Wednesday, September 16, 2015


2015 #TBRChallenge Reading: Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim


2015 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite by Suki Kim
My Categories: Nonfiction, Memoir
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Historical

"When I visited Pyongyang for the first time in 2002, 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. [...] And it is the unrequited heartbreak of those separations that last generations that brought me North. [...] Like most Koreans, whether from the North or [the] South, I dreamed, perhaps irrationally, of reunification. I returned repeatedly until 2011."

South-Korean-American author Suki Kim visited North Korea in various guises since 2002, but lastly in 2011, as an English teacher. She was primarily a journalist, who disguised herself as a missionary—so she was acceptable to the group of missionary volunteers—who in turn disguised themselves as teachers—so they could get entry visas to teach English. She taught the 2011 summer and fall terms at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the elitist of colleges in North Korea. Her teaching ended when their leader Kim Jong-Il died and his son Kim Jong-un ascended the throne became head of state.

Since the transfer of leadership to Kim Jong-un, the country has greatly strengthened its ties to China and allowed foreign brands into the country, according to a recent article from The Economist. However, at the time this book was written, despite the close ties with China, Chinese goods were allowed in but anything foreign was disbarred.

Even foreign thoughts were disbarred. Teaching simple things like obituaries was like a field of mines. Cut out discussion of politics, cut out discussion of Chinese repression, of religion, of morality, of even cable TV and 24-hour electricity and running water. The students had no access to the Internet, just an intranet. None of the computer science majors had heard of Steve Jobs. Everything was heavily censored.

As a result, the people lived in extreme isolation from the world and were devoid of any knowledge of what was happening out there. "The DPRK purposely infantilized its citizens, making everyone helpless and powerless so that they depended on the state. [...] The entire system was designed not to be questioned, and to squash critical thinking."

This allowed its two leaders to brainwash their citizenry into thinking of their nation as one of the most advanced and prosperous in the world. National pride was at an all-time high. The reverence shown to their great leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il bordered on God-like worshipful. They could do no wrong. They strove for their people. Their solicitude allowed everything in their nation to be free. "Our Great General Comrade Kim Jong-il is the greatest in leading our powerful and prosperous nation."

The Economist mentions the obligatory pin of the three Kim leaders (Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un) that everyone is required to wear. Suki also mentions the pins featuring the first two leaders worn by everyone.

The students at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) always traveled together in small and big groups. No one was ever alone—"every meal was shared, every second of the day was spent in the company of others"—and privacy was unknown. They marched in unison from their dormitories to meals and to classes. Without You, There Is No Us was a common marching song sung in honor of Kim Il-sung. Towards the end of Suki's teaching term , the song came to poignantly refer to her as well, as she brought the forbidden outside world to these highly isolated boys.

In various parts of the book, Suki puzzled over the students' universal ability to fluidly, unselfconsciously, and unrepentantly lie.

"The speed with which they lied was unnerving. It came too naturally to them. I was not sure if, having been told lies as children, they could not differentiate between truth and lies, or whether it was survival method they had mastered. [...] And so I went from love to pity to repulsion and distrust, then back to empathy and love again."

The North Korean's society was so conservative and patriarchal that a simple writing assignment "How to Successfully Get a Girl" caused great confusion. No one had ever had a girlfriend or thought about it. The PUST students were from the capital city of Pyongyang and the brightest of the country's students. "These were some of the most eligible bachelors in the country, and yet the methods they came up with to woo their dream girl were almost childlike. [...] More than one student described his ideal girl as one who would obey him, listen to him, and be a good mother to his son."

Contrarily, the government hired young, attractive, virgin women in all visible service-oriented jobs, including as part of the Pleasure Brigade for Kim Jong-il and the party leaders. These were clearly not seen as desirable or as desirable wives by these boys.

The Economist mentions that troops are the state's ready labor on construction sites. They forgot to mention the college students. Suki wrote that even the elite college students (wealthy and brilliant) were required to take extended breaks from their studies for this type of work. When the annual fall kimchi-making time arrived, all students had to abandon their classes to participate in the garlic peeling and cabbage chopping. No one had any say in what they did with their lives. The mothers of these PUST students saw their children rarely. Everything was in service to their leaders.

Time off was a rarity for the students. "'We're going outside tomorrow!' He could barely control his excitement. 'We don't know yet where we're going, but we are going outside! [...] Maybe for an hour. It is our first time since we came to PUST [months ago].'"

Time off was a rarity even for the teachers. They were watched constantly by the minders. There was no entertainment other than rare organized trips to rigidly curated and artificially manufactured presentations off-campus. At the Victory Day celebration, Suki had a chance to see what went for popular, classy entertainment. Songs included, The Song of National Defense," "To a Decisive Battle," "The Song of the Assassin" and songs in praise of their Great Leaders. Many of these songs disparaged (or even were murderous towards) South Koreans and Americans, referring to them as Yankee noms (bastards).

And yet, and yet...this is a North Korean song Suki and the students sang together at their dinner one night:

"Dandelions blooming on the hills of my hometown,
Those times when I played flying a white kite,
Ah, that blue sky I saw as a child,
Why didn't I know then that was the pride of my motherland?"


She was speechless as she shook hands with her students in goodbye. "I could not say, 'Leave this wretched place. Leave your wretched Great Leader. Leave it, or shake it all up. Please do something.' Instead and I cried and cried, and I smiled." The students only said, "Teacher, please smile. Thank you and goodbye, Teacher."


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