Without You There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite – Review

North Korea has perhaps the least appealing ideology in the world – a combination of the worst parts of Communism, nationalism, and Confucianism.

In this book, Suki Kim teaches English to young men from the North Korean elite, in a university sponsored by a Christian group.  The students think she is a teacher, the other faculty think she is a missionary, but she is actually a journalist gathering material for this book.

Suki is Korean-American, and so gets a little more insight into her students and the regime than her colleagues.  Unfortunately, given the regime’s paranoia, her students are extremely guarded, so this insight does not add up to much.  A typical interaction is that students say that North Korea is the best in the world at some field, but show no reaction when Suki obliquely tells them that the outside world has far surpassed them.

Suki notes that the language of North Korea is an odd mixture.  On the one hand, there is cursing even in their written language “like finding the words fuck and shit in a presidential speech or on the front page of the New York Times”.  On the other, some of their expressions are “archaic, innocent sounding, … instead of ‘developing photos’ they said ‘images waking up'”.

Isolated from both her students and her colleagues, life at the university is not much fun for Suki, and the book falls squarely into the “things you wouldn’t want to do yourself but are curious as to how they might work out” vicarious experience genre.

Should you buy this book?  The author deceives two groups, without much reflection on this.  Given her true profession, her students were quite right to be guarded, though she was careful to change identifying details.  I suspect her misdirections are journalistically acceptable, but will defer to experts in the field.

Will you enjoy this book?  This should not be the first book on North Korea you read (Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” is a good choice for that).  But if you like that first book, then you will like this one too.

Suki Kim has also written an award-winning novel, “The Interpreter” and can be found online at sukikim.com.  The other branch of the Kim family has led the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea since 1948.

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