Book Review: Without You There is No Us

What do you know about North Korea? If you’re like me, the answer is “not much,” and that’s no accident. The country is notoriously isolated by its ruler and regime, closed up to the world outside in a much the same way as communist countries like the USSR and China.

Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite opens up the country, but not in any government-sanctioned way. The author, Suki Kim, is a journalist based in New York City who went undercover as an ESL teacher at an evangelical university in Pyongyang. She had been researching and writing about North Korea for years, and got the opportunity to teach at a university for the sons of the elite.

In the beginning of the book, Kim shared the preparations she had to make, and the long list of what she couldn’t do and say. This included basic things, such as talking to the citizens of Pyongyang and her students about much of anything about the outside world. It was made clear that she should assume her computer and emails would be monitored, and that it was quite possible that her room at the university would not be private (i.e., that it would be bugged). She and the other teachers would not be able to leave the campus, except in groups accompanied by official minders. The students were not able to leave at all.

Kim grew up in South Korea until she and her parents moved to the US. She, her family, and many others in the country live with the grief of family members lost when North Korea closed to the world. That grief and the hope for reunification permeates the book as a recurring theme. It’s interesting is that north of the border the reunification is only spoken off as a consequence of the vanquishing of the enemy (South Korea and the US).

Lives in North Korea, especially the lives of young people, are extremely militarized. The culture of war is everywhere, from the military service the young are required to do, to the songs of victory, celebration of victory days, and that constant emphasis on an awareness of the enemy. Children are raised to prepare for war, a war that can come at any time.

Another theme in the book is lies. The lies — direct or by omission — that Kim and the other teachers are forced to tell about the West to avoid getting themselves and the students into trouble. The lies the North Korean regime tell its citizens. And the lies that the students tell Kim. And it is in this discussion of how easily the students lie — sometimes absolute whoppers that cannot possibly be true — that I thought the book faltered a bit.

Kim mentions how easily the students lie, and wonders if no one taught them “right from wrong.” And maybe it is my background in social sciences and their emphasis on not applying judgments to others based in your own culture that pulled me out of the book, wanting to argue with the author. 

Because that mention of her students not knowing right from wrong assumes their definition of wrong is the same as hers. Which it is very clearly is not. These young people grow up in a culture where lies are woven into the fabric of their lives. From a personal level, in what they cannot do to the awareness of being monitored at all times, and from a cultural point of view in the lies they may or may not be aware their teachers and their regime tells them. Their ease of lying, and the fact that their peers don’t blink an eye when it happens, and even join in and show very clearly that in North Korea, telling a lie is not wrong. In fact, it may even be a good thing. From the many examples Kim cites, I began to form a theory that perhaps lying is an acceptable, even desirable, way of saving face, of being considerate towards others. Of telling another person what you and they might desire to be the truth in this monotone culture with almost no capacity for surprise and delight, but with the mutual understanding that it may not be.

And the reason that the truth is so malleable lies in many ways with the personality cult that worships three people: Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un. The three men who have led North Korea since 1948 are like gods this country, their pictures everywhere, everything that happens is given to people by the generosity of the currently living leader and everyone wears a pin with his image. I remember watching the news when Kim Jong-Il died and wondering at the images of hysterically sobbing North Koreans. I could understand grief at losing a leader, had experienced it when Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Jack Layton died, but not this level of abject devastation. Without You There Is No Us made me understand the reaction.

If you have ever experienced even a tinge of curiosity about North Korea, I highly recommend you get this book. Even if you’ve never given that country much of a thought, you should still read it. It gives you an understanding of a completely different culture, as well as the background of other cultures, such as Russia and China, that can help you understand those patients and some of the challenges their people face. Challenges that will affect how the rest of the world interact and collaborate with those countries.

I first heard of this book about a month ago. In a piece for the New Republic, Kim writes about how her publisher decided to sell it as a memoir and why she disagrees with that label. She wrote the book as a report of investigative journalism, using the first person as a narrative device. She said “by casting my book as personal rather than professional—by marketing me as a woman on a journey of self-discovery, rather than a reporter on a groundbreaking assignment—I was effectively being stripped of my expertise on the subject I knew best.” It’s an extremely well-written column and I shared it widely. As result, I wasn’t the only person in my social network who bought the book.

So is Kim’s book a memoir or investigative reporting? Although I’m leaning towards saying it may be a blend, with the balance going towards investigative reporting, I’m not yet ready to come down on either side. I simply haven’t read enough books that are called investigative reporting. Kim mentions a few in her New Republic essay, such as Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing and Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, and I want to read them first before I can decide. That said, I am very comfortable in saying that the criticisms against the author are very clearly ridiculous and hypocritical judgments based in sexism and quite possibly racism. But that’s a story for another post.

Have you read Without You There Is No Us? What did you think?

Watch Suki Kim’s TED Talk about going undercover in North Korea 


woolywoman said…
I haven't read it, yet, but plan to. Nickel and Dime is a very good book.