A review of Suki Kim’s Without You, There Is No Us
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.
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”.
• • •
Suki Kim has had an incredibly rare and largely serendipitous experience investigating the young North Korean elite. The fact that she is of South Korean heritage afforded her the ability to get closer to the students and have them open up to her more than they probably would have otherwise, and there are certain public events she was able to attend because of her race and ethnicity. It seems that speaking the language was also helpful on several occasions.
I found Kim’s account of North Korea so much more interesting than most others that I’ve heard or seen. Her experiences as a Korean-American have provided interesting comparisons to what she encountered in North Korea (which was obviously still new and bizarre to her in many ways). Her perspective seems less removed than the white Westerners that go to North Korea who sometimes tend to treat it as an almost morbidly entertaining oddity (like a kind of disaster tourism)…which it is, but I feel Kim shows more compassion/humanity in her approach.
It’s interesting too to see how certain world powers (carelessly) affect other countries in major ways and I learned a little bit about the history of the conflict between the Koreas as well as their relation to certain other countries (namely the USA, China, Russia and Japan). I have lots of questions still that may not be answered for a very long time (if at all…). Some questions I had about the ethics of the endeavour as a whole seem to have been addressed on Kim’s website.
This is the year I first got into memoir and, although they are often interesting, there’s also a sort of emptiness in them too… A distance. Because no matter how well someone tries to put their life across to you, it is impossible to really know it. This feels especially true when reading (or listening to, as I did) this story because there are so many secrets held from the author and so much weighty significance and understanding in her own unique connection to North Korea and what it’s withholding from her. It seems impossible to know and, as this is real life and not a story, there are no definitive answers to be found. I’m not sure I can explain exactly what I mean, but it added to the cloudy, mysterious environment of North Korea and helped build the feeling of isolation and secrets hidden in plain sight.
And, all the while, there is a sadness knowing that all these things terrible things are happening right now and will continue happening and we don’t know how or when it will end or how many more will suffer in that time. There are glimmers of hope, but they are small. There is a clear view of a conflicted people held hostage by a complex web of lies and violence on a national scale. (Though I imagine those who are never allowed to talk to the public–the starving masses–are in little doubt that the regime is terrible.) When you see these people’s lives, it’s hard not to wonder about if the roles were reversed. There are questions about how little rumblings build into big blankets of oppression. How much of it is cultural and how much of it can befall any society? How far are we from something similar? Would we be cognisant enough to stop it before it embedded itself into our psyches?
Kim’s website has some photos and other bonus information to supplement the book which it is definitely worth checking out. I would have liked an epilogue with a follow up about (what little could be ascertained about) PUST’s faculty and students and the University’s status in general. I went to the PUST website which seems to be down or on hiatus maybe. Unfortunately, since I do not speak Korean, could not tell what it said.
I listened to the audiobook which was perfectly performed by Janet Song. I highly recommend giving this fascinating story a listen/read. And it’s best not to skip the Author’s Notes at the end.
genre: journalistic memoir
publisher: Random House Audio
date read: 16 September 2015
recommend for: those curious about North Korea
pros: engrossing, cultural learnings to be had, great audio performance
cons: I would have liked a follow up about PUST (its status/faculty/students)