A haunting account 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 gone undercover as a missionary and a teacher. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them English, 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."
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
We were shocked and transfixed by Suki Kim’s account of her experiences teaching English at a select, all-male university in Pyongyang, North Korea, during the months leading up to the 2011 death of revered leader Kim Jong-il. Kim describes in captivating detail how she struggles to understand her limitations as an instructor carefully monitored by the repressive regime—and grows to love her brilliant but misguided students. Without You, There Would Be No Us is a bold, poignant, and deeply personal work of nonfiction, shining a compassionate light on this darkly baffling corner of our world.
In this extraordinary and troubling portrait of life under severe repression, South Korean born Kim, who emigrated with her family to America when she was 13 years old, chronicles the two semesters she spent teaching English to North Korean teens at a Christian missionary school in Pyongyang. Having visited the highly closed and secretive state as part of various official American and journalist delegations starting in 2002, Kim jumped at the chance to live and teach at the newly opened Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). "North Korea," she writes, "has become a siren for the hankering mind," and, despite some critical articles she had published and her work as a novelist (The Interpreter), she was accepted at PUST, a boarding school for the country's male elite. Her earnest, obedient students elicited a warmly maternal, protective feeling in her, despite their ignorance of the outside world, their empty boasting of their country's achievements, and the easy way they lied outright. The missionary teachers were never allowed outside of the compound without a group escort and were aware of constant surveillance; although they were provided access to the Internet, their students' access was severely censored. While Kim hoped somehow to open their minds and insisted on honesty (playing Truth or Lie, for example), she was knowingly betraying the school and the teachers by writing her secret account and passing herself off as a missionary. Her account is both perplexing and deeply stirring.
I read the whole book within days and loved it! Great read!
In the usual learned style of interspersing personal history into a story it felt more distracting than helpful. The use of lover describing her somewhat disinterested BF added nothing to the story. Her family's history also added nothing. However, the story about the school and students was interesting when the author's endless weeping moments were not revealed. I mean geez, she was only there a few months!
I read the entire book in 2 days. I could not put it down. The book evokes numerous emotions and presents philosophical challenges from a variety of angles. It leaves a lasting impression on the reader and demands to be discussed, debated, and pondered. Thank you to the author for having the courage to live the experience and share it with others.