Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim
Over a decade has passed since a Suki Kim title landed on my shelves. That she’s been repeatedly crossing the “immutable border” into North Korea since 2002 – just months after George W. Bush dubbed the closed country as one of the “axis of evil” triumvirate – might have been reason enough for the near-silence with the exception of a few articles, albeit in important national publications.
Last fall, Kim reappeared to resounding praise, starred reviews, and not a little bit of alarm, with a memoir that details the six months she spent teaching English at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Lest you be tempted to dismiss the title as too much doom-and-gloom, allow me to suggest that the ultimate message here is about hope. That Kim, a South Korean-born, U.S.-educated, New York-based writer could be assigned a six-month posting in this dictatorial regime, that she bears witness to noteworthy change among her students, that this book is available throughout the free world, provides promise that transitions are happening above the 38th parallel; surely the DMZ will not last through another inglorious Kim (absolutely no relation) dynastic generation.
Under the auspices of a Christian evangelical organization, Kim – who does not share their religious affiliation – arrived in Pyongyang in early July 2011. Kim Jong-il was still in power, failing his country miserably. At PUST, 270 sons of North Korea’s elite were saved from hard labor deemed necessary across the country: “every university student had been taken out of school and sent to do construction work until April 2012, when the entire nation would celebrate [founding ‘Great Leader’] Kim Il-sung’s one hundredth birthday.” Never mind that he had died in 1994 …!
At an institution claiming to teach Science and Technology, the boys – young men by age, yet still so naïve in experience – know virtually nothing of the technological advances happening beyond their country. Without access to the World Wide Web, they are privy only to the (unreliable) information the regime allows. Born into a history carefully constructed of inflated half-truths and utter lies, Kim’s students themselves have inherited the same inability to recognize the truth. Cut off from their families – many of the boys’ longing for their mothers is utterly wrenching – they write letters they will never be allowed to send. They tell stories of implausible scenarios they convince themselves to be true.
Under constant, strict surveillance, Kim shares three meals a day with her students, reads their revealing assignments, speaks to them with careful candor (she is one of the few foreign teachers fluent in Korean), and all the while opens her heart to the earnest young men. She vacillates between thinking her students “insane” for all the indoctrination they seemingly wholeheartedly obey, and “beloved” for the growing concern and attachment she cannot deny. She too, however, finds herself “inadvertently humming” one of the ubiquitous, sycophantic songs, “‘Without you, there is no us, without you, there is no motherland.’ By you, they meant Kim Jong-il.”
Her attempts to bake a chocolate cake, to show a much-requested Harry Potter film to all her students, to answer their plea-full questions about her return after the winter break, are bittersweet reminders of isolation; their soulful parting presentation of music – including a regional folksong with “Suki” in its title – of their request for her to speak a farewell to them in Korean was proof of “a moment of closeness that went beyond words.”
“‘Thank you for teaching me more than I taught you. As long as I live, I will treasure each of your faces and names, one by one, in my heart …. I want you to remember always that I am proud of each one of you.’'” She cannot stop her tears. By the time of her departure – eclipsed by the death of Kim Jong-il – she leaves hoping, willing that they will notice “that their world had now changed, perhaps for the better.”