Title: Without You There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite
Author: Suki Kim
Release Date: October 14, 2014
Genre: Nonfiction, Memoir, Cultural (Non-South Asian)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Suki Kim is a journalist who went undercover as a missionary in order to gain access to the most forbidding country in the world: North Korea. Posing as a teacher, Kim taught English in a Pyongyang university for two semesters, hiding her true identity from her students, her monitors, and her fellow teachers as she tried to learn more about the desolation that surrounded her.
Kim provides a close look at her time teaching in a North Korea university in Without You There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Though it provides more hints and suspicions about the regime than cold hard facts, Kim’s incredibly written atmosphere and engaging narrative style will surely satisfy fans of nonfiction.
Chilling. Bleak. Fascinating. These are the words that come to mind when I think of Without You There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Kim’s experience at PUST (Pyongyang University of Science and Technology) are singular, if wholly strange and depressing. The entire memoir has a desolate atmosphere; Kim is desperate to learn more about North Korea, but she also is increasingly desperate to get out, to return to some semblance of normalcy. She is only in North Korea for two semesters, but it feels much, much longer.
The reader learns a lot about North Korea in Without You There Is No Us, but at the same time, there are no real answers here. We have so few hard facts about what life is like in North Korea, and the few times Kim was able to leave the compound, she felt as though things were staged for their benefit. She hints at and suspects dark truths: slavery, all universities except theirs shuttered and the students sent to work in the field, etc., but she doesn’t know anything for sure. This uncertainty, this paranoia, permeates the memoir completely.
Without You There Is No Us is written in a fast, narrative style. The subject matter is really fascinating, and Kim does a great job conveying her bleak emotions. It’s difficult to put down, as Kim tries to discover more, pushing boundaries and making a personal connection with her students. It’s sad, as she makes the observation that these students she finally ends up forging a bond with will either become slaves or soldiers in the brutal regime; they have no other choice.
If you go into Without You There Is No Us assuming that you’ll receive answers to the mysteries behind North Korea’s Iron Curtain, well, you’ll probably be disappointed. This book is much more about hints at and suspicions of dark truths than actual fact. It’s very well done, growing more and more intriguing with every page turn. Nonfiction fans generally should seek this book out immediately