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Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite

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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 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 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 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 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. She is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. To them, everything in North Korea is the best, the tallest, the most delicious, the envy of all nations. Still, she cannot help but love them - their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished. As the weeks pass, she 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. The students in turn offer Suki tantalizing glimpses into their lives, from their thoughts on how to impress girls to their disappointment that soccer games are only televised when the North Korean team wins. Then Kim Jong-il dies, leaving the students devastated, and leading Suki to question 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."


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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 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 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 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 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. She is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. To them, everything in North Korea is the best, the tallest, the most delicious, the envy of all nations. Still, she cannot help but love them - their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished. As the weeks pass, she 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. The students in turn offer Suki tantalizing glimpses into their lives, from their thoughts on how to impress girls to their disappointment that soccer games are only televised when the North Korean team wins. Then Kim Jong-il dies, leaving the students devastated, and leading Suki to question 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."

30 review for Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite

  1. 5 out of 5

    La Petite Américaine

    3/20/16 So I went to the Suki Kim Q&A last weekend. I was hard on Kim in my review, but I stand by what I wrote, even more so after having attended the Q&A: she said that her book is investigative journalism and not a memoir, and that it was only labeled a memoir because her publisher insisted on it. The book is nowhere near investigative journalism, and is one of the weakest North Korea memoirs I've ever read. So, like I said. I stand by this one. Thx. LPA 2/20/16 Okay, what's going on arou 3/20/16 So I went to the Suki Kim Q&A last weekend. I was hard on Kim in my review, but I stand by what I wrote, even more so after having attended the Q&A: she said that her book is investigative journalism and not a memoir, and that it was only labeled a memoir because her publisher insisted on it. The book is nowhere near investigative journalism, and is one of the weakest North Korea memoirs I've ever read. So, like I said. I stand by this one. Thx. LPA 2/20/16 Okay, what's going on around here? First this happened, then I find out this is happening, and now I've learned that Suki Kim is coming to town. Should I go to see Suki Kim's thing? I don't want to....but am starting to wonder if I should.... ****** I would have liked this book a lot more had the author not annoyed the sh!t out of me. Suki Kim is like one of those college girls who goes to study abroad in some exotic place, only to spend the semester pouting in her dorm room because she misses her boyfriend. Seriously. When Kim heads to North Korea to teach English with a missionary group at a Pyongyang university, she has the opportunity to observe the lives of American fundamentalist Christians and ordinary North Koreans -- two fascinating groups that should provide plenty of fodder for a decent memoir. Yet, the author fails us. The result is not a memoir about North Korea. It's just a couple hundred pages of whining by a chick who can't deal with not getting laid for a few months. I'm not kidding. Look. It's clear that Kim is trying to draw parallels between her love for a man, Christians' love for God, and North Koreans' love of their leader -- but it doesn't work. Anything about North Korea, Kim's experiences there, or the lives of Kim's students are completely overshadowed by the author's self-centeredness, and her obsessive longing for a guy we never even get to meet. Kim spills a little bit about the non-existent sex lives (um, who cares?) of the unwed Christian faculty at the university, but promptly brushes them aside to give readers a healthy overdose of her own life...and it's weird, distracting, and ever present throughout the book. A couple of examples? Within a nanosecond of meeting the all-male student body at the university in Pyongyang, Kim decides that she's "fall[en] in love" with all of her students. Um, okay. Later, for whatever reason, she'll have her all-male class write essays about "How to Successfully Get a Girl." What a great topic for a college-level English course: not only is it irrelevant to her students' lives, it's also culturally insensitive as fuck. North Koreans don't "get girls." Due to mandatory military service, North Korean men don't date for the first decade after high school. After their military service, a majority of North Koreans' marriages are arranged by their parents. Kim will of course tell us she's trying to open students' minds with these types of topics. Uh-huh...one American woman successfully deprogramming brainwashed North Korean men, one clever ESL lesson at a time? Yeah, right. The lone female in the room asking young men to write about how to win over a woman, when winning over a woman isn't a part of their culture? Gee. That sounds a lot like attention-seeking...as if Kim chose the "How to Successfully Get a Girl" topic to heighten the sexual tension in the room and solidify her position as Pyongyang's most talented cock tease. Um. Awesome? She goes on to toss in some self-flattering dialogue spoken by others, such as: "Comrade Suki, I hear you and Comrade Katie are the most popular teachers, and the boys are just wild about you," and "When I see Comrade Kim Suki casting her feminine glace over her students in the cafeteria, I wonder if the students are all captivated by her feminine charm. They must lose sleep at night thinking about their teacher. They are virile young boys, after all." Ok, we get it. Kim wants to get some, her students are all hot for teacher, and no one is getting any. It's frustrating. But do we need an entire book about it? When she isn't being flattered by minders or flirting with students, Kim is usually shut away somewhere on campus, missing her "lover" (God, that word is so pretentious, just say "boyfriend") back in Brooklyn, who is content to ignore her emails. Kim writes so much about this lover, yet reveals almost nothing about him -- not even why she's so enamored with him. One begins to question if he exists at all. But then Kim hammers out some gems that only true longing can bring about: "A feeling of hopelessness saturated me and could not be washed away," and "In that world, I needed a lover...and that need drove me crazy some nights." Sigh...Suki, God gave you 10 fingers for a reason. Deal with it. Or at least pack a Jack Rabbit on your next trip to Pyongyang and spare us the drivel. Anyway. I got so overloaded with the talk of the absent lover that I began to question the title of the book itself: "Without you, there is no us" is a verse from a North Korean anthem, but I got the sense that Kim was directing it towards the Brooklynite who couldn't be bothered to reply to her emails. But I digress. Some real things do happen in the story. Kim and a Christian colleague get in a screaming fight over whether they can show a Harry Potter film to their 20 year-old pupils. Kim gets bored and homesick and insists that her life in Pyongyang is dull. Kim also develops a strange, maternal affection for students who aren't much younger than she is, and then she misses the lover some more. Sigh. By the end of the book, I was almost fascinated by sheer depths of Suki's self-centered wallowing, which not only prevented her from accomplishing anything meaningful in Pyongyang, but kept her from noticing the the bigger picture...Like, you know, the fact that she's fortunate as fuck to be a bored American in North Korea...and that luxury is afforded to her simply because she was born on the right part of the planet....and that most of the 25 million people currently locked inside the prison-nation of North Korea would probably give anything to trade places with her. I just couldn't take it. This isn't a memoir about North Korea. It's a boring book about the weird relationships and situations that develop out of a 30-something's dry spell abroad. North Korea and Kim's fundamentalist Christian colleagues are the selling point, but they merely function as the backdrop for the tale of Kim's shitty love life. Kim should thank her publisher's marketing team for repackaging this nonsense and spinning it as a North Korean memoir. There really is no excuse for this, especially when books like Comrades and Strangers: Behind the Closed Doors of North Korea or Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea prove that foreigners living in Pyongyang can come away with decent stories to tell. This book was just like being told a boring story by someone I don't like. I didn't care, and I just wanted it to end. UGH.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Elyse

