Review: Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

I read this book last month and have been putting off the review. Though Suki Kim’s Without You, There Is No Us is a valuable and unique read for its insight into contemporary North Korea, Kim’s presentation is off-putting. Forgive the lack of transitions below; I’m still organizing my thoughts.

Summary (from Amazon)

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.

The Good

Kim writes well, though her musings take a self-indulgent tone. She speaks openly of her students’ adoration of her and this reads uncomfortably. Maybe I feel this way because I’m not one of those let-me-tell-you-this-story-which-is-a-thinly-veiled-advertisement-for-my-own-awesomeness types. Oh wait, this the section in which I say good things. Unambiguously good: her discussion of her family’s history. The Korean War was skipped in my history classes so I knew little of the division between North and South Korea (have read more since this book). Though I knew families were separated, I did not understand how quickly this happened. The story of Kim’s uncle who was not able to travel south is heartbreaking. Though some readers did not enjoy Kim’s mini-biography, it gives context to her experiences.

The Ethically Questionable?

When reading, I waited for one of Kim’s students to say something subversive, something to indicate they understood the colossal lies propagated by the North Korean government. At the same time, I hoped this moment would never come. If Kim wrote a student’s discontent with any identifying factors, she could jeopardize their well-being. Kim swings back and forth between wanting to reinforce their beliefs, and wanting to give them a taste of the outside world:

Was this really conscionable? Awakening my students to what was not in the regime’s program could mean death for them and those they loved. If they were to take up and realize that the outside world was in fact not crumbling, that it was their country that was in danger of collapse, and that everything they had been taught about the Great Leader was bogus, would that make them happier? How would they live from that point on? Awakening was a luxury available only to those in the free world. (70)

This worry is ongoing and the chief tension of the book. Kim elaborates and expresses a view I would not expect from a teacher:

I hope they have forgotten everything I inspired in them and have simply grown to become soldiers of the regime. I do not want to imagine what might happen if they retained my lessons, remembered me, began questioning the system. I cannot bear the idea that any of my students—my boys who so eagerly shouted,”Good morning, Professor Kim! How are you?” every time I walked into the classroom—might end up somewhere dark and cold, in one of the gulags that exist all over North Korea. The thought keeps me awake at night still. (99)

Kim’s position is untenable. She is a constant “other” and restricted in all interactions. To her students, she is South Korean and American (their enemy twice over); to her family, she is limited in her correspondence by censors; to her fellow missionaries, she masquerades as Christian. While some deception is necessary to write a memoir about time spent in North Korea, Kim’s treatment of her fellow missionaries is unprofessional. In addition to likely making their job more difficult with her expose, she frames them negatively with heavy-handed parallels between North Korea’s oppressive government and their strict religious rules.These comparisons aren’t wholly out of line or unsupported, but they detract from the main subject of the book. And speaking of distractions…

The Irritating

Kim is a good writer, but rarely finds her focus. Her “Lover” earns repeated mentions and each electronic exchange between them is more awkward than the last. Their interactions are like a subplot from He’s Just Not That Into You. While I appreciate this book is more memoir than journalism, Kim is not very interesting. The best parts of the book are when she gets out of the way and writes about her students and North Korea. What I had looked forward to reading was how she would connect with her students across a cultural abyss. Surprisingly, this connection is in the form of immediate, static affection:

And the beaming smiles I received in return made that first day of teaching unforgettable. These young men were in many ways like children, with all their vulnerability and innocence intact, hanging on to my every move as though it would determine their destinies. Later I would wonder if it was decided in that moment that I would fall in love with them. We need to feel needed. We love the ones who want us. (46)

Page 46, when remarking on her first day, she loves them. This is all fine and very sweet, but it leaves no room for development. Kim and her students are immediately as close as they will ever become. It’s hard to know whether this is the true nature of their connection which is certainly limited by North Korean regulations, or a byproduct of her sentimental writing style. Unlike with her Lover, this affection is happily returned. After mistakenly teaching Class 1 instead of Class 2 on her first day, there was discussion of whether she should keep on with Class 1, or switch back to her original assignment:

I hesitated; part of me feared that more teaching duties would take time away from writing, the real reason I was here, but I knew this might be a great opportunity to experience the extremes of the student body. As I walked unto the cafeteria, still uncertain, and joined the line for teachers and graduate students, a few of my Class 1 students ran up to me with anxious faces. “Will you be our teacher?” they asked. “Will you stay with us?” It appeared that rumors circulated fast in this tiny community—not surprising, perhaps, since most things were visible from every corner. “Is that what you all want?” I asked. They nodded eagerly as though I were about to present them with the biggest gift of their lives. So it was decided right then, and, though I did not understand it at the time, it was more than the decision to be just their teacher. (44-45)

She fluctuates between adoring her students (and being adored) and feelings of distrust. Her students lie often and quickly, many times without a clear reason. She has numerous anecdotes of these interactions, but few pass beyond a surface level. Many of her stories are loosely connected into a larger narrative with individual students portrayed as interchangeable pieces. There are no interactions (except for a few sentences) with North Koreans outside PUST. This is an extremely focused portrait and it’s disappointing that Kim can’t dive deeper. To be fair, she is likely handicapped by her surroundings. This is yet another book that leaves me feeling it would work better as a collection as essays. Or, at the least, with a preface that outlines what she can and cannot tell a reader regarding PUST guidelines and goals.

Overall: 4.0  Without You, There Is No Us gets a recommendation for no other reason than the subject matter. It doesn’t have much competition.

Translation: I’ll dig around and see if I can’t find a better book about North Korea. In the meantime, if you want to read about college students learning English in North Korea, this book is the absolute best.

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