Book Review – Without You, There is No Us

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** Happy New Year! **

The best thing about my holiday break was that I got to read. A lot. Sometimes I have the time to read but I can’t find a book I’m interested in, and other times I have a good book but I don’t have the time, energy, or peace I need to read. The stars aligned for me this holiday, though, and I finished THREE good books! Here’s a review of the first one I read:

I first heard about author Suki Kim when Jon Stewart interviewed her on The Daily Show. Kim is a journalist who posed as an English teacher to work at one of North Korea’s most elite high schools for boys. She captured the experience in a memoir entitled Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.

I’m fascinated (and infuriated) by North Korea, and many books and documentaries have described for me the brutal realities of life inside the dictatorship. For the vast majority of North Koreans, daily life includes brainwashing, thought control, paranoia, poverty, famine, starvation, lack of access to reliable information, no modern technology, and the ever-present threat of banishment to one of the many political concentration camps in the country. The list of humanitarian wrongs in North Korea is endless, and I urge you to learn more about it.

Kim’s account was fresh to me for two main reasons: 1) she taught in 2011, so her report from inside North Korea was more recent than most of the other materials I’ve encountered, and 2) she moved among the favored, educated, well-fed elite members of the regime. There are many eye-opening stories in Kim’s book, all of which detail an oppression that seems particularly striking to me because I thought the elite in North Korea would fare better than the common man…but it appears that the elite, too, suffer many of the same injustices.

For example, there are essentially no consumer goods to be had in North Korea, even if you account for a non-capitalistic society, and even if you have the money. Kim had to bring her own toilet paper, coffee, and refrigerator into the country. The food served at the prestigious school was simple and spare, too—all thin soups and no meat. There was also no modern technology or internet to speak of, even among the elite. Kim’s students described using a kind of limited, closed intranet email system among themselves at a prior school, and a handful of (adult) students were beginning lessons in basic internet literacy with highly-restricted access to only certain websites. There was also no form of communication with people outside of the campus, either—not even a phone or postal system for students and parents to contact each other. There were a few televisions and radios on campus, but only certain channels and programs were available to the students.

Interestingly, Kim and the other foreign teachers had access to the internet and some foreign television channels in their rooms. Also, the teachers were all volunteer workers, yet they had to pay for every detail of every special field trip they took, including trips to tourist sites they did not request to visit but that the regime wanted them to see. Kim’s descriptions of the empty highways on these trips are eerie and apocalyptic—there were no cars in either direction as far as the eye could see. She would see the occasional emaciated citizen walking alone on the side of the road, or a group of people sitting down and talking in the middle of the deserted road.

It’s hard to choose only one, but the most striking impression this book left on me was the realization that there was absolutely no freedom of movement for Kim, her colleagues, or her students. The school grounds were patrolled by guards, like a prison, and everyone had to stay within the campus boundaries. Kim couldn’t just walk out of the compound to jog or shop or go out to eat (not that there were many shops or restaurants to visit). Students couldn’t leave to visit parents, and no one was allowed into the compound, either, so parents couldn’t visit students. The rare trips off-campus were group activities organized like field trips, with buses and weeks of required pre-planning and pre-approvals.

As English practice, Kim assigned her students to write letters (which they could not mail or deliver, of course) to whomever they wished. The letters were heartbreaking. Students most often expressed their wishes to visit their families and old friends from previous schools. Most strangely, the students had odd habits of promising to visit loved ones even when they knew they literally could not visit, or they fabricated personal excuses for why they weren’t able to visit. They apologized for having too much schoolwork, for example, or for being sick, as if the lack of freedom or movement was a personal failing. No one even hinted at the reality that such visits were prohibited by the state.

By the end of the book, I was (somewhat) heartened by the fact that the students seemed to be increasingly aware of the disconnects between their indoctrination and the real world. I loved that Kim would plant small seeds of information and doubt in her students whenever she could, to help them begin to imagine the realities of the world outside of North Korea—the information, technology, entertainment, and freedom. She did this at her own peril, because who knows the kind of punishment she might have received if her state “handlers” found out what she was sharing.

I highly recommend this book. I couldn’t stop reading it once I began, and it made realize the mind-boggling pervasiveness of the North Korea regime’s power over its citizens—even the most worldly ones.

Other recommendations:

Kim’s book explores the lives of elite youth in North Korea. For an account of the brutal life of a young man born and raised in a North Korean political concentration camp, read Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden. For accounts of working class life in North Korea, read Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (my review is here).

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