    Personal Review .......and Audiobook Review of “Without You There Is No Us” Personal first: News about my surgery yesterday I’m in bed recovering - can’t see well out of my right eye from swelling - but no major pain - from Mohs surgery. The cancer cells are gone - but because there was a lot of those cancer suckers - I’ll be having a minimum of 3 more surgeries. I had caught the skin cancer early- but it was growing fast — it had spread substantially from the day I was diagnosed to the day I Personal Review .......and Audiobook Review of “Without You There Is No Us” Personal first: News about my surgery yesterday I’m in bed recovering - can’t see well out of my right eye from swelling - but no major pain - from Mohs surgery. The cancer cells are gone - but because there was a lot of those cancer suckers - I’ll be having a minimum of 3 more surgeries. I had caught the skin cancer early- but it was growing fast — it had spread substantially from the day I was diagnosed to the day I had surgery. It took 4 rounds of cutting — and my doctor was known for usually getting all the cancer in one or two cuts. There was a lot more than any of us expected.... however she was kind - and overall terrific in every way .... making me as comfortable as possible. Her assistant Ron was just as helpful and great. I was then sent to see a plastic surgeon, Dr. Follmar. I had not wanted to see my face and nose when Dr. Ho, of Dermatology, asked if I wanted to see it before the bandages went on. NO .... clearly no! However, Dr. Follmar, who I saw at 5pm after an already long day with Dr. Ho, said I ‘had’ to see the photos of my face on the computer screen in order to discuss my options. My nose looks like the Grand Canyon— one very big bloody hole..... down to cartilage. After getting the run down plan - while in complete shock - not depressed - just shocked - as all this is very surreal - the doctor tells me that in November- he would not suggest I even enter a coffee shop... ( in other words I’ll be hiding out at home for a month until the second surgery).....but the second surgery ... first week in Dec. will have me looking better ‘enough’. Paul and I will still be able to leave for our 39th wedding anniversary vacation- Paul will be taking the stitches out in Hawaii instead of the doctor doing it in his office. I’ll see the doctor when we return.... Think “WONDER”. *Augie*.....The movie WONDER opens in November.... the child actor is my inspiration! My face won’t ever look the same, but I’m grateful ‘not’ to have cancer cells having a picnic in my nose. And as the little boy says in the movie trailer.... “it takes a lot of work to look this good”. I’ll be having a 3rd surgery later, too, .... possibly more.... but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’m looking at at least a year process of trying to put my face & nose back to normal - scars will be permanent.....but hopefully fad nice. If they are still bad after three needed surgeries- there are possible other options: cosmetic surgery and or medical tattoo work (have you heard of such a thing?) Our hospital has a doctor who specializes in it I’m told. ( different than the type of tattoo work that our daughter does) So.... THANK YOU FOR READING THE ABOVE ..... I know I said I was going to retire from writing reviews- or write short abbreviated ones - that didn’t pan out so well. Still working towards cutting back on ‘sitting-online-time’. I’m still dealing with bone loss and medication for that. The skin cancer puts a wrench into my serious workout plan with the newly hired physical trainer.... which was to help with bone building....which may have been too intense anyway: back to old farts senior slower weight resistance bone density building. Rome wasn’t built in a day - I can’t be expected to build my hollow nose and hollow bones all at the same time....one brick at a time! ABOUT THIS BOOK — “Without You, There is No Me”, by Suki Kim - narrated by Janet Song —�- Janet Song has a perfect believable speaking voice. THE AUDIOBOOK IS FASCINATING & FRIGHTENING.....thank you Connie for reading this before me. Your review inspire me to read it.. ..... Esil... I’m sure you’d like this one! Suki Kim taught English in North Korea .... she spent a year teaching in a private school to privileged *elite* men ages 19 to 21. The school, run by the missionaries was in the mountains, on the fringes of P’yŏngyang— the capital of North Korea. Suki Kim took a dangerous risk - taking her own private notes, when she was teaching English. Had her journals been found- I hate to imagine what might have happened to her. Suki - herself was born in North Korea. She escaped to South Korea before the war broke out when she was just a child. Soon after she and her family immigrated to the United States. As a journalist and writer Suki said - “you’d think I’d be most interested in packing books” when preparing to leave America for North Korea— but that was last on her mind because she needed essentials: sanitary napkins, ibuprofen, vitamins, and as many protein bars she could stuff in her suitcase. Suki Kim gives us an eye view into North Korea through the relationships she had with her students. The young men were not only learning English — they were teaching Suki - in an indirect way - the truth about their lives. These boys had no exposure to the outside world yet their belief was that their country is THE BEST in the world. These boys not only knew nothing about dating girls - they new nothing of the internet. Some of the students asked questions about America—but Suki had to be very careful. She wasn’t sure if she was being tested and if she answered incorrectly she could’ve been turned over to the faculty. Suki Kim’s compassion and empathy towards her students ‘seemed’ like it was enough to open up the young men’s thinking - without getting punished herself — She was brave. This story is incredible yet it’s still very devastating to realize the lack of freedom people and North Korea really have. A very interesting book - thought provoking- compelling - even some humor! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!

  3. 5 out of 5

    Roxane

    This is an interesting book about a woman who spends a few months teaching in North Korea. The challenge I had is that it’s not quite a memoir and it’s not quite investigative journalism. Given this book’s backstory of the publisher trying to bill this as memoir I don’t envy the writer’s task in trying to make this Book something it wasn’t intended to be. At times the prose feels too literal. This happened and that happened and this is how I was feeling. I wish there has been either more analysi This is an interesting book about a woman who spends a few months teaching in North Korea. The challenge I had is that it’s not quite a memoir and it’s not quite investigative journalism. Given this book’s backstory of the publisher trying to bill this as memoir I don’t envy the writer’s task in trying to make this Book something it wasn’t intended to be. At times the prose feels too literal. This happened and that happened and this is how I was feeling. I wish there has been either more analysis or more of the personal story developed. I did enjoy learning more about North Korea. Glad I read this.

  4. 3 out of 5

    J.L. Sutton

    Very interesting read! I appreciated the insights in Suki Kim’s Without You, There is No Us; however, it is her relationship with her students which resonates most strongly. The way she views them and their potential is inextricably linked to their circumstance as citizens of North Korea. It is clear that she cares deeply for them, but there are things she can’t share with them. An interesting aspect of their behavior is how quickly they resort to lying to cover the vast gaps in their knowledge Very interesting read! I appreciated the insights in Suki Kim’s Without You, There is No Us; however, it is her relationship with her students which resonates most strongly. The way she views them and their potential is inextricably linked to their circumstance as citizens of North Korea. It is clear that she cares deeply for them, but there are things she can’t share with them. An interesting aspect of their behavior is how quickly they resort to lying to cover the vast gaps in their knowledge and experience of the world. By the end of the book, you end up understanding why that is their go-to response. Backing up assertions of North Korean superiority with wild and patently false evidence shows how far removed they are from any fact-based reality. This is not so different than their ideas about dating which Kim explores. Their inexperience and naivety about dating seems almost childlike, but it is rooted in that same mind frame which cedes control of their decisions to someone else. As an emotional gauge on her students, Suki’s loneliness while teaching in North Korea establishes a link to students who have been ripped from family and friends to attend school (and who have virtually no contact with those loved ones during their studies). While this is primarily more of an investigative journalist piece (with Kim undercover as a missionary teaching English), there are elements of memoir as well and I think they complement each other here. A fact-based approach wouldn’t have offered the same depth of feeling which Kim provides. There will always be questions about what Kim chose to discuss (and why, for instance, the North Korean government allows foreign missionaries to teach their students in the first place), but I will be thinking more about how North Koreans view their world.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Diane

    This was some incredible and dangerous reporting. Suki Kim pretended to be a Christian missionary so she could teach English at a prestigious university in North Korea. Yeah, that's right — she went undercover in the country that hates Westerners and puts political prisoners in a gulag. North Korea is such a fascinating place. Every book I read about that regime only feeds my curiosity. This memoir was a nice addition to the field because of Kim's reporting. She took extensive notes during her st This was some incredible and dangerous reporting. Suki Kim pretended to be a Christian missionary so she could teach English at a prestigious university in North Korea. Yeah, that's right — she went undercover in the country that hates Westerners and puts political prisoners in a gulag. North Korea is such a fascinating place. Every book I read about that regime only feeds my curiosity. This memoir was a nice addition to the field because of Kim's reporting. She took extensive notes during her stay, but she had to do it secretly because her evangelical colleagues thought she was just a novelist who wanted to teach. Kim taught at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) for two semesters in 2011. The school was funded by missionaries, even though the teachers were not allowed to discuss religion or Christianity with the locals. Many of Kim's students came from elite families and spoke good English, but they were suspicious of foreigners. Kim was born in South Korea, and she wrote that her ability to speak Korean helped her win the trust of some of her college students. Kim and her fellow teachers were constantly monitored and followed wherever they went, and they were only allowed to leave the campus when given special permission. Even visits to historical sites were tightly controlled outings, with no freedom of movement or speech. Kim said the college was like a prison, and she felt very isolated and lonely during her time there. "Time there seemed to pass differently. When you are shut off from the world, every day is exactly the same as the one before. This sameness has a way of wearing down your soul until you become nothing but a breathing, toiling, consuming thing that awakens to the sun and sleeps at the dawning of the dark. The emptiness runs deep, deeper with each slowing day, and you become increasingly invisible and inconsequential. That's how I felt at times, a tiny insect circling itself, only to continue, and continue. There, in that relentless vacuum, nothing moved. No news came in or out. No phone calls to or from anyone. No emails, no letters, no ideas not prescribed by the regime ... Locked in that prison disguised as a campus in an empty Pyongyang suburb, heavily guarded around the clock, all we had was one another." The book is told in mostly chronological order of Kim's time at the school, with some personal flashbacks and historical details of Korea. The teachers were given a long list of rules to follow while in North Korea. Things like: Don't discuss politics. Don't brag about your own culture. Don't say anything negative about Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il. Don't wear jeans or flip-flops. Don't pray at meals. Don't start conversations with the locals. Don't ask questions about the government. Also, bring lots of flashlights and batteries because the electricity is frequently out. Suki Kim was nervous when she met her students, and was always anxious that she would slip up and say something she shouldn't. Each assignment she created had to be approved by the local administration, which caused more anxiety. It turned out that Kim was in North Korea at an interesting time. The other universities were all shut down and the students were sent to do construction work. However, the elite students at PUST were exempt from this manual labor, for some reason. And then, at the very end of the author's stay in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il died, which caused much grief for her students. At the time, she hoped that things would improve for the citizens of North Korea, but she was also pessimistic about the fierce control of the regime. "Being in North Korea was profoundly depressing. There was no other way of putting it. The sealed border was not just at the 38th parallel, but everywhere, in each person's heart, blocking the past and chocking off the future. As much as I loved those boys, or because of it, I was becoming convinced that the wall between us was impossible to break down, and not only that, it was permanent." This memoir is not perfect; Kim's comments about her boyfriend were distracting, and she would constantly waver between trying to teach her students about the outside world, and then fearing that anything she told them would put them in danger. The back-and-forth about sharing Western ideas and then worrying for the kids happened a few too many times. But overall, this was a fascinating read. I appreciated that she shared her own family's story and what her mother experienced when the Korean war started. Kim also included good details about Korean culture and history, which provided context for what she experienced there. In the end, she knew her book would anger the regime and the people who worked at PUST. In her author's note, she wrote that she felt an obligation to tell the "stark truth" about North Korea, and she hopes that the lives of its people will one day improve. I would highly recommend this memoir.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Connie

