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Nonfiction Review: Without You There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite by Suki Kim

Title: Without You There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea's Elite

Author: Suki Kim

Year Published: 2015

Category: Adult nonfiction
Pages: 320
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location (my 2021 Google Reading map)North Korea

Summary (from Amazon): Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. It is a chilling scene, but gradually Suki Kim, too, learns the tune and, without noticing, begins to hum it. It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the 270 students at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has gone undercover as a missionary and a teacher. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them English, all under the watchful eye of the regime.

Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic, especially for Suki, whose letters are read by censors and who must hide her notes and photographs not only from her minders but from her colleagues—evangelical Christian missionaries who don't know or choose to ignore that Suki doesn't share their faith. As the weeks pass, she is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. At the same time, they offer Suki tantalizing glimpses of their private selves—their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished. She in turn begins to hint at the existence of a world beyond their own—at such exotic activities as surfing the Internet or traveling freely and, more dangerously, at electoral democracy and other ideas forbidden in a country where defectors risk torture and execution. But when Kim Jong-il dies, and the boys she has come to love appear devastated, she wonders whether the gulf between her world and theirs can ever be bridged.

Review: I read this book in a read along on Goodreads with Anne of My Head is Full of Books. I haven't done a read along with someone in a very long time and it was fun to discuss it as we progressed through the book, 5 chapters at a time.

One of Anne's first observations was how child-like the students at the school seemed though they are 18-22 years old, which the author illustrated via a student's birthday party. The students performed for one another as American children do when they are early elementary school age. This innocence stands in contrast to all the lying that happens. As Anne said, she "was really struck by the lies. How it affected the way [the author] felt about the boys from love to pity to repulsion and distrust back to love. Then she saw how they lied to themselves, how the government lied to its people, how it made redemption impossible. Somewhere she noted that she wasn't sure the boys knew that lying was wrong. What an odd thought. How could they not know?" Indeed. The lies are so pervasive in North Korea that it happens naturally at all levels. And these are the elite and "connected."

The book did get a little repetitive with Kim talking about the lies, how difficult it was for her to maintain her book writing, how the students had no concept of the outside world, and her frustrations with the missionary teