Thursday, December 24, 2015

‘Without You, There Is No Us’ (Book Review)

Few outsiders get an opportunity to peek into the closed world of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, i.e. North Korea). Suki Kim is one of them. Curious about life on the other side of the concrete wall, the South Korean-born, American journalist jumped on an opportunity to teach English at the newly-formed Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the only private academic institution in North Korea, funded largely by Evangelical Christians. It was 2011, when the DPRK was preparing to celebrate the centennial birthday of its first “Great Leader” Kim Sung-Il but ironically ended up mourning the death of its second “Great Leader” Kim Jong-Il instead.

Disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher, as she puts it, Kim taught writing to the sons of North Korea’s educated class while secretly taking notes for her book, Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, A Memoir (Crown Publishers, 2014). This idea of pretending, linked with the concepts of truth/honesty and falsehood/lies, serves as a running theme. Undercover Kim confronts a student body that lies about its county’s successes and living the good life as well as cheats on assignments, seemingly automatically without conscience. The students’ behavior matches her overall experience in the DPRK, where the oppressive government puts on displays for the benefit of foreign visitors, hiding the poor, underfed, and overworked peasants who make up most of the population.

Rather than merely assuming that everything isn’t what it seems, Kim’s position on the inside allowed her to see first-hand these contradictions in action. And while she is no supporter of North Korea, she maintains a healthy amount of objectivity, willing to take a critical look at herself, South Korea, and the United States, trying to understand the North Korean view. For example, she becomes more aware of how Americanized South Koreans must appear to the North Koreans when the Sinicization of North Korean culture (due to its close relationship with China) begins to bother her. Despite all the lying that had to take place to bring about the book, Without You comes across as a very honest account.

There were a few things that left me dissatisfied, however. At times, I felt that the book was a little disorganized, and the ending was definitely too abrupt. In addition, I was left wondering as to whether she ever “got closure” when it came to the pain over her family’s losses brought about by the north-south division. While I don’t doubt that Kim’s experience had a profound effect on her, she doesn’t transfer that well to the reader. The book offered very little in the way of surprises, portraying life in the DPRK pretty much how anyone who has watched a documentary on North Korea, or even – yes, I’m saying it – The Interview, would’ve imagined it. Without You is definitely a good read, but I wouldn’t say it’ll be a game changer.

Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.