    Investigative reporter Suki Kim volunteered to teach English writing skills at the all male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in 2011. A group of evangelical Christian missionaries taught English (but not religion) to the sons of the elite North Koreans. The school was surrounded by guards at all times, and no one was allowed to leave campus except for authorized outings. Lesson plans had to be approved in advance, and the teachers were carefully watched by the North Korean minders. Investigative reporter Suki Kim volunteered to teach English writing skills at the all male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in 2011. A group of evangelical Christian missionaries taught English (but not religion) to the sons of the elite North Koreans. The school was surrounded by guards at all times, and no one was allowed to leave campus except for authorized outings. Lesson plans had to be approved in advance, and the teachers were carefully watched by the North Korean minders. Her students were healthy, but she passed many malnourished people during the outings. The author immigrated from South Korea to the United States as a young teen. Her parents had family members who were lost to them in the North when they fled to the South during the Korean War. Kim has always had a fascination with North Korea, the missing half. Her fluent Korean was useful in listening to gather information, but she was only allowed to talk English to the boys. The title of the book comes from a song that the boys sang three times daily as they marched. It honored Kim Jong-il when they sang the refrain: "Without you, there is no us, without you, there is no motherland." The boys were subjected to daily propaganda extolling the feats of the leaders of North Korea. Kim found that they had no exposure to the outside world while constantly being fed messages about the great totalitarian regime. It was a fascinating look at how a dictatorship isolates their subjects from the outside world and totally controls their lives. Kim taught the boys how to write a cover letter for an employment application, and they were totally confused because they do not have a choice of jobs--the North Korean government tells them where they are going to work. Kim also taught a lesson about writing an essay where they supported their opinions. That also was a new experience in a world where the words of the Great Leader are just parroted back. Kim secretly wrote notes nightly on her laptop, transferred her work to a USB drive that she carried at all times, and then erased her work on her laptop. She changed names and characteristics of the students and teachers. The administrators and teachers at the school were very upset when the book was about to be published, and we have to hope that they are all safe. Kim would have probably been imprisoned if her notes had been found. It gives me shivers to imagine spending six months in such a claustrophobic environment where all your moves are monitored. It's an interesting and upsetting book.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    I have previously read other books on North Korea, one that centered on the horrible conditions in the gulags, but this book centers on the schooling of the sons of the elite. The author, whose family had come from South Korea, enters the country of North Korea as a teacher, part of the Christian group that was allowed to build and fully support this school. They were allowed to build this school because it cost the government absolutely nothing and the teachers were given strict mandates. Every I have previously read other books on North Korea, one that centered on the horrible conditions in the gulags, but this book centers on the schooling of the sons of the elite. The author, whose family had come from South Korea, enters the country of North Korea as a teacher, part of the Christian group that was allowed to build and fully support this school. They were allowed to build this school because it cost the government absolutely nothing and the teachers were given strict mandates. Everything they taught had to be vetted by their minders, they were only allowed off the campus on fully supervised and planned trips. This book did a good job holding my interest and I felt I received a very thorough grasp of how this country is raising their children. Even those considered elite, had little freedom of thought or action. There is no I in North Korea only we, individuality is thoroughly stamped out, and the little they receive is all due to their wonderful leader. They have little knowledge of the rest of the world and what they do receive is of course biased in their countries favor. What was chilling was how they are taught to hate the Imperialistic West and South Korea. Of course they already hate Japan from the time of the occupation. They are taught to be ever ready for war, that they can be attacked at any time. There is quite alot of information in this book, but it was hard to dislike these boys especially after one gets to learn about other sides of their personalities. Easy to feel sorry for them and others less well off in this country, but they are oh so dangerous in their absolute obedience and absolute devotion to their leader.

  8. 3 out of 5

    Jessica

    I scored this from a Goodreads Giveaway, which is basically the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me in my life, and I'm pretty depressed that I can't write a rave review since I assume this means no publishers will ever send me a free ARC again. Oh well. All the other readers on here loved this and I don't think it's a bad book by any means, but it just wasn't for me. I was excited to read it since I know nothing about North Korea, but I failed to notice the clear and accurate label on I scored this from a Goodreads Giveaway, which is basically the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me in my life, and I'm pretty depressed that I can't write a rave review since I assume this means no publishers will ever send me a free ARC again. Oh well. All the other readers on here loved this and I don't think it's a bad book by any means, but it just wasn't for me. I was excited to read it since I know nothing about North Korea, but I failed to notice the clear and accurate label on the book's cover: "A Memoir." I, unlike the other 99% of the literate American public, do not, for the most part, enjoy memoirs at all. I wanted this book to be much more of a journalist's account than an introspective, soul-baring, subjective story interweaving the author's family history, love life, and personal emotions into a narrative of her time teaching English to boys in North Korea. In fact, writing this as a memoir makes a lot of sense, since Kim's access to North Korea is necessarily very limited and if it were just the hard facts of what she saw there it really wouldn't be enough for a book. There were all these basic things that weren't well explained -- like why these kids are learning English if they're not allowed to leave the country, and how the missionaries got this gig teaching at the school in the first place -- but I guess that makes sense since Kim was prohibited from finding out much about what was going on. Obviously, she wasn't allowed to leave the compound and wander unsupervised around the country, so her view of what it's like there was extremely circumscribed. So I do understand the decision to focus on her personal feelings about the students, her homesickness, her Korean family's experience during and after the war, and -- to a lesser extent -- her romantic situation, and I see that most readers would find this engaging, but I personally didn't. Kim is likable enough and the memoiry parts are perfectly reasonable to include, and would no doubt appeal to many readers. But simply put, I am an asshole and I'm just not that interested in the details of other people's lives, unless there's some special reason to be -- like they live in North Korea? -- which is why I can't stand most memoirs. I was interested in hearing more about Kim's students and in details of what daily life in North Korea is like, and when she was writing about this I was engaged in the book. However, during the portions where she described specific missionaries she worked with, or emailing her boyfriend, I got bored and frustrated and had a hard time going on. I put it down awhile ago, about halfway through, and have been unable to bully myself into into picking it back up. In sum, I'd recommend this book if you are not some kind of huge jerk who hates memoirs.

