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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."
"Quasi-apocalyptic, but amazingly not speculative…I devoured [it] for its wry and rare observations on that inexplicable land."
—Daniel Handler, Wall Street Journal
"Daring...Kim finds that paranoia is contagious — and can become chillingly routine. 'My little soldiers were also little robots,' she writes before departing, mourning not only that she must leave, but that they must stay."
"Remarkable…A deeply unsettling book, offering a rare and disturbing inside glimpse into the strangeness, brutality and claustrophobia of North Korea… Kim's book is full of small observations that vividly evoke the paranoia and loneliness of a nation living in fear and in thrall to its 'Great Leaders'…Her portraits of her students are tender and heartbreaking, highlighting the enormity of what is at stake."
"A book about censorship, trust, fear, love, and truth, seen through the prism of a school that functions as a comfortable prison…The title comes from a song the students sing in honor of 'The Dear Leader,' including the lyric, 'Without you, there is no us.' Within that title, and this book, is a multitude of truths."
"Sometimes personal histories retain a potent electromagnetic force, [like] Suki Kim's rivetingly topical look inside the most isolationist country on earth."
"Enthralling...Reveals the perplexing innocence and ignorance of one of the world’s most secretive countries."
—O: The Oprah Magazine
"A devastatingly vulnerable account... Kim’s stark and delicate language, intertwined with the suspense of being an undercover journalist in a foreign-yet-familiar land, truly humanized North Korea for me."
"A vivid, uncompromising and intensely personal account."
"A starkly revealing look at this hermit nation...Kim opens herself as well as the DPRK to scrutiny...Moving and emotionally evocative."
"Offers great details about [the students’] blinkered worldview…A frank depiction of North Korean life."
"Readers intrigued by Kim Jong Un's recent extended absence from public view can gain insight into the repressive system that shapes North Korea's ruling class from Suki Kim's new memoir."
"Suki Kim’s compelling reports for Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, and others have expanded and deepened our understanding both of life in the North, and the West’s profound misapprehensions about it.…[This book is] a fascinating, if deeply fraught document about the education of the North Korean elite, an aspect of the country that until very recently has been almost completely occluded… Kim’s access to the boys constitutes the unique nature of her book [and] illuminates just how sheltered they are."
—Los Angeles Review of Books
"[An] extraordinary and troubling portrait of life under severe repression…[Kim’s] account is both perplexing and deeply stirring."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A rare and nuanced look at North Korean culture, and an uncommon addition to the 'inspirational-teacher' genre."
—Booklist, starred review
"A touching portrayal of the student experience in North Korea, which provides readers with a rare glimpse of life in this enigmatic country...Well-written and thoroughly captivating."
—Library Journal, starred review
"Strangely terrifying…A beautifully written book that greatly expands the limited bounds of what we know about North Korea’s ruling class."
—Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy
"Terrifying and sublime, Without You, There Is No Us is a stealth account of heartbreak. Suki Kim, brilliant author of The Interpreter, penetrates the soul of her divided country of origin, bearing witness to generations of maimed lives and arrested identities. This look inside totalitarian North Korea is like no other."
—Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite and Quiet Dell
"This superb work of investigative journalism is distinguished by its grave beauty and aching tenderness. So skilled is Suki Kim in conveying the eeriness and surreal disconnect of the North Korean landscape that I sometimes felt I was reading a ghost story, one that will haunt me with its silences, with its image of snow falling upon a desolate campus, with the far laughter of her beloved students."
—Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss
"Like an explorer returned from a distant planet or another dimension, Suki Kim has many extraordinary tales to tell, among them how different—and how awful—life is for those who live in North Korea. The devil is in the details here, for her gritty narrative focuses on everyday events to reveal how repression shapes daily life, even for the most privileged. Yet Kim also bears witness to that part of the human soul that no oppressor can ever claim."
—Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana
"In language at once stark and delicate, Suki Kim shatters the polemic of North and South Korea. She couples an investigative reporter's fierce desire to strip away the fiction of the Hermit Kingdom with an immigrant's insatiable hunger for an emotional home, no matter how troubled and no matter how impossible."
