Review: Without You There Is No Us, Suki Kim

Without You There Is No Us is a read for Nonfiction November, hosted by the marvelous Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Leslie (Regular Rumination), Katie (Doing Dewey), and Rebecca (I’m Lost in Books). Rebecca’s the host for this week, so head on over to her blog to see the nonfiction other bloggers have been reading and recommending!

North Korea is an improbable circumstance, isn’t it? Whenever I think about North Korea, I’m surprised all over again. I’m like the grandmother in Emily Climbs who keeps insisting that a child can’t be lost in the nineteenth century. How can there be, in this day and age where everything is connected, a country that has managed to conceal so completely from its citizens the truth about what the world is like? How can there be a country where the voice of the government is the only voice? How did that happen?

Suki Kim, a Korean journalist, has spent years reporting on North Korea, and in 2011, she was able to obtain a teaching position at a missionary-funded university in North Korea. She was to teach English to the sons of the wealthiest and most upper-class people in the country. If anybody at the school or anybody in the government had googled her name, they’d have found at once that she wasn’t a missionary or a teacher or even a Christian; but nobody ever did. (Which sums up North Korea pretty nicely, doesn’t it?)

Kim’s experiences at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) aren’t surprising, and like most journalism on North Korea, her work offers only the occasional, tantalizing glimpse at a piece of the answer to the question we all want answered: Do they really believe that? Or if they don’t swallow it completely, what are the bits they’re skeptical of? Do they think to be skeptical that Korean food is beloved all over the world? And how would they ever come to such skepticism, anyway, since they have no source of outside information and no way to ever leave the country? Here’s what one of the students says about seeing Kim again after her time as a teacher is up:

They asked, yet again, “Professor, are you coming back next semester?” I told them that honestly, I really was not sure if I would be allowed back in their country, but even if I did not make it back, perhaps one day they would have access to the Internet and then we could Skype. They remained silent until one of them, who seemed deep in thought, said earnestly, “Perhaps I could become a delegate at the UN. Then I could come to New York and see you again in person!”

There are lots of moments like this, where the boys seem innocent and sweet. But Kim knows there’s another side to them. She writes about how frequently and how easily they lie, even when their lies are easy to disprove, and how they never admit being caught in a lie but just keep piling on more excuses to explain away any discrepancies in their story. This reflexive, fluid dishonesty doesn’t negate the students’ curiosity and affection for her, but it sits alongside those things; it complicates them.

Though Kim never says it, I couldn’t stop thinking about the future for these students. A very few times in the book, Kim catches sight of (what we all suppose to be) the true North Korea:

Then the bus swerved closer to the edge of the road, and I saw a few people walking alongside it. Their faces were ghastly, as if they had not been fed in years. A skeletal woman held out a pack of cigarettes as though offering it for sale to any passing bus, although there was none but ours. When we passed closer to one of the construction sites, the workers became visible, with hollowed eyes and sunken cheeks, clothing tattered, heads shaved, looking like Nazi concentration camp victims. The sight was so shocking that both Katie and I drew in sharp breaths. We could not say anything or show our feelings, since the minder sat nearby, but we exchanged glances, and Katie mouthed the exact word that struck me at that moment: “Slaves.”

I would read this, or read something about Korean gulags, and I’d think that Kim’s students, one day, would be the ones who ordered people into gulags. Or they would lose favor with the government and be in the gulags themselves. These exact same boys who went mad with excitement at the prospect of getting to see one of the Harry Potter films! Those same boys! It made for a deeply strange read, and I can only imagine how much stranger it must have been to live it.

Recommended despite some grave cognitive dissonance and concerns about the morality of writing this book. Next I would like to read Nothing to Envy, which everybody was recommending a few years ago.

24 thoughts on “Review: Without You There Is No Us, Suki Kim”

  1. I’ve had this one in mind after reading a review somewhere. I share your surprise about North Korea, every time I read something about life there. Are your concerns about the morality because of the lies that Suki Kim told to obtain the position? I wonder what kind of repercussions there were for those who hired her, once the book was published.