  9. 4 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    Eastern Gossip Here are my questions, none of which are answered by the author: Why on earth would North Korea allow Christian missionaries to teach at a military college? Indeed why let them into the country at all since their avowed mission in life (the clue is in the name) is to proselytise the natives? What's the real motive? Further, why would said missionaries seek or accept such an assignment knowing that they would be stepped on in one way or another the moment they engaged in any talk of Eastern Gossip Here are my questions, none of which are answered by the author: Why on earth would North Korea allow Christian missionaries to teach at a military college? Indeed why let them into the country at all since their avowed mission in life (the clue is in the name) is to proselytise the natives? What's the real motive? Further, why would said missionaries seek or accept such an assignment knowing that they would be stepped on in one way or another the moment they engaged in any talk of the Lord? What did they hope to gain? Are they playing the long game? Finally, knowing that whatever latitude they were given by the North Koreans was dependent on compliant behaviour and discretion, what possessed the missionaries to allow an undercover journalist to slip through their vetting? The task was teaching English after all. Surely one or two bona fide members of the tribe had acceptable qualifications. Why not use trusted members of the team? Answers to these would have been at least as interesting as her rapportage, even if demanding a bit more investigativeness on her part. Or perhaps I'm wrong. Who knows, could be wheels within eccentric wheels to consider here. However, presuming there is no larger picture and given the circumstances of her arrival and job in North Korea, Suki Kim's apparent intention and status hardly put her in a dangerous position. All she had to do was keep her mouth shut, which she generally did, and teach young men some grammar. There's no John le Carre sub-plot of secrets sought or officials traduced. For six months she walked from Point A to Point B on the campus, with the occasional guided tour to some nondescript 'sights' (mostly just sites it seems). And there is certainly nothing new in what she has to report. On the scale of North Korean horror stories, hers might rate 1 out of a magnitude 10. Mostly she gossips about the social discipline exhibited by her pupils. That and their lack of trivial cultural knowledge, for example about the latest Harry Potter film. Who on the planet with the least interest in North Korea doesn't know that the Internet is highly restricted and censored? Any existential detail she provides is based almost solely on her classroom interactions, which are probably not that different from the highly regimented educational regimes in South Korea or Japan. So the only real consequences of Suki Kim's publicised 'investigation' are likely to be the reduced credibility of the missionaries and the increased political vulnerability of her former students. North Korean undoubtedly will remain as dismal and as mad as it has been. Having said that, I like gossip as much as anyone. So I hard a hard time putting it down. I feel shame.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Hadrian

    This is a unique entry among the already rare books about life in North Korea. The author is not an escapee or someone working solely as a journalist. Instead, the author has gone voluntarily as part of a delegation of English language teachers to an elite school, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Suki Kim had to perform two layers of deception - first to the other teachers by posing as a fellow Christian missionary, and secondly to every other person in North Korea. I mu This is a unique entry among the already rare books about life in North Korea. The author is not an escapee or someone working solely as a journalist. Instead, the author has gone voluntarily as part of a delegation of English language teachers to an elite school, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Suki Kim had to perform two layers of deception - first to the other teachers by posing as a fellow Christian missionary, and secondly to every other person in North Korea. I must be honest. It's very easy to not take North Korea as anything other than an extensive joke. It's easy to give in to popular cliche and misinformed policy. It's just a silly little tinpot dictatorship. Laugh at it. Laugh at the puppet show. Laugh at Kim Jong-Un's ugly hair. Laugh at this movie. Laugh at their bad English. It is such a target for rhetorical tricks - at once in total opposition to the rest of the world, so self-confident in its boasts, and so weak and impotent it is easily ridiculed. Laugh at it and feel like you're doing something to change it. In any case, that's why clear-eyed observation of the regime is needed. This particular book also provides a rare view of the social elite, as few others in North Korea would have the opportunity to receive an education like this. Those who live in the capital have more consistent access to electricity and easier access to foreign goods. Though Kim occasionally talks about her own life, most of the book is about life outside and with the boys in class (No women here except for the teachers). Parts of their life seem almost familiar. They like playing basketball and occasionally have trouble asking the girls out. But from there, there is a vast distance of experience between them. For one, the students have a blinkered view of the world. They are told very well about the failings of America, real and imaginary, but they lack even the most common base of knowledge. They don't even know what the Pyramids are or that people went to space and walked on the moon. There is one infuriating episode where these technical and scientific elites can barely operate basic computers and can't even touch-type, and the author is so overcome with frustration that she has to leave the room. But that is only a lack of technical knowledge. There is another layer to their experience, one which is only hinted at from politics and propaganda. It is about how the students lie. This is more than the usual students' tendency to fib about lost homework or (although they still do that). They lie openly, without hesitation, and are unusually quick to read others emotions. This is part of their social education - where a bad lie can mean demotion or poverty or worse. That's the truly frightening part. It's why so many of the people who do escape are often so reserved. The total control over society, physical and mental. After six months, she barely has any grasp of any of her students' personalities. Even though she becomes more brazen in their attempts to bring in the outside world, she feels as though she has carried no light or fire to them. The author returned home in late December 2011. As luck would have it, Kim Jong-Il had passed away on the 17th. Perhaps real social change could be possible, she thinks, even if it might take one dead dictator at a time. Any book about North Korea will be grim reading, but this one is interesting because of the author's perspective and her understanding of emotional subtlety make this an interesting book and one that breaks free of cliche.

  11. 5 out of 5

    April (Aprilius Maximus)

    Really fascinating, well-written and gripping, although the ending was slightly underwhelming.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Louise

    Suki Kim is brave. She went doubly undercover by posing as a Christian teacher so she would be hired by missionaries who were founding the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea. She knew what she was getting into, her family had been torn apart in the war and grieved of a relative trapped in the North. She had visited there before. The Missionaries who fund this school are not attempting to proselytize right now. They are playing a longer game. Their vision is that the cou Suki Kim is brave. She went doubly undercover by posing as a Christian teacher so she would be hired by missionaries who were founding the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea. She knew what she was getting into, her family had been torn apart in the war and grieved of a relative trapped in the North. She had visited there before. The Missionaries who fund this school are not attempting to proselytize right now. They are playing a longer game. Their vision is that the country cannot last as it is, and when it falls, they will be there to save the people. North Korea, strapped for funds, gets a school, most likely a fee from the mission and money from the teachers who pay for supplies and field trips and whatever else can be nickel and dimed. The narrative begins with the several pages of rules. While some define water precautions, most show the extreme surveillance she will live with. The wealth and achievements of the world outside run counter to the “Leader” mythology and are not to be spoken of. Students, too, are permitted a narrow range of conversation but random comments reveal that even the elite are not very well off and know little of the world outside. Trips outside the school (a mountain, an apple farm, a shop, a museum of gifts) are a relief but stressful. Kim sees the pathetic lives of the rural people and notes things that have been staged for their benefit (to the extreme of a church and its service). This heightened her awareness of what might be behind a “surprise” field trip for her students to a zoo. Since nothing can be directly asked, Kim learns in passing that all other universities in North Korea are closed. The reason is never discovered, but it may be that the young men are needed for a construction project. If it is the only university open in the country it can be surmised that this sad group of the sons of the elite are future leaders. While the missionaries have a different goal, their project is one advocated by Andrei Lankov in The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia. His view is that the fall of the regime will end badly for the country since all the elites have all been compromised. The best soviet satellite’s conversions to the new freedom were those where there were untainted members of the elite or the sub-elite professional class to provide leadership. While this project has a long way to go, it may create some needed perspective for the country when an opening up finally occurs. This is a short but highly personal page turner. The author has a talk on TEDs that may whet your appetite to read it. http://www.ted.com/talks/suki_kim_thi...

