Book Review: Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite

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Title: Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite
Author:  Suki Kim 
Release Date:  October 14th 2014 
Publisher: Crown
Source: Bought
Rating: ★★★
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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 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.


My Review: 

Suki Kim's memoir startled and impressed me while reading it. The author went undercover as a a teacher part of a Christian missionary deep into one of the most exclusive universities in North Korea, teaching the elite children of the country, as someone who was both South Korean and American, which North Korea absolutely detests. 

It's an ambitious tale of reporting, especially in a country that is so shrouded in secrecy and regularly commits human rights violations such as sending their citizens to labor camps or the leader murdering members of his own family

It's an interesting perspective on North Korea, that focuses not on the human right atrocities or the poorer citizens of the country, but a slice of the elite men that will most likely inherit powerful positions in the North Korean regime. 

Suki Kim does a fantastic job of telling her own story as a foreigner in North Korea, but also of the students that she is teaching. The university that she worked at was supposed to focus and cater to technology and computer skills yet many of the students didn't know how to write a basic five paragraph essay or know that much about computers. 

In the age of modern technology and knowledge at our fingertips, it's amazing how much we don't know about The Hermit Kingdom and its inner workings. 

What astonished me was how psychologically beaten these young kids were by the regime and the constant fear and propaganda they had to endure. The author drew an intimate portrait of these students, despite the fact that these students hid themselves under the collective of 'we', for the regime. 

Suki Kim was in North Korea at an interesting period in their history, since the death of Kim Jong-il happened during her stay there. She does a great job humanizing the students, who are wealthy and part of the elite class in North Korea, but virtually have no freedom like the rest of the citizens. Their cage is more comfortable, but still a cage nevertheless.

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite by Suki Kim is available here

-Amanda Leon

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