    1. My concern actually was about the repercussions for those who hired her, the institution where she worked, and the kids she taught. She has no way of knowing what those repercussions will be!

  2. I’m assuming your concerns are with the repercussions to the students, the other teachers, and any one else she may have had contact with. This was very troubling to me, too. Paradoxially, the bit you quote (about the slaves) made her project somewhat more acceptable to me: people need to know, and maybe there is a greater good to be served by her book, even if it results in harm to people who trusted her. I feel very mixed feelings! And yes, how troubling it is to think that “these same boys” will someday be propping up this madness.

  3. This sounds like an interesting book, and I’ll have to grab a copy. I have a copy of Nothing to Envy on my shelf that I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time but haven’t gotten to yet, but North Korea on the whole is definitely an interesting “topic” that I’d like to explore further.

    1. Yeah, it’s a fascinating country. I read Nothing to Envy over Thanksgiving and thought it was incredible — both incredible as a superlative, and used literally.

  4. Oh, I’ve heard of this book. I find North Korea so baffling. How does it even manage to exist as it is? Why aren’t there mass uprisings? It is such a baffling country

    1. It is, it is! I feel so sad that the nation’s leaders have managed to keep their people in this level of ignorance. Bleh.

  5. I went on a North Korea kick last year and read The Orphan Master’s Son, Pyongyang, and Nothing to Envy. Nothing to Envy was the best by a long shot. There’s an older woman in that who is now one of my heroes. I had serious concerns about Pyongyang–mostly about the author making fun of the people–if this is similar, maybe I’ll pass, but it sounds like she’s pretty respectful toward the students, even if she’s critical of some of their behaviors. I have an e-galley of this but haven’t gotten to it–it’s near the top of my list, so perhaps I’ll be able to read it before it expires.

    1. Phew, that sounds like a hell of a reading kick. And yes, Suki Kim is definitely respectful of her students. You can tell that she was fond of them, and she’s trying to convey both sides of them, the endearing side and the frankly rather sinister side.

  6. North Korea is one of my non-fiction interests (I just ordered Nothing to Envy as well). It is just as you say – the country is there, it’s on the world map just as all the other countries, in that way it’s a solid essence, yet every time you think about North Korea among the first things that come to mind is “This is not possible”. I have had this book in my TBR for a while and hopefully will read it at some point 🙂

  7. Nothing to Envy is SO GOOD! I highly recommend it. Not really any of the moral ambiguity there on the writer’s side.

    1. Thanks for recommending it so highly! You convinced me to check it out and read it on my Thanksgiving holiday, and I thought it was fantastic.

  8. I think Nothing to Envy is a really great companion read to this one. It gets inside different parts of North Korea and gives a perspective from people who have seen through what the boys in this story can’t or won’t admit to. I think there are some ethically complicated parts of this one, but I dunno, I think the ends justify the means — these are the people who will be running this country, and it’s worth knowing how they see the world.

    1. Yeah, that’s a really valid point. I didn’t come to one conclusion or the other — just felt uncomfortable with it, to some extent, and I couldn’t figure out how to reconcile it.

  9. Your non-fiction reads remind me how ignorant I am of so many places and events. I read your review and realized I know next to nothing about North Korea. The place hardly features in the newspapers here – for good or for bad. The only time I remember it was when it was named as part of the axis of evil, but this was by George Bush, to whom I never paid much attention >.<

    1. Hahahaha, I unfortunately had to pay a LOT of attention to George W Bush in the years he was president. I remain very relieved that that time is over now. But yeah, North Korea gets a little play in the newspapers here, often because they’ve done or said something insane and improbable.

  10. I would certainly like to read Nothing to Envy, but this sounds pretty good too. It’s really hard reading anything about North Korea. One part of my brain is always in confusion (how can a country be this isolated?) and then the things I read about in the book are not rosy either. It’s hard to imagine that one man can cloak an entire country!

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