from the beginning, there was one thing I didn’t like and that was how she at various times tried to justify her being there as a fake Christian missionary with the fact that they were also fake because they were there to try to convert North Korean’s into Christians.

Now I know Kim was there undercover as a writer and I have no problems against that. I just did not like that in both the first and second part of the book she justifies this various times. I for one feel that she should have not mentioned anything concerning the Christian missionaries, other than that they were missionaries in their organization. Seeing that these people were gracious enough to let her join their team, I think she could have respected that. It seemed to be that at times she felt a little superior than the Christian teachers present, because she was there gathering research for her book and they were just there because of their religious beliefs and aspirations. This is just my opinion and in no way affected the material in this book, it was just some observations that I made while reading.

I really don’t want to say more as to not spoil it, but I give this book a 5 out of 5. I can honestly say I enjoyed this book and was not able to put it down. Kim’s writing style is great, poetic and flows nicely, and you can feel the passion and deep emotions that Kim wrote that as a reader you are able to connect with her and feel as if you were there with here in North Korea.

Purchase this book (HERE)

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