My review of...
Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite
Crown Publishers, 2014
click to buy on Amazon
North Korea is a land where words are monitored, censored, and punished, so in her time there as an English teacher in 2011, Suki Kim knew there were few questions she could pose openly. There were still fewer answers those around her could give. Expressing the simplest of divergent ideas is forbidden, so North Koreans don’t trade in actual questions and answers. They trade in empty pre-approved aphorisms. Much of what her students, her guides, and her ever-present minders said each day was a repetitive swirl of lies, witting and unwitting, personal and political, all in praise of the motherland and the Great Leader.
Kim, however, wasn’t just an English teacher, she was an undercover journalist. She wanted to dig beneath the lies and explore what life is really like there.
In a world of bald-faced falsehoods, many truths can only be gleaned by observing the finest details. Kim was thus sensitive to minutia: gestures and glances, presences and absences, patterns and their occasional exceptions. Each night she took careful notes that she then wiped from her laptop in case guards searched her dorm room, saving them instead on a series of hidden thumb drives. The risks she ran were real—arrest, imprisonment, labor camps. Her courage and dedication are impressive in their own right.
But Kim’s accomplishments go beyond her actions while in Pyongyang. Once safely home in New York, she transformed her secret notes into beautiful prose. It seems the same vigilance that allowed her to survive two semesters under constant surveillance carried over into her writing, which is sensitive and precise. This memoir is stunning.
It is also enormously valuable. North Korea is known for being unknown, the world’s most isolated and hidden society. Foreign reporters who manage to arrange a brief visit are tightly controlled by their hosts and shown only narrow slivers of the country—those, of course, that cast the regime in a positive light. By securing a longer teaching post, Kim sidestepped this charade and explored the shadows behind the curtains. Against all odds, the reader is now privy to the everyday lives of North Korea’s elite.
Kim describes twenty-year-old boys who are the sons of the wealthy and the powerful and who have the boasting good humor to match. Yet she notes that they haul buckets of water at home rather than rely on plumbing. Electricity comes and goes where it’s wired at all. Although they’re students of Information Technology, they’ve never heard of the Internet and barely know how to type at a computer. Between classes they engage in mandatory physical labor at construction sites and communal farms. And they constantly spout unfounded claims about the rest of the world’s inferiority, oblivious to their regime’s dramatic shortcomings. At the slightest hint that other countries may have greater privileges or accomplishments, they avert their eyes and change the subject.
Even so, over the course of her account Kim manages to connect with these boys. She shoots hoops with them, eats meals with them, and arranges surprises to brighten their dreary days: chocolates, DVDs, a new soccer ball. They’re aggravatingly uninformed, misinformed, and prone to lying, but she develops a deep parental affection for them. And they express their love for her in return—in English when permissible, and through body language when not.
This powerful bond throbs like an ache by the end of the book. As much as Kim cares for her students, she is powerless to offer any lessons beyond grammar and vocabulary. She has the knowledge they need about political and social liberties, but discussing taboo topics is as dangerous for them as it is for her. No matter how terribly she wants to free them from the prison that is their regime and their mindset, she cannot.
She can only write about them.
As I sit here typing these words, it’s easy for me to feel that writing is a simple, casual act. I write every day, for pleasure and to relieve pain, and never do I consider this to be subversive. Rarely do I worry that my words will attract repercussions; to the contrary, my biggest worry is usually that they won’t attract any attention at all. My goal is the privilege of being read, but Kim’s book is a reminder of how lucky I am even to be ignored. I can learn, think, say, and write whatever I damn well please… but only because I don’t live in a land where words are monitored, censored, and punished.