  13. 5 out of 5

    Trish

    Suki Kim spent about seven months teaching English at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) built in an empty suburb of Pyongyang in 2011. She left Pyongyang the day after the news broke of the death of Kim Jong-Il in the Juche Year 100, which counts time on the calendar beginning with the birth of the original Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung. Kim’s memoir of that time teaching is full of her fears—fears that she will be kicked out of North Korea, fears that she or her friends or f Suki Kim spent about seven months teaching English at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) built in an empty suburb of Pyongyang in 2011. She left Pyongyang the day after the news broke of the death of Kim Jong-Il in the Juche Year 100, which counts time on the calendar beginning with the birth of the original Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung. Kim’s memoir of that time teaching is full of her fears—fears that she will be kicked out of North Korea, fears that she or her friends or family or students will be retaliated against, fears that she will be poisoned by the food, or that she will suffer nutritional deficiencies. All these fears have their basis in the conditions she faced there. She put her life as an American reporter and novelist on hold to teach in North Korea and she needed enough information to make a book or the effort was wasted. What she didn’t count on was the very real impact she was able to have on her students, and they on her. Kim’s students at PUST were talented college-aged sons of high-level government cadres, hand-picked to attend intensive English-language training. Kim taught Level 1 and Level 4, so she could see the range of skills. Many of the students had excellent English language ability and comprehension, but it was concepts like “internet,” “hip-hop,” “women’s studies,” and “Social Security” that threw them. Gather together all your experience of the culture of Koreans or Korean-Americans that you know and multiply it by a million. The culture is so intensified and distilled in its isolation that college-aged boys sleep with pictures of their mothers and claim their only interest is to serve the Great Leader. While we begin to imagine what they would think were they ever confronted with the true diversity of American artistic life, Kim brings us back to the harsh reality that these young men have been taught since childhood to abhor and detest the filth of America’s cultural richness. She was startled to discover that the boys sang songs every day both praising their leader but also promising a bloody vengeance on his enemies. When she would point out that she could technically be considered one of those enemies, the boys would look away. Just before Kim left her post at PUST a student wrote to her a letter expressing his anger at a grade she had given him. When they met to discuss his feelings about her explanation, he thoughtfully remarked that he’d actually cared both about her opinion and about the grade. And he believed she would listen to him. He’d never had a conflict with a teacher before. This may seem a small thing, perhaps, but for seven months work, it is Kim’s great achievement. We in the United States have grown used to students who actually challenge teachers and who care about their grades. It is true this student was one of the top performers and wanted to keep his class ranking. But he also thought he’d be listened to which is something he may not have expected in his normal schooling and which is why he’d never protested before. We get used to Suki Kim saying she was afraid to ask questions or speak freely to provoke reactions but in fact she did figure out something about what ordinary North Korean lives were like from her protected and restricted perch. She saw the folks who picnicked on the tarmac of a highway, having travelled halfway from their villages to meet up in a convenient place; she met older folks in Pyongyang suburbs who were friendly and inquisitive until the minders barked at them to “get inside”; she heard the bus drivers for a school outing playing a counterfeit Simon & Garfunkel tape until the minders came back from the hike; she passed on the gossip that rabid dogs fed rat poison were subsequently eaten by the school staff (that really could have/should have been confirmed—it would have made a far better anecdote). Has it occurred to anyone else that countries divided by foreign powers often don’t work in the way they were intended? I wonder if arbitrary division by uninvolved parties is a good choice. I am thinking now of Korea, but also of the Middle East. It seems to me we should just force them to the bargaining table and insist on some kind of negotiated settlement. The outcomes of divided lands are always so prolonged and damaging. Let the ones doing the negotiating take responsibility for their choices. What Kim tells us about the knowledge base of North Korean students, even the elite ones at a university for science and technology is truly frightening. They are terrifyingly ignorant of the latest advances in science and technology, and are nationalistic to the point of mania. One cannot see this ending well. That there exists among the old a remembrance of things past is a relief. Hopefully restrictions can be eased before they pass so that some remembered joy can be passed on. I used to think China ridiculously restrictive and the government overbearing, but now I see China as the wild and uncontrollable environment it really was. North Korea is small enough to manage the control—it is surely a test case for how dictatorial control works and how it doesn’t. It should be pointed out that PUST was a school set up by Christian ministries and although they were not allowed to overtly preach a Christian message, they still worshipped among themselves while they were there. Kim makes the point more than once that the kind of worship of the Great Leader paralleled in unattractive ways the worship of these loyal followers for their version of Christianity. Both groups were equally close-minded about other choices, other paths. Thanks to Suki Kim for doing what we couldn’t or wouldn’t. Her notes from the other side add to growing evidence and shore up earlier reports that we found hard to believe.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Daniel Simmons

    I spent ten days touring North Korea in September 2013, and I feel like I spent much of that ten-day period inside my own head. This is to say that because NK is the kind of place where you can't talk to other people without fear of (at best) constant monitoring or (at worst) violent reprisals, you end up talking to yourself, waging war with your instincts, reining in your questions, locking down your facial expressions, recording everything around you with a polite smile as your spirit wails aw I spent ten days touring North Korea in September 2013, and I feel like I spent much of that ten-day period inside my own head. This is to say that because NK is the kind of place where you can't talk to other people without fear of (at best) constant monitoring or (at worst) violent reprisals, you end up talking to yourself, waging war with your instincts, reining in your questions, locking down your facial expressions, recording everything around you with a polite smile as your spirit wails away in an extended silent scream. For describing this feeling so well, Suki Kim earned my respect. No other book I've read about North Korea has captured so well that sense of psychological isolation and self-censorship -- she completely nails it. She nails, too, the sense of surreal theater that pervades the North Korean landscape, at least for its Western visitors; so much seems rehearsed and staged that one's paranoia about what is real and what is not becomes almost omnipresent. Many readers may find off-putting the author's writing about her private internal struggles with her fellow teachers, her far-off lover, her family history, etc., but I found this personal material a necessary foil for her descriptions of the impersonal environment into which she was thrust. Highly recommended.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Cheryl

    In 2011 Suki Kim, a Korean-American journalist, travelled to North Korea to begin a six month teaching position at a university outside of Pyongyang. The students were all young men—the children of some of North Korea’s elite families. Ms. Kim writes poignantly about the relationships she developed with the students, and about her observations of daily life both inside and outside the university walls. An atmosphere of fear, loneliness and repression engulfed every aspect of life, and was stifli In 2011 Suki Kim, a Korean-American journalist, travelled to North Korea to begin a six month teaching position at a university outside of Pyongyang. The students were all young men—the children of some of North Korea’s elite families. Ms. Kim writes poignantly about the relationships she developed with the students, and about her observations of daily life both inside and outside the university walls. An atmosphere of fear, loneliness and repression engulfed every aspect of life, and was stifling. Yet, at times, Ms. Kim was able to connect on a meaningful and emotional level with her students. These interactions made her observations all the more heartbreaking. This fascinating memoir is well worth reading as it provides the reader with an unprecedented look at the atmosphere inside North Korea’s completely isolated society.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca Foster

    This is a quietly gripping book even though not much of moment happens over Kim’s five months teaching young men at a missionary-run college in Pyongyang. She was in a unique position in that students saw her as ethnically one of their own but she brought an outsider’s perspective to bear on what she observed. Just before she flew back to the States in 2011, Kim Jong-Il died, an event she uses as a framing device. It could have represented a turning point for the country, but instead history has This is a quietly gripping book even though not much of moment happens over Kim’s five months teaching young men at a missionary-run college in Pyongyang. She was in a unique position in that students saw her as ethnically one of their own but she brought an outsider’s perspective to bear on what she observed. Just before she flew back to the States in 2011, Kim Jong-Il died, an event she uses as a framing device. It could have represented a turning point for the country, but instead history has repeated itself with Kim Jong-un. Kim thus ends on a note of frustration: she wants better for these young men she became so fond of. A rare glimpse into a country that carefully safeguards its secrets and masks its truth. See my full review at Nudge. Related reading: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is also revelatory about North Korea’s repressive society.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Jaylia3

    Suki Kim’s long interest in and personal connection to North Korea make this memoir of the time she spent there teaching English to college students especially poignant and riveting. She writes with the skill of an investigative journalist and the heart of someone recounting a heartbreaking story about relatives. Though she moved to America as a child, Kim was born in South Korea and both her mother and father lost close family members to the North when Korea was partitioned, people they were ne Suki Kim’s long interest in and personal connection to North Korea make this memoir of the time she spent there teaching English to college students especially poignant and riveting. She writes with the skill of an investigative journalist and the heart of someone recounting a heartbreaking story about relatives. Though she moved to America as a child, Kim was born in South Korea and both her mother and father lost close family members to the North when Korea was partitioned, people they were never able to see or even hear from again. The North Korean government places rigid controls on the internal travels of its few foreign visitors--even the movements of its own citizens are highly restricted--so Kim spent most of her time on campus, jogging between buildings when she wanted some exercise. There were occasional arranged outings when she did sometimes catch glimpses of roadside workers so emaciated and malnourished it horrified her, but the subjugation of her elite and privileged college students was in its own way just as shocking because it showed that no one is exempt from government control. These young men weren’t allowed to call, email, or visit their families, though most of them lived just a short distance from the school, and the students never knew when they might be whisked away from their studies to spend weeks or months working at a construction site or laboring on a government run farm. Even when allowed to stay at school there were chores like all night guard duty to perform, and constant surveillance meant the students had to always guard their speech and curtail their activities to avoid punishment. As far as Kim could tell her students took great pride in their country and believed what they had been told--that North Korea is superior to and the envy of all nations and that their leaders are virtually infallible--but the students would get quiet and thoughtful when she gave them illicit sneak glimpses of the outside world and its relative freedoms by casually pulling out her Kindle or laptop, or mentioning her use of the internet or her global travel experiences. All of Kim’s fellow teachers felt the strain of constantly censoring their speech and being careful about their actions, but for Kim this was especially difficult and if you have an interest in the range and potency of human worldviews you’ll find this book doubly thought-provoking because Kim had to navigate her way between two powerful belief systems both with moral teachings, behavioral dictates, and a divine or as if divine leader since her co-workers were all Christian missionaries and she had to hide from them that she didn’t share their faith. The missionaries Kim taught with weren’t allowed to mention anything about their religion, but they hoped their presence and charitable actions would eventually win converts among the North Koreans. Kim had different reasons and personal goals for working at the school. Along with wanting some connection to the country where even now she might have living relatives, she hoped that by giving her students small peeks into life outside North Korea that she’d plant seeds of doubt in her their minds, so that as future leaders they might be able to help change things and open up their society. Her worry was that her words would just confuse and upset them or possibly lead them to actions that would bring on severe punishments. It’s a fascinating, heartbreaking, eye-opening story. I read an eBook Advanced Review Copy of this book provided at no cost to me by the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Taryn Pierson

