Thursday, December 31, 2015

Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

Just released in paperback, this is an excellent memoir of life abroad in North Korea during the last six months of Kim Jong-il's reign. Suki Kim does a commendable job reporting objectively on the living conditions and customs while later formulating her own thoughts on the state of affairs. I liked that this was a memoir instead of a report, as you get a firsthand account of the effects of living as one does in North Korea.

Title: Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite
Author: Suki Kim
Pages: 304 pages
Release Date: October 14, 2014
Publisher: Crown
Genre: Memoir; Asia
My Rating: 4/5

Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. It is a chilling scene, but gradually Suki Kim, too, learns the tune and, without noticing, begins to hum it. It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the 270 students at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has accepted a job teaching English. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them to write, all under the watchful eye of the regime. 

Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic, especially for Suki, whose letters are read by censors and who must hide her notes and photographs not only from her minders but from her colleagues—evangelical Christian missionaries who don't know or choose to ignore that Suki doesn't share their faith. As the weeks pass, she is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. At the same time, they offer Suki tantalizing glimpses of their private selves—their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished. She in turn begins to hint at the existence of a world beyond their own—at such exotic activities as surfing the Internet or traveling freely and, more dangerously, at electoral democracy and other ideas forbidden in a country where defectors risk torture and execution. But when Kim Jong-il dies, and the boys she has come to love appear devastated, she wonders whether the gulf between her world and theirs can ever be bridged.

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 explains how exhausting it is to constantly be aware of everything you say and do. People are always listening, emails are screened, luggage is rummaged through. To be on the top of your spy-game every minute of your entire stay must be taxing.

I thought it was interesting that Suki observed her students lying constantly about random and unimportant things. I wished that she could have looked a little more into why they felt compelled to do this.

Suki left North Korea the day after Kim Jong-il's death was announced. If she could have been able to hold on for just a little bit longer she could've gotten excellent coverage on its effect on citizens. But if you gotta go, you gotta go. You might not know the next time you will be allowed to leave.

I wanted more from the ending, like a few pages on Suki's final thoughts, or putting everything she experienced in perspective, but the narration just kind of stopped. Super 대박이야 though. I'm happy to have this one on my shelf.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this honest review.

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