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

Overview

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

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Overview

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 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. She is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. To them, everything in North Korea is the best, the tallest, the most delicious, the envy of all nations. Still, she cannot help but love them—their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished.
As the weeks pass, she 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 students in turn offer Suki tantalizing glimpses into their lives, from their thoughts on how to impress girls to their disappointment that soccer games are only televised when the North Korean team wins. Then Kim Jong-il dies, leaving the students devastated, and leading Suki to question 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."

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
★ 09/08/2014
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. (Oct.)
From the Publisher
“A fascinating—and sad—glimpse into the most isolated country in the world.”
—Audrey magazine

"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

“[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] most enlightening tale about the North Korean darkness…Directs the lights of emotion and intelligence on a country where ignorance is far from bliss."
Kirkus Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
2014-07-16
A novelist and freelance journalist relates her experiences, both grim and gratifying, as an English teacher in a small North Korean university. Kim (The Interpreter, 2003) was undercover, teaching with a group of devout Christians bent on conversions, a group she managed to deceive successfully, her more liberal views emerging most patently during a debate about showing a Harry Potter film to her classes. She also deceived her North Korean hosts, privately keeping a journal—which, feeling paranoid, she stored on multiple flash drives concealed in her room and on her person. But her deception allows her to tell a most enlightening tale about the North Korean darkness. The author spent her childhood in South Korea and immigrated to the United States when she was 13. Although she shared the Korean language with her students, as an English teacher, she (and her superiors) insisted on English-only with them, and it's not until the end that—at their request—she addressed them in Korean. Kim keeps our focus on a number of issues: the abject poverty of people she sees outside the school; the absolute devotion of the North Korean media to Kim Jong-il (whose death in 2011 frames Kim's story); the feelings of paranoia she experienced; her periodic bouts of depression about being in such an intellectually and otherwise stale environment; the ignorance of her students (most were very bright) about history, geography, technology and cultural differences; and the inability to acquire all but the most basic consumer goods. But she also repeatedly reports her deep affection for the young men she taught (there were no female students) and her profound worries about their futures. A few minor quibbles: She occasionally slides into cliché ("weak in the knees") and records perhaps too many student comments praising her teaching skills. Directs the lights of emotion and intelligence on a country where ignorance is far from bliss.
Library Journal
★ 09/15/2014
Kim (The Interpreter) spent much of 2011 teaching English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), North Korea's first privately funded university. She left the country in December 2011, one day after Kim Jong-Il's death was announced. During her time in North Korea, Pyongyang University was the only operating institute of higher education, as students from all other universities were dismissed to work on various construction projects. For unknown reasons, the elite students of Pyongyang were spared from this mandate. As Kim explains, her real purpose for being in North Korea was to gather material for writing this self-reflective work, leading her to hide her true intentions from both North Korean officials and the Christian missionaries who ran the school. The result is a touching portrayal of the student experience in North Korea, which provides readers with a rare glimpse of life in the enigmatic country. Kim describes a regimented system that is designed to make personal space, and even thoughts, impossible for learners and faculty alike. VERDICT This well-written and thoroughly captivating book is highly recommended for anyone looking to grasp a better understanding of North Korea. [See Prepub Alert, 5/4/14.]—Joshua Wallace, Ranger Coll., TX
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307720658
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/14/2014
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 405,928

Meet the Author

Suki Kim is the author of the award-winning novel The Interpreter and the recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Open Society fellowships. She has been traveling to North Korea as a journalist since 2002, and her essays and articles have appeared in the New York TimesHarper’s, and the New York Review of Books. Born and raised in Seoul, she lives in New York.
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