    Without You, There is No Us had been on my radar for a while thanks to my interest in the secretive, seemingly dystopian culture of North Korea, but what prodded me to move it up my burgeoning to-read list was a recent NPR interview with its author, Suki Kim, in which she claimed that her publisher disingenuously marketed it as a memoir instead of investigative journalism. Some people might shrug at that—how big a difference can it be, really? But Kim argues that, while she respects the art of m Without You, There is No Us had been on my radar for a while thanks to my interest in the secretive, seemingly dystopian culture of North Korea, but what prodded me to move it up my burgeoning to-read list was a recent NPR interview with its author, Suki Kim, in which she claimed that her publisher disingenuously marketed it as a memoir instead of investigative journalism. Some people might shrug at that—how big a difference can it be, really? But Kim argues that, while she respects the art of memoir, classifying her book as such degrades its value, and by extension minimizes the risk and sacrifice she personally undertook to get the story. And after reading her book, I have to agree with her. It’s not like Kim was on an exotic extended vacation or participating in a study abroad program. She posed as a Christian missionary in order to secure a position as an English teacher at an elite university for young men. The missionaries themselves at the school were posing as well, as Christianity isn’t openly practiced in North Korea and they weren’t allowed to proselytize to students. So Kim was not only undercover among her students, but also among her colleagues. There was literally no one she could trust with her real agenda—getting a rare inside look at North Korea’s privileged class, and taking as many notes as she could so that she could one day write a book about this most opaque of countries. Imagine her dismay upon discovering on the eve of the book’s release that it was to be marketed as a memoir, a book of her feelings and reflections, and not the journalistic expose she thought she had written. Kim does frequently mention a “lover” back in Brooklyn, who becomes something of an embodiment of everything she missed about the US during her time away. I have to admit, I found it a strange choice to feature him so prominently, especially when she doesn’t give enough detail about the man for him to have much impact on the narrative (and she freely admits they weren’t very serious about each other). Take out those asides (and the cringey term “lover”) and Kim would have an airtight case for reclassifying her book on store shelves. Lover or no lover, Kim’s book is a good companion to Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, which is sourced mainly from interviews with North Korean defectors. Kim was definitely “managed” while she was in the country, and what she was allowed to see was always carefully curated by her minders, but she was still “inside” in a way that other writers haven’t been. And because she is a native Korean speaker, she was viewed differently by her students than the white American teachers were. Her book and Demick’s provide two different but equally fascinating windows into the strange, hyper-controlling dictatorship and its citizens. More book recommendations by me at www.readingwithhippos.com

  19. 4 out of 5

    Phil

    Terrible! Terrible! Terrible! Do not waste the time or money on this one!. Ms. Suki Kim deceives a group of missionaries in accepting her as a Christian English teacher, willing to go to North Korea and teach English to North Korea's affluent's children. Suki deceives the PUST (Pyongyang University of Science and Technology)staff and leadership, PUST staff deceive the North Koreans into believing they are there to teach, and North Korean leadership deceive the kids being taught, that they are Terrible! Terrible! Terrible! Do not waste the time or money on this one!. Ms. Suki Kim deceives a group of missionaries in accepting her as a Christian English teacher, willing to go to North Korea and teach English to North Korea's affluent's children. Suki deceives the PUST (Pyongyang University of Science and Technology)staff and leadership, PUST staff deceive the North Koreans into believing they are there to teach, and North Korean leadership deceive the kids being taught, that they are educating themselves to a freer life. From midway through the book to the end of the book, all we get is page upon page of Kim's moaning and complaining about "her" circumstances in North Korea. She's depressed, she has no friends, her lover in NYC doesn't really love her, she can't find any good food to eat and on and on it goes for more than 100 pages. I have read 2 other books on life in North Korea, and . Each of them are much much better than this story.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kelly

    It's hard to rate this book. As a memoir, I'd give it two stars. First off, no one is reading this book to hear about how she misses her non-boyfriend who lives in Brooklyn. We're reading it because we're interested in the DPRK. Additionally, it doesn't come together as a narrative and none of the characters are fleshed out. While she tells some anecdotes about individual students, they are discrete one-offs, and not part of any coherent characterization. The Christian missionaries that she live It's hard to rate this book. As a memoir, I'd give it two stars. First off, no one is reading this book to hear about how she misses her non-boyfriend who lives in Brooklyn. We're reading it because we're interested in the DPRK. Additionally, it doesn't come together as a narrative and none of the characters are fleshed out. While she tells some anecdotes about individual students, they are discrete one-offs, and not part of any coherent characterization. The Christian missionaries that she lived with for months are similarly one-dimensional, as are the North Korean monitors. When she tries to be "fancy" with her writing, it comes across as forced. She will use overblown figurative language from time to time, and then abandon it. When she tries to make comparisons or include symbolism to communicate her Deep Thoughts about Christianity, Juche, etc. it similarly feels forced and underdeveloped. Finally, her condescending attitude toward her Christian colleagues and lack of understanding of Christianity was a bit of a turn off. Since her social commentary about American Christianity seemed so superficial and "off," it made be skeptical of her ability to write a book on North Korean Culture. Her description of what it was like to live under constant surveillance, and the way it impacted interpersonal relationships did ring true to me. As a former high school English teacher, I found the passages about teaching essay writing to oddly parallel my experiences teaching those concepts to students who were new to them. As a first hand account of life in Pyongyang, it is unique. She wasn't able to travel much in the city, or around the country, and when she did it was planned and monitored, but by getting her students to open up, and living there herself, she got a pretty good idea of a slice of it at least. Since most accounts are from defectors who were not part of the elite, this is a good book if you want to know about the sort of education/indoctrination that the future elite of North Korea are receiving, and what sort of youth culture exists in North Korea. Kim is open about the fact that she went there intending to write a memoir. I tacked on an extra star to my rating because she had the gonads/insanity to go live in North Korea so that the reading public get this book, and because it's got interesting information.

  21. 3 out of 5

    Ms. Smartarse

    The most memorable TED talk I watched last year, was a 13-minute-long one by journalist Suki Kim, about her experience of teaching English at a private university in North Korea. Click on the picture to view the TED talk It's one of the more visually drab talks, but the atmosphere of it just got me hooked. At the time, I didn't know that said talk was based on a book (i.e. this one), but as soon as Ema had pointed it out, reading it had constantly been in the back of my mind. Unlike other document The most memorable TED talk I watched last year, was a 13-minute-long one by journalist Suki Kim, about her experience of teaching English at a private university in North Korea. Click on the picture to view the TED talk It's one of the more visually drab talks, but the atmosphere of it just got me hooked. At the time, I didn't know that said talk was based on a book (i.e. this one), but as soon as Ema had pointed it out, reading it had constantly been in the back of my mind. Unlike other documentaries and books that deal with the subject, Suki Kim's work presents the life of the elite North Korean youth, not the life of former defectors completely disenchanted with the regime. This book, is all about earnest young men eager to go to school and learn, and also... just being regular youngsters in a country that doesn't really allow for such things. I'm guessing most of us have probably come across one or two derisive meme about the North Korean regime's austerity measures. And if you fancy yourself in a particularly masochistic mood and read through some of the associated comments, you've probably seen enough reactions that call the memes gross exaggerations. I was always inclined to take memes with a hefty pinch of salt. My parents had been brought up in a communist dictatorship, and yet are fully capable of independent and critical thought. So it kind of came as a surprise to find those very memes presented as facts in this book: real adoration of the president, sincere belief in the country's greatness, the constant presence of minders, spying on one another... Reporter: A 7-year-old got three bull's eyes? Translator: Yeah! Reporter: That's pretty impressive. Translator: Uhum!" One of the aspects that I both disliked and simultaneously kept thinking about, was Ms. Kim's constant attempts to tell the truth to her students. She wanted to let them know about Facebook, and other countries, the Arab Spring... This seemed really irksome to me, as those poor students were unlikely to experience any of them first hand, or even be able to apply them in their own country. It would just seem like yet another thing to boast about. On the other hand, having (the correct) information is always useful. Score: 4.7 / 5 stars There were so many conflicting emotions I felt throughout reading this book, that I can't really choose one. So I'll just leave you with part of the author's closing speech from her TED talk: I don't want you to lead a revolution, let some other young person do it. The rest of the world might casually encourage or even expect some sort of North Korean spring. But I don't want you to do anything risky, because I know in your world, someone is always watching. I don't want to imagine what might happen to you. If my attempts to reach you have inspired something new in you, I would rather you forget me. Become soldiers of your leader and live long, safe lives.

