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‘Without You, There Is No Us’ Brings Stories from Inside North Korea

without you there is no us by suki kimI love to read books that take me to places I will never get to see, or help illuminate cultures that, without an engaging guide, I will never have a chance to understand. One of my favorite books from 2013 that did just that was Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, a look at lives of ordinary people in North Korea based on interviews with a growing community of North Koreans who escaped and defected to South Korea. I thought it was a remarkable book.

I revisited life in North Korea last month through a memoir focusing on an entirely different sect of North Korean society – the sons of elite members of the ruling class.

Without You, There Is No Us is a reported memoir, based on journals that author Suki Kim started to keep in 2002. Kim, a native of South Korea who emigrated to the United States with her parents when she was 13, visited North Korea several times between 2008 and 2011 before getting hired to teach English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in 2011. At the time, PUST was the only operating university in the country – all other college students were doing forced labor for the year.

To get the job, Kim had to pose as a Christian missionary and hide her notes and experience as a journalist (most of the faculty and staff at PUST are missionaries, although they don’t explicitly try to convert the students). During the six months that Kim taught at PUST, she built cautious relationships with her students and tried to give them glimpses of the world outside of North Korea, but may not have been able to get through the brainwashing that the regime conducts on a daily basis.

There are so many things that are wonderful and striking about this book. Because of Kim’s limited perspective, the book is deeply personal and focuses almost exclusively on Kim’s reactions to life at PUST, her students and what she discovers through working with them.

I was struck, over and over again, at how much they were like any other college-aged men, curious about girls and excited about sports, while simultaneously holding worldviews that make absolutely no sense to anyone with even the most basic knowledge of the outside world. Kim writes at one point that her students constantly lied to her, but that it was never malicious… just what they’d be groomed to do.

While I wouldn’t say that Without You, There Is No Us is an enjoyable book to read, once I got into the story I had a hard time putting it down. North Korea is probably the most unknown and unknowable place in the world, and while this memoir offers just a glimpse into that country, I think it is an important and well-done look.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher. 

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  • BermudaOnion(Kathy) October 21, 2014, 8:02 am

    I won this from Library Thing and am looking forward to reading it. I, too, love to get a peek into societies I’ll never know and this one sounds fascinating.

    • Kim October 21, 2014, 9:23 pm

      It’s really interesting, really specific peek at one aspect of North Korean society. It’s odd to think that these young men will be in charge of the country someday.

  • Leah @ Books Speak Volumes October 21, 2014, 8:40 am

    This sounds like a really fascinating read!

  • Alise October 21, 2014, 10:05 am

    I loved Nothing to Envy, too! Thanks for the recommendation. I’m definitely putting this one on my TBR list!

  • Monika @ Lovely Bookshelf October 21, 2014, 3:22 pm

    I’m surprised you mention she had to pose as a Christian missionary to get the job, because I thought Christianity was an unauthorized religion in North Korea? This sounds fascinating, I’m adding it to my TBR list.

    • Kim October 21, 2014, 9:22 pm

      That’s a good question! As I understand it, PUST is privately funded by many outside groups, including Christian missionaries. They are not allowed to preach or talk about religion with the students. If I recall, the government either doesn’t know or looks the other way on the religion issue because the university is funded from those other sources.

  • tanya (52 books or bust) October 22, 2014, 5:50 am

    North Korea is one of those largely unknown places in the world. And as a result I’m a sucker for anything about it. I know I’m going to have to read this. The fact that it is set in a university makes it even more appealing to me.

  • Leila @ Readers' Oasis October 22, 2014, 6:09 am

    I just finished this as well–it was my nonfiction “break” during the read-a-thon. Yes, very interesting. Frustrating, at the same time, because of Kim’s (necessarily) limited perspective . . . if only she had been allowed to see more of North Korea than the strange world of PUST. It was so clear that she was only getting a glimpse at a tiny bit of the society . . . but then, so few Western journalists have gotten ANY glimpse.

    • Kim October 26, 2014, 12:54 pm

      Yes, the book is awfully limited, but she does a good job making it as full as possible within those constraints. I don’t know if you can get a good luck at North Korea in any single book — you probably need a collection books that each offer a small perspective.

  • C.J. October 22, 2014, 2:40 pm

    I find North Korea fascinating because of all the secrecy and the extremely restricted lives of the people. Does the book go into much detail about the daily lives of the students?

    • Kim October 26, 2014, 12:52 pm

      Yes and no. As students at PUST, they don’t have much freedom to do anything outside of work and class. The book talks a lot about that, but not a ton about what their lives were like before they came to the university — probably because they were trained not to talk about that with the staff because building relationships can be dangerous.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End October 22, 2014, 2:55 pm

    I’ve had this on my list for months — North Korea is one of those things in the world that seems like it can’t possibly be happening in this day and age, except that we all know it is. Can’t wait to read this, even knowing how sad it will be.

    • Kim October 26, 2014, 12:51 pm

      Yes, that’s exactly it. When Kim would write about the things her students just didn’t know it was crazy and just so sad.

  • Trisha October 23, 2014, 9:01 pm

    This is one of those books that’s on my Important-Interesting-Painful list. I keep putting it off because of the “painful” portion.

  • Aarti October 27, 2014, 10:05 pm

    I too am fascinated by Noeth Korea and loved Demick’s book. I have never heard of this one. I will absolutely look into reading it!

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey November 7, 2014, 7:24 pm

    I have a copy of this book yet and haven’t picked it up yet in part because I felt like it wasn’t going to be enjoyable. This sounds as though it was engaging though and I share your love of books that take you places, so I feel more excited about picking this up after reading your review.

    • Kim November 9, 2014, 9:58 pm

      I thought it was very engaging. it’s obviously tough to read in places, but worth it.