WITHOUT YOU THERE IS NO US: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite
by Suki Kim
(Crown, New York, 2015)
Hardback: 304 pages
Reviewed by Terry Noone
Towards the end of this book Suki Kim comments on a trip to North Korea by a fellow journalist. She says that he will report on the “designated sliver that the regime had permitted him to see”.
Kim is writing about her own “designated sliver”, although hers is one of which we in the West rarely get a glimpse. She spent two semesters teaching English at a university whose student body was restricted to the sons of the elite of the North Korean regime. There were no female students.
Kim was born in South Korea but her family emigrated to the United States when she was 13. Her father was facing bankruptcy in the South where at the time the consequences could include a hefty jail term.
Family members on both her mother’s and father’s side had disappeared into North Korea in the turmoil of the Korean War. They were never seen again. This background, however, seems to give Kim no particular attachment to either North or South Korea. What she seems to have is a longing to find her identity as a Korean. This is not to say that Kim does not appreciate the horrors perpetrated by the North.
Kim made several trips to the North as a journalist. On one of these she was put in touch with the administrators of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) and informed that there might be a teaching position available there. Eventually she was offered a position.
PUST was set up and funded by Western Christian groups. The teachers were virtually all devout Christians of the U.S. Evangelical tradition. Their aim was to demonstrate Christian values in their daily contact with the students to plant the seeds for the growth of Christianity in the North when the atmosphere became more relaxed.
Direct evangelisation was strictly forbidden, as was the distribution of any materials that could be seen as promoting Western values. All teaching activities and materials had to be approved by North Korean “minders”. Kim does not consider herself a Christian but the she allowed the PUST hierarchy and her fellow teachers to make the assumption that she was.
The students had no access to the internet and seemed to believe all the regime’s propaganda. This included all the expected anti-Western attitudes and the insistence on the superiority of North Korea in all things, but it is astonishing to encounter the notion that Korean kimchi is the food most desired by people all over the world!
Although communication with the West was forbidden, the students seemed to have more knowledge of Western culture than they should, albeit in a somewhat garbled form. Kim tactfully did not pursue the source of this information.
Kim had to avoid saying anything inappropriate at all times and could only communicate with friends and family in the most guarded manner. There was also the need to maintain the illusion of her Christianity among her colleagues. Combined with these two factors there was added the strain from the ending of a recent relationship and uncertainty about another.
Kim is frank about her emotional state and it forms an important part of the narrative. She developed a strong attachment to the students, who, though they were 19 or 20 years of age, seemed almost childishly immature. She was shocked when the students simply did not believe things that she told them and when their attitude changed completely after they had spent time in their “Kimilsungism” studies.
The students were at least as guarded as Kim herself. If an informal discussion strayed into potentially dangerous territory the designated student group leader (of which there was one for every group) would suddenly suggest a new topic or state that the discussion was “boring” and should be changed.
Perhaps the greatest insight that the book provides is Kim’s account of her attempts to teach straightforward essay writing. The notion of a premise followed by the evaluation of evidence leading to a conclusion was entirely foreign to the students. From their perspective, all things that are good are provided by the “great leader” and the only things that are true are those stated by him. In this context evidence is at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous.
The environment of PUST as described by Kim is confusing, claustrophobic, frightening and Kafkaesque. One is almost left wondering if anyone, including Kim herself, can be trusted, everyone is wearing at least one mask. If these students, who are destined to be the future leaders of North Korea, are truly convinced of the positions they state, it is difficult to see how there can ever be any meaningful dialogue with the regime. Alternatively, if they are merely putting on the front essential for survival, what do they believe and how can we communicate with them?
Despite this, Kim’s emotional attachment to the students reminds us that they are humans like us and perhaps therein lies the sliver of hope.