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.