Sunday, November 8, 2015

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

We know so little about North Korea that it can loom quite large in imagination. And what little we do know does not recommend it to us. We have trouble envisioning a society so secretive and closed. We find it hard to imagine an unthinking reverence for our leader. We cannot imagine being so removed from the rest of the world as to have no knowledge at all of scientific advances, popular culture, or world events. In this day and age of instant access to information, we have very little insight into a population and a country where these very things are true.  We shudder at the thought of such a dictatorship, finding it something out of dystopian fictions like 1984.  However, Suki Kim, a journalist and author, had access to this society for a brief moment in time when she went to North Korea for several months and taught English to the sons of the North Korean elite. This book is her memoir of her time there.

Suki Kim grew up in South Korea and like so many others there, had a family member disappear forever when North and South Korea were partitioned. This family history, paired with a couple of sanctioned trips to North Korea, made Kim want to see underneath the scant images we have of the country, past the carefully orchestrated and controlled visits she was allowed to make, beyond the caricature of an inexplicable leader so often poked fun at in the media. So she applied to be a teacher at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a school founded by Christian missionaries, closely monitored by the government, educating the sons of the elite, and the only university allowed to remain open in 2011. She was accepted to teach English there despite the fact that she is not only a journalist but also an atheist. And so started her several months, two semesters worth, of living in the wholly controlling country of North Korea.

Her experience there was one of constraint. She had to keep notes secretly; her emails were censored and mail was read. The university "minders" kept the teachers under constant surveillance and Kim felt a crushing isolation, a fear of reprisals, and a paranoia that made it depressing and lonely to live there. She came to care deeply for her students but was afraid to connect with them on much more than a very superficial level in case they are punished or she tells them of things they are not supposed to know which make them yearn for more. She had try to teach her English classes without reference to the outside world, a world her students have been taught to despise, and her curriculum must be doubly approved, both by the government minders and by the evangelicals running the school. And if that wasn't challenging enough, she had little to no contact with family and friends outside of Korea to help her through the times of despair.

While there, Kim had a first hand view of the real reverence in which the North Koreans held Kim Jong-il. She saw the ways in which group mentality was taught and maintained in the boys, extinguishing any sense of individuality and instilling total devotion to the regime. She herself blurs her students and her interactions with her students together, a necessary protection for them but one which left them reading as flat and stock rather than real boys. But perhaps even she didn't know them either, despite living there there was no knowing the people, no escaping the ever present propaganda, no seeing that which the government didn't want an outsider to see. Since it was too dangerous for Kim to really have honest discussions with her students and her own movements and understanding of North Korea were so orchestrated by the regime, she had to return over and over again in the memoir to her own feeling of claustrophobia at the school and sadness for young men who were so brainwashed and ignorant of the outside world. As such, the memoir doesn't really pull the curtain on this secretive country even though Kim clearly wants to. The story is alternately both personal and a journalistic investigation but Kim's worries and stories about her personal life at home merge uneasily with her stated purpose in being in PDRK. The underlying topic was fascinating but the book itself was a bit repetitious.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds so controlled there in the classroom that she didn't reveal much? What a dark place. Sad.


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