Review: Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Title: Without You, There Is No Us
Subtitle: My Time With the Sons of North Korea's Elite
Author: Suki Kim
Pages: 385
Genre: Non-fiction; memoir; sociological
Publisher: Crown (Penguin Random House)
Pub. Date: October 14, 2014

This memoir is written about the days that author, Suki Kim, taught English to boys at a university in North Korea where she posed as a Christian missionary. (These missionaries were allowed to teach there because the funding for the school itself had been largely from Christian organizations). In doing so, and in being a teacher, Kim was able to provide a look into the minds of the young people who live there.

We already know, (at least if you've done any reading on the topic at all), the ways in which people there are "brainwashed" to believe the things they do and about the ways in which they are cut off from the rest of the world in an almost alternate reality. Interacting with these kids absolutely depicted this exact thing. Kim's goals were to learn and report about this but to also instill in the boys some concept of thinking for themselves and the realization that things weren't as they were raised to believe.

The boys Kim taught were of the "elite" so had better lives and opportunities than the average North Korean which is crazy considering how they were still treated and controlled. Reading this gave me that same tense and anxious feeling I had when reading Orwell's 1984... nightmarish. The things these boys (men, really) believed about their country were ridiculous... basically believing they are the best in so many different ways and how the rest of the world envies them. But the ways they were controlled also was nightmarish. For instance, when construction needed to be done, the government took the kids from the school and forced them to do labor... But even scarier is that the kids would respond with the attitude that they didn't at all mind, as it was for their Dear Leader. 

This was a fascinating look at the ways the environment can shape a person. They were all human and had curiosities (to the degree they were permitted, of course) and reading about everything they wanted to know, were learning, and the concepts their life experiences prevented them from grasping was disheartening and heartwarming at the same time. Ugh, there were frustrating feelings while reading this. Sometimes I just wanted to scream or shake people in the book! 

I could see some people having issue with the deception that took place as part of Kim doing research for the book. In a way, I did feel for the boys who I did feel were exploited to a degree, as they may never know the truth of their interactions with Kim. Though I do feel Kim's reporting was well done and that she genuinely cared for these kids. It was interesting to see the ways she creatively responded to their questions both to keep herself out of trouble but also to try to enlighten them a little.

I wish there had been more to the ending. But I guess there isn't really more to tell considering the memoir goes through 2011 and nothing has changed in the way things are there. I would be interested, though maybe not possible, to see where these boys are years later. 

I do highly recommend this book, especially along with Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demick if you haven't read that. Both will teach you a lot about life in North Korea and both are fascinating reads.


Meg @ A Bookish Affair said...

I read "Nothing to Envy" and am stunned by some of the things that happen in North Korea. I am hoping to read Kim's book soon!

Irene McKenna said...

Wow. This does sound fascinating. I will add this and Nothing to Envy to my list.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I thought this book was just fantastic. Every time I read about North Korea I am shocked and horrified and it's really just incredibly sad. Escape from Camp 14 is a good one to read about the prison camps there, too. A totally different world from the sons' of the elite, but way more tragic and even more horrifying.

Booksnyc said...

great review! I read Lisa Ling's sister's account of being jailed in North Korea and it was harrowing to read what she went through. This author obviously took such risks to tell this story.

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