—Monique Truong, author of The Book of Salt
"Combining a great novelist's eye for character and a skilled journalist's grasp of politics, Without You, There Is No Us helps us understand North Korea like nothing else I have ever read or watched. The elegance of Kim's prose and her great compassion for ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary situation kept me turning the pages, riveted by her story. This is a book that rejoins North Korea with humanity."
—Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City
"What a unique book this is! It delivers a beautifully and bravely observed inside account—startling, insightful, moving—of the planet's most notoriously closed and bewildering society. But what I liked best about it was being in the company of Suki Kim's voice—so intimate, vulnerable, obsessive, resilient, confiding and charming."
—Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name and The Interior Circuit
At 12:45 p.m. on monday, december 19, 2011, there was a knock at my door. My heart sank. I knew who would be there. I ignored it and continued shoving my clothes into the suitcase. The knock came again. She knew that I was inside, and she was not going to go away. Finally I stopped what I was doing and opened the door. There stood Martha, a lanky twenty-four-year-old British girl with glasses, with whom I had been sharing teaching duties. “You must come to the meeting right now,” she said. I sighed, feeling the weight of the past six months there among thirty Christian missionaries, now gathered in secret for the pre-Christmas prayer meeting. Then she whispered, “He’s dead,” pointing at the ceiling. I thought that she meant God, and I was momentarily confused. I have never read the Bible, and my family is largely atheist. Then she said, “him,” and I realized she meant the main God in this world: Kim Jong-il.
Was it fate that my North Korean experience began with his birthday and ended with his death? It was February 2002 when I first glimpsed the forbidden city of Pyongyang as part of a Korean-American delegation visiting for Kim Jong-il’s sixtieth birthday celebrations. It was only a few months after 9/11, and George W. Bush had just christened that country part of an “axis of evil,” so it was an inauspicious time for a single American woman to cross its border with a group of strangers.
Over the next nine years, with each implausible crossing of its immutable border, I became further intoxicated by this unknown and unknowable place. This isolated nation existed under an entirely different system from the rest of the world, so different that when I arrived in 2011, I found myself in “Juche Year 100.” The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) follows a different calendar system, which counts time from the birth of their original Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994; Juche, which roughly means “self-reliance,” is at the core of North Korea’s foundational philosophy. Almost every book I ever saw there was written by or about the Great Leader. The state-run media, including the newspaper Rodong Sinmun and Chosun Central TV, reported almost exclusively on the Great Leader. Almost every film, every song, every monument heralded the miraculous achievements of the Great Leader, the role passed down through three generations, from Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il to Kim Jong-un, who was twenty-nine when he assumed power in 2012 and became the world’s youngest head of state. It has been reported that every home in the country is fitted with a speaker through which government propaganda can be broadcast, and that more than thirty-five thousand statues of the Great Leaders are scattered across the country.
But while the regime dabbles with nuclear weapons, provoking repeated United Nations sanctions, the people of North Korea suffer. The 1990s famine (known as the Arduous March)killed as many as three million, more than a tenth of the entire population, and even now the World Food Program reports that 80 percent of North Koreans experience food shortages and hunger. It is estimated that forced labor, executions, and concentration camps have claimed over a million lives since 1948. According to the latest UN report, the DPRK maintains some twenty gulags holding some 120,000 political prisoners (Human Rights Watch estimates 200,000). These numbers are inevitably approximate since nothing there is verifiable. Almost no North Koreans are allowed out—defectors risk execution—and almost no foreigners are allowed in except those on packaged tours, most holding European passports, and they get to see only what is allowed. In this global age of information, where secrets have become an anachronism, North Korea stands apart.
My obsession with this troubling country—because it indeed became an obsession—was based on more than just journalistic interest. The first time I entered North Korea, I was not sure what a “delegate” was and did not know much at all about the pro–Kim Jong-il group I was traveling with. This makes me sound either extremely irreverent or extremely young, but I was neither. My ignorance was willful. Since getting a visa into the country was so difficult, I thought it was best not to appear too inquisitive. But there was something else, too: a part of me, a very insistent voice inside, did not want to know those details. For those of us who grew up in 1970s South Korea, anything to do with North Korea is accompanied by a certain foreboding. And for those of us whose family members were abducted into North Korea, this fear runs still deeper. If I had known as much as I do now, more than a decade later, I doubt I would have made that first, fateful trip. But I did get on a flight from JFK, on Korean Air, one of the world’s most modern and luxurious airlines, and then almost twenty hours later, via Seoul and then Beijing, boarded North Korea’s state-owned Air Koryo, where the only reading material was a magazine about the Great Leader. And I would cross that same border into Pyongyang repeatedly for the next nine years.