  22. 3 out of 5

    Murtaza

    While obviously controversial, this was an absolutely incredible memoir and piece of investigative journalism written from inside one of the most opaque societies on earth. Suki Kim went undercover as a missionary high-school teacher to provide a glimpse into the lives of the children of North Korea's elite. A journalist with deep history covering the country and the child of Korean immigrants herself, Kim has produced here a powerful and rare look at what life is like for a relatively privilege While obviously controversial, this was an absolutely incredible memoir and piece of investigative journalism written from inside one of the most opaque societies on earth. Suki Kim went undercover as a missionary high-school teacher to provide a glimpse into the lives of the children of North Korea's elite. A journalist with deep history covering the country and the child of Korean immigrants herself, Kim has produced here a powerful and rare look at what life is like for a relatively privileged segment ordinary people in the Hermit Kingdom. The book is beautifully written, weaving together history, personal reflections and investigative reporting. As a whole, it helps shine a light on the ongoing tragedy of Korea's 1953 partition. There was a lot of backlash to this book over Kim's decision to falsely portray herself as a teacher in North Korea, as well as her decision weave her personal reflections into the story. I think this backlash is misplaced. First of all, almost all Western reporting on North Korea is the product of highly-scripted visits to the country by journalists who only see what the regime permits. For the purpose of understanding the country and its people, these pieces are effectively useless. Kim's reporting here provides pretty much the only genuine, if limited, insight into North Korean society that we have received in years. There would have to be a price to accomplish that, and I fail to see how it could have been done in any way besides through undercover work. There was also criticism of her for incorporating her personal story into the narrative, with the suggestion being that this undermined her impartiality. This criticism is even more off-base in my view. It is easy for those at a personal distance from events to look at global tragedies dispassionately; as though they are some kind of journalistic abstraction. But for people like Kim whose lives and identities are the product of these traumas, that's neither possible or desirable. This book is the product of an earnest, painful desire to somehow undo the horror of modern Korea history. She writes with a clear love of its people because they are ultimately her people. There is no "objective" careerist journalist who would have taken such a risk, nor would they have been able to tell the full story in all its intimate dimensions. Without Kim's work our public knowledge of North Korea would almost be nil, just a collection of bizarre photographs its leaders and scattered testimonies from defectors. This inadequacy of information has made it easy to reduce North Korea's long-suffering people to something like a collective punchline. We also would have little to no idea what its elites think, or how their worldview is formed from a young age. This is a priceless contribution. Overall, I was really moved by the beautiful writing, thoughtful reflections and great heroism of the author. North Korea is one of the most baffling and tragic places on earth. This book does an immense service by lifting the veil of secrecy on that country, even just a bit. It was a pleasure to read and definitely one of the best books of its genre that I have come across in a long time.

  23. 3 out of 5

    Owen

    After having loved The Interpreter, I was ecstatic when I found out Suki Kim was releasing another book that would be published this year. When I found out it was about North Korea, I was interested but unsure how it would compare to her debut novel. Without You, There is No Us is about a year Kim spent at a prestigious all-male college of science and technology in North Korea at the end of Kim Jong-Il's life. Having lived in America since the age of thirteen after being born in South Korea, she After having loved The Interpreter, I was ecstatic when I found out Suki Kim was releasing another book that would be published this year. When I found out it was about North Korea, I was interested but unsure how it would compare to her debut novel. Without You, There is No Us is about a year Kim spent at a prestigious all-male college of science and technology in North Korea at the end of Kim Jong-Il's life. Having lived in America since the age of thirteen after being born in South Korea, she had experience with drastically different countries. Despite the fact that Kim speaks Korean, she was only allowed to communicate with her students in English. Although they were supposedly some of the smartest students in North Korea, their sense of the world was incredibly limited. The idea of blissful ignorance comes into mind, and granted, these students do have more cushioned lives, but we know that life in North Korea is anything but blissful. The government aims to keep its people in a state of constant unawareness and blind dependence on the ruling party to prevent any protests or insurrections. I know this practice is common in many countries, even America to an extent, and it makes me so sad because I believe this is one of the greatest violations of human rights. Kim gives many examples of how the students believe everything they hear, probably because they have never been taught to question anything or because they know they could be punished for doubting what their government tells them. Raised to despise countries such as the US, Japan, and South Korea to the point of wanting to kill their citizens, the students would tell Kim how evil certain American things were like McDonald's, even though they don't know what food McDonald's serves (and will probably never try it). Other examples include things like them thinking kimchi is the world's most popular food and Korean is the most spoken language across the globe. I really liked the cultural insight Kim was able to provide, having come from not just America but also South Korea. Obviously Americans are taught that North Korea is evil, but most don't know much about the conflict between North and South Korea. Kim's family experienced that, and it really added to the book. Who knows what will happen with North Korea in the future, or if it will open in my lifetime. With a new leader in the past few years, the idea of change is possible but unlikely. After all, Kim Jong-Un is following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps, and little has changed in foreign relations in the last few decades. Without You, There Is No Us should be required reading to give Americans and other foreigners a brief, informal introduction to life in North Korea. If we are able to sympathize with the North Korean people, I believe that more will be done to try to help them and work to create change with the North Korean government.

  24. 4 out of 5

    mei

    maaaan, selesai baca ini beneran jadi pengen coba hidup di negara komunis banget hhh. sebagai orang yang terbiasa tak terduga dan tidak suka hal2 yang konsisten, pola hidup komunis mungkin suatu tantangan yg menarik banget. mungkin ya. walaupun sepertinya agak2 serem juga sih. bagus. rekumen banget.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Karatepop

    Eh. The subject and bits of the book were super interesting. The writing, not so much. I get that when every day is the same, when your freedom is so limited, when everyone is terrified to say anything out of line, that there may not be a great deal to write about. But surely, when you're essentially undercover as a missionary undercover as a teacher, there must be more to write about than your "lover". The last quarter of the book, after the students had warmed up a bit, was so interesting! The Eh. The subject and bits of the book were super interesting. The writing, not so much. I get that when every day is the same, when your freedom is so limited, when everyone is terrified to say anything out of line, that there may not be a great deal to write about. But surely, when you're essentially undercover as a missionary undercover as a teacher, there must be more to write about than your "lover". The last quarter of the book, after the students had warmed up a bit, was so interesting! The very personal, emotional letters from her students were very touching and revealing, as were some of her last conversations with them. I think parts of the book that were meant to explain just how isolating, depressing, bizarre, and scary the whole situation wound up sounding like "poor me". Like when she went back to New York and felt no one would understand what she had "endured". Obviously she was in danger - say anything out of line and you could be dead - and that kind of constant fear and paranoia, never being alone, having to pretend to be someone else, is exhausting and very difficult emotionally. It just never came across (to me) the way it was intended. It sounded more like stereotypical teenage moping. She has an argument with a missionary, loses her cool, feels bad (WHY?!), and then cries and thinks of her lover. This lover is brought up all the time, but despite completely over-sharing other parts of her life that are only tangentially related to anything at all, we know nothing about this person. At all. Except, every time she brings him up it sounds like she's pining away for someone who is mostly disinterested for her. That could be totally untrue, but we're given no information to demonstrate otherwise. She talks about her life as a Korean American, her family's connection to North Korea, their immigration story, all very interesting. I don't think all of her family stories are relevant, though. Some parts of the book don't seem to flow well, it seems kind of choppy and disconnected. Much like this write-up of my thoughts. There was praise on the back that called this "investigative journalism", which I would dispute. It was her teaching in North Korea, asking no questions. There were some drivers who turned on Simon and Garfunkle, and she asked them not one question. Not if they like the music, not where they got it, nothing. I know that could be dangerous, but that would be actually investigative. There are some teachers there who are older and from North Korea, but they get one sentence. She doesn't devote much time to the missionaries, except to make very juvenile-type comments about "their god" and irony and blah blah. I'm an atheist, but you really do not need the "funny how their god would let such and such happen if he didn't like it" after everything. It's not hard to figure out. Not totally related: I'm really annoyed by her regret and crying (which also seems to happen a lot) after confronting one of the missionaries - they say and do quite a few offensive things (telling the boys that they can't use chopsticks to be "international gentlemen"), and are so fucking predatory to even be there. Since the book is about her time with North Korea's ruling class, I guess I'll get to that. I'd say 75% of it is this: student asks a question, she says she wanted to respond one way but it would be difficult/dangerous, she responds another/safer way, she expresses her hope and worry about opening them up to anything but the Kim Regime, she says she loves her students, she is annoyed by them and how their devotion to the regime, she wants to break them of that but it's dangerous. Student asks a question... and on and on. Almost every single interaction with the students goes that way. I didn't hate the book. It was okay. The last bit was particularly interesting - excerpts from their letters, their interest in Harry Potter, their complete lack of knowledge about their area of study. Also that they didn't seem to know that adoption was a thing, as this came up in The Stars Between..., when a couple from Pyongyang "adopt" a baby. They could have been lying, but who knows. I don't know how to explain. The entire subject of North Korea is both fascinating and incredibly sad, but most of this book was like biology textbook reading - interesting, but my eyes glazed over and my brain went into reading in monotone.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kavita