Every story has its origin in a time that came before. My obsession had its roots even before I was born, in 1945. It was then, when the five-thousand-year-old kingdom of Korea was divided by the Allies who liberated it from Japan, that everything went wrong. And since then everything has continued to be wrong, and nothing, not even the three-year-long war that began in 1950, has made much difference.
Or maybe my obsession became inevitable when I was a child growing up in South Korea. The years I lived there remain unnervingly still, pristinely intact in my mind. As I get older, the memory of those years grows bigger, each nook casting a longer shadow. Such is the condition of a first-generation immigrant for whom everything is separated into now and then, into before the move and after. The ocean that separates the adoptive home and the old country also divides time.
I was just thirteen when we came to America. The early eighties in South Korea was a time of political unrest and economic upheaval, and my father’s businesses—from the shipping company and mining ventures to the hotels—collapsed rapidly. Bankruptcy in South Korea was punishable by a hefty jail term, and we fled our home in the dead of night. Like many new immigrants to America, my family was now poor and kept moving—from Queens to Jersey City to the Bronx to Fort Lee. I grasped few of the vast changes that seemed to have occurred overnight in my physical surroundings. I knew that I was no longer in Korea, and yet it was beyond my comprehension that this loss of home was permanent. Another foreign concept that took time to absorb was that I was now Asian, a term that I had heard mentioned only in a social studies class. Back home, yellow was the color of the forsythia that bloomed every spring along the fence that separated our estate from the houses down the hill; I certainly never thought of my skin as being the same shade. Those years were also marked by silence. My mother tongue was suddenly gone, replaced by unfamiliar sounds called English. It seemed a miracle when I took the SAT and made it to college.
After graduation, I spent a couple of years in London, searching for something I could never quite name, then returned to New York to a series of part-time jobs and a rent-stabilized apartment in the East Village, where I spent my twenties. But I never felt at home there either and kept subletting my apartment and taking off, often on meager writing fellowships that required me to live in some remote place, whether it be a hundred-year-old cabin in New Hampshire or an empty room facing a desert hill in Wyoming. There were no cell phones then, and I was always calling my parents collect. I remember getting off a Greyhound bus one afternoon and standing in a phone booth outside a coffee shop in Taos, New Mexico, and my father, on the line from New Jersey, ending the call with: “If you keep moving like this, one day you’ll be too far away to come back.”
During those itinerant years, I once found myself on the Ligurian coast of Italy, which sounded better than it felt. It was a place whose awe-inspiring beauty so oddly failed to touch me that for years afterward I would look for an opportunity to drop the word Liguria in conversations, such as “I wore this dress often that autumn I was living in Liguria” or “I never finished that novel I was working on in Liguria,” as if to remind myself that I had spent nearly two months there.
Some experiences are like that. You live through them, and yet you aren’t quite there. Korea was the opposite. My first thirteen years remained real for me like nothing since. When you lose your home at a young age, you spend your life looking for its replacement. Over the years, I have never considered any apartment more than temporary. Each one remains spare, with bare walls and no personal touches—as though I might need to grab everything in a few seconds and run. People often ask me where my things are. The question always brings me back to South Korea; in my mind, I finally return. I put down my suitcase at the base of the incredibly long flight of steps I have never forgotten and look up at my childhood home, towering above.
Strangely, in 2002, when I visited Pyongyang for the first time, I felt more at home than I had since I left Seoul as a child. There was a sense of recognition. The past was all right there before me: generations of Koreans separated by division; decades of longing, loss, hurt, regret, guilt. I identified with it in a way that I could never shake off. I thought that if only I could understand the place, then I could find a way to help put the fragments back together. Like most Koreans, whether from the North or South, I dreamed, perhaps irrationally, of reunification. I returned repeatedly until 2011.
I am often asked, “Which Korea do you come from? North or South?” It is a nonsensical question. The chance of me or any Korean out and about in the world being from the North is almost nil. Virtually no one gets out of North Korea. It is a locked nation. Locked away from South Korea, from the rest of the world, from those of us whose families got trapped there. It is the sort of a lock for which there is no “open sesame,” and the world seems to have forgotten why it was sealed tight to begin with and who threw away the key.
My Korea is the South—the industrial, overachieving, better half that spewed out Hyundai and Samsung and in the six decades since the bloody war has established itself as the fifteenth richest country in the world. But the South is never just the South. Its very existence conjures up the unmentionable North, which, with its habitual nuclear threats and the antics of its bizarre dictator, casts a shadow far beyond its own peninsula. In recent years, North Korea has steadily become a siren for the hankering mind, making outsiders wait and guess and then wait some more, indefinitely.
Both my parents hail from families separated by the partition. And it is really the unrequited heartbreak of those separations—a heartbreak that lasts generations—that brought me North. If this were the sort of story that invites readers to nod with empathy and walk away both satisfied and educated, I would say that I traveled full circle. But in truth my journey was barely half a circle, a sad one that could never be completed, because those who were at the center of the harrowing history are almost certainly long dead, or old and dying, and time is running out before their stories are lost in the dust of the past.
The Korean War lasted three years, with millions either dead or separated. It never really ended but instead paused in the 1953 armistice exactly where it began, with Koreas on both sides of the 38th parallel. Historians often refer to it as the “forgotten war,” but no Korean considers it forgotten. Theirs is not a culture of forgetting. The war is everywhere in today’s Koreas.
There is, for example, the story of my father’s young female cousins, nursing students aged seventeen and eighteen, who disappeared during the war. Decades later, in the 1970s, their mother, my father’s aunt, received a letter from North Korea via Japan, the only contact her daughters ever made with her, and from that moment on, she was summoned to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency every few months on suspicion of espionage until she finally left South Korea for good and died in San Antonio, Texas. The girls were never heard from again. And there was my uncle, my mother’s brother, who was just seventeen when he was abducted by North Korean soldiers at the start of the war, in June 1950. He was never seen again. He might or might not have been taken to Pyongyang, and it was this suspended state of not knowing that drove my mother’s mother nearly crazy, and my mother, and to some degree me, who inherited their sorrow.
Stories such as these abound in South Korea, and probably North Korea, if its people were allowed to tell them. Separation haunts the affected long after the actual incident. It is a perpetual act of violation. You know that the missing are there, just a few hours away, but you cannot see them or write to them or call them. It could be your mother trapped on the other side of the border. It could be your lover whom you will long for the rest of your life. It could be your child whom you cannot get to, although he calls out your name and cries himself to sleep every night. From Seoul, Pyongyang looms like a shadow, about 120 miles away, so close but impossible to touch. Decades of such longing sicken a nation. The loss is remembered, and remembered, like an illness, a heartbreak from which there is no healing, and you are left to wonder what happened to the life you were supposed to have together. For those of us raised by mothers and fathers who experienced such trauma firsthand, it is impossible not to continue this remembering.
1. Before reading Suki Kim’s memoir, what were your impressions about life in North Korea? By the end of the book, had your understanding changed? How does Suki’s account differ from others you may have read?
2. In Chapter 1, Suki writes that the “unrequited heartbreak” of her family’s separation during the Korean War prompted her to undertake repeated trips to North Korea. How does this background inform the narrative? Have you ever returned to your family’s country (or countries) of origin? How connected do you feel to the cultures of your ancestors?
3. In the prologue, Suki refers to PUST as a “prison disguised as a campus.” How does PUST’s isolation affect its culture? How do Suki and the other teachers deal with the monotony of life at PUST?
4. Suki carefully plans her lessons in order to expose her students to tidbits of information about life outside North Korea, especially technology and the Internet, without running afoul of the “counterparts.” If you were in Suki’s situation, what subjects or ideas would you want to teach?
5. On the trip to the apple farm, Suki is initially charmed by the idyllic rural landscape, but she is horrified to discover that the workers are stunted and emaciated. How do Suki’s encounters with North Koreans outside PUST affect the way she views her students? Were there any moments you found particularly striking?
6. In Chapter 20, Suki describes PUST’s “remarkably tight” buddy system. Though impressed by the boys’ devotion to each other, she is disturbed by how quickly these alliances can shift: “I noticed that with the shuffling of classes from summer to fall, most of the pairings changed as well, and students were never seen with their former buddies again.” What does this suggest about the nature of relationships in North Korea? Is true friendship possible under these circumstances?
7. Though Suki’s students are smart and hardworking, they struggle to write simple essays. Why do they find this task so difficult?
8. The curriculum at PUST was restricted not only by the government but by the religious values of the missionaries. How did these restrictions affect the quality of education? What did Suki achieve for the students by letting them watch Harry Potter?
9. Were you surprised that the North Korean government condones a missionary-run school on its soil? What purpose does PUST serve for the North Korean government? For the missionaries?
10. Although Suki’s students were in their early twenties, and many had attended co-ed schools, they seemed to have had limited experience with dating. What do their beliefs about love reveal about gender and family in North Korea? What role does Suki’s relationship with “the man in Brooklyn” play in the narrative?
11. In Chapter 1, Suki writes: “Historians often refer to [the Korean War] as the ‘forgotten war,’ but no Korean considers it forgotten.” How does the war affect Suki’s life today? The lives of her students? Did it surprise you that North Korea considers the United States its “number one enemy”?
12. Discuss the book’s title, taken from a song Suki frequently heard the students chanting: “Without you, there is no us, without you, there is no motherland.” How do daily rituals help tie the students to the Kim regime? What other aspects of everyday life serve this purpose?
13. Suki’s students learn to condemn the United States and South Korea in their Juche training, yet they are eager to hear Suki discuss her life in New York. How do they reconcile Suki’s background with her role as an authority figure? Are there any points when their relationship frays?
14. In Chapter 13, Suki is deeply moved when her students crowd around her to take their class picture. She writes, “The teacher who took the photos told me that all the students wanted to stand close to their teachers. Being physically near them was the most they could do to show their love.” Were there other times in the book when strong feelings remained unspoken? Have you experienced something similar in your own life?
15. Suki’s students believe that the Korean language is superior and universal. Yet their government allows, even encourages, English-language instruction for its top students. How was Suki able to use language as a bridge? What did it mean to her students when she dared to speak Korean in their final days together?
16. Though Suki is unnerved by the ease with which her students lie to her, she eventually grows to love them. Why do you think this was the case? After reading the book, do you find the boys to be sympathetic?
17. Some in the West speculated that the death of Kim Jong-il would destabilize the North Korean dictatorship and might open the door to reunification. After reading Without You, There Is No Us, are you hopeful about North Korea’s future? Why or why not? What responsibility, if any, does the international community have to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people?
Posted November 21, 2014
This book is as much about the brave woman who writes it as the very important, secret, society in North Korea. I loved this book. I've read other stories about those who've escaped North Korea, but to read a story about a Korean American who is able to "freely" enter to teach English and live amongst this young "upper crust" student body, is a gift. This reads like an excellent thriller, and it's TRUE! Many thanks to Suki Kim!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 14, 2014
This book is about the experiences of a Korean-born American citizen in her late 20s who teaches English at an elite, Christian-based college in North Korea. She is not Christian. The book is remarkably well written. It will hold your interest to the last page. Even though much of it is almost like a day-by-day account of her interactions with her students, their minders, and fellow teachers, she makes it a fascinating story. Along the way, the reader learns much about the almost unbelievable suppression of nearly everyone in North Korea. One is reminded of the book 1984 with big brother watching nearly everything. Highly recommended!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 7, 2014
This does not focus on hardships as reported by defector testimony as in many books. Experiences are from one who taught english abroad in NK, to college students. I really enjoyed reading of her experiences.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 22, 2014
Do not waste the time or money on this one!. Ms. Suki Kim deceives a group of missionaries in accepting her as a Christian English teacher, willing to go to North Korea and teach English to North Korea's affluent's children.
Suki deceives the PUST (Pyongyang University of Science and Technology)staff and leadership, PUST staff deceive the North Koreans into believing they are there to teach, and North Korean leadership deceive the kids being taught, that they are educating themselves to a freer life. From midway through the book to the end of the book, all we get is page upon page of Kim's moaning and complaining about "her" circumstances in North Korea. She's depressed, she has no friends, her lover in NYC doesn't really love her, she can't find any good food to eat and on and on it goes for more than 100 pages.
I have read 2 other books on North Korea, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and The Orphan Master's Son. Both of them are much much better than this story.