    Without You, There Is No Us by author and journalist Suki Kim is slightly different to the other memoirs by defectors. While most memoirs I have read are about conditions in the camps or dealing with daily life for the poverty-stricken lower and middle classes, this one explores the lives of the rich and 'privileged' boys being groomed to take over the North Korean administration some day. Suki Kim has basically infiltrated PUST (Pyongyang University of Science and Technology), a Christian-funded Without You, There Is No Us by author and journalist Suki Kim is slightly different to the other memoirs by defectors. While most memoirs I have read are about conditions in the camps or dealing with daily life for the poverty-stricken lower and middle classes, this one explores the lives of the rich and 'privileged' boys being groomed to take over the North Korean administration some day. Suki Kim has basically infiltrated PUST (Pyongyang University of Science and Technology), a Christian-funded university, pretending to be a missionary. In the book, she exposes both the Kim regime's dictatorship in which even the elites are brainwashed and not given any freedom, and the missionaries who lie in wait like vultures waiting to pounce on the carrion the moment the country opens up. Kim's relationship with her students goes beyond the usual teacher - student relationships, partly because she is aware that their lives are restricted and feels for them, and partly because for the students, she is a major link to life on the outside. Kim describes her time with the North Korean boys, effusing her narrative with emotions, both positive and negative. The boys are completely brainwashed to the extent that they believe that North Korea is the most advanced country in the world, where they have achieved miracles such as changing people's blood types! They also believe that the axis of evil is USA, Japan and South Korea, and are forever prepared to wage war against their enemies. They are denied basic amenities like Google that we take for granted. They simply have no idea about the outside world, and one of the author's goals is to show them that there is a life outside NK and to get the boys start questioning their system. She does this by simple and sly techniques by obliquely mentioning some developments they were not privy to earlier, by keeping her Mac book in sight, and so on. If the North Korean regime blocks information to the students, restricts their lives and brainwashes them, the missionaries deny them simple and basic pleasures such as a screening of a Harry Potter movie, because it's not Christian. We all know that the Kim regime is bad, but this was no less cruel in my view. They also insist on the students learning to eat with a fork, which makes no sense, since the food served is completely different. How are they going to eat soupy ramen with a knife and fork?! I found these people extremely annoying in every aspect. The missionaries positioned in North Korea and China are doing a lot of harm. But when did they ever do anything else? I liked that the author does not spare them or see their work in NK as charity. She is well aware that their sole aim is to spread Christianity, and they don't care how they do it or about the consequences. I also liked that the author contributed some personal history in the form of reminiscences of her parents' lives during the war and how they had to flee at the time. She also talked about her own memories, growing up as a child in South Korea and often makes a comparison between the north and south cultures, emphasising how far the two countries have grown apart in the past sixty years. While I found the book informative and enjoyable, there were some annoying elements. Kim's Americanism shows through when she keeps wondering about USA and how things are different here. Well, why wouldn't they be? US isn't a prototype for the rest of the world! Every place is different, and thrusting in America as the global standard really annoyed me. Another thing I found bizarre was that Kim would mention her lover consistently throughout the book, without us ever getting to actually know him. He was irrelevant but she would bring him up at every opportunity. Even when discussing something as trivial as a textbook passage on New York, a mention of Brooklyn would bring out a couple of random sentences about her absent lover. I would make this a full five star, if this lover had been edited out completely.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Xueting

    Very harrowing book. Lots of scenes are going to stay in my mind for a long time, I'm sure. I wish the author thought more about organising her book better though, by chapters or something else. She gave us so much detail and they were quite overwhelming at times when she just reported what happened and created a chilling hook, but went on almost immediately to another chilling occurrence. But I love her tone and perspective on North Korea - it's refreshing and so eye-opening to hear from a Sout Very harrowing book. Lots of scenes are going to stay in my mind for a long time, I'm sure. I wish the author thought more about organising her book better though, by chapters or something else. She gave us so much detail and they were quite overwhelming at times when she just reported what happened and created a chilling hook, but went on almost immediately to another chilling occurrence. But I love her tone and perspective on North Korea - it's refreshing and so eye-opening to hear from a South Korean who spent so much time intimately with the people. The students were special. I felt her frustrations between loving and caring for them yet repelled by their very different way of life and thinking.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Kimba Tichenor

    This book does offer a fascinating glimpse into North Korean society; however the book itself at times seems to suffer from an identity crisis. Mostly it reads like a memoir, in which the author has a personal vested interest in the story she is telling. As such, she introduces literary flourishes into her narrative. These literary flourishes work well in the context of a memoir. However, because there are points in the narrative where the author emphasizes her status as an investigative journal This book does offer a fascinating glimpse into North Korean society; however the book itself at times seems to suffer from an identity crisis. Mostly it reads like a memoir, in which the author has a personal vested interest in the story she is telling. As such, she introduces literary flourishes into her narrative. These literary flourishes work well in the context of a memoir. However, because there are points in the narrative where the author emphasizes her status as an investigative journalist, those literary flourishes become problematic at least for this reader. I tend to evaluate a memoir and a piece of investigative journalism very differently. With the latter, I expect a higher degree of objectivity and a conscious effort to avoid ideologically charged language. But objectivity and neutral language are simply not the hallmarks of this book. So on those occasions when the author would suggest that she was writing the book in her capacity as a journalist, I found myself having a knee jerk negative reaction to the book, because what I had previously read as literary flourishes now seemed more in keeping with propaganda.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Steve Min

    I'm surprised at the high rating this book received. It had so much potential; a westerner on the inside for months. Yet the book comes across as juvenile and poorly written. The author seems bitter at lots of things which have nothing to do with the story. Her boyfriend. Her obvious bias against Christians. Her seemingly artificial "love" for the boys. Really disappointed.

  30. 3 out of 5

    Rob Slaven

    As is often the case I received this book free in exchange for a review. I'm not honestly sure by what specific method I received this book but it was probably through a GoodReads giveaway. This book is a memoir of the author's time spent among missionaries in North Korea working in a North Korean university. Though not a Christian herself she manages to "fake it" well enough to not get kicked out by either the missionaries or the government. During her time she gets to know the students and mana As is often the case I received this book free in exchange for a review. I'm not honestly sure by what specific method I received this book but it was probably through a GoodReads giveaway. This book is a memoir of the author's time spent among missionaries in North Korea working in a North Korean university. Though not a Christian herself she manages to "fake it" well enough to not get kicked out by either the missionaries or the government. During her time she gets to know the students and manages to delve into the mysterious North Korean Psyche. The book is not only a retelling of her time there but also a detailed look at the people of that oppressed state. Usually I start out the meat of a review by doing the good stuff/bad stuff summary and I almost always tear memoirs apart from stem to stern. In this case though I find that I'm not coming up with anything for the 'bad stuff' section so it's best just to dispense with the format, despite the apparent necessity of going on about it anyway. To put it succinctly, this book is fascinating. It's one that even looking at the title mystified me in ways that I haven't a sufficient grasp of English to properly convey to my readers. North Korea has always been such a backwards and unknown regime and here is an author who is willing to tell all after having been there herself. How can you beat that?! The book lives up to the promise of its title too. Yes, this is a book that describes the author's time there so there are personal tidbits and there is crying and emotional outbursts but they're completely in line with the author's thesis. Unlike most memoirs this isn't a "poor me" book but a "poor them" book. It's obvious that she cares deeply for the people with whom she worked while there and this book is her way of trying to shed light on the deep and systematic oppression of an entire population. All this despite the obvious personal risk she puts herself in. In summary, if you have any curiosity about this dank and dark corner of the world, this book is required reading. Its portrayals of the populous are horrifyingly Orwellian and her descriptions are sure to stick with you far beyond the initial reading. This is a book for the ages that will help the world to understand a people and a culture who have for too long been neglected on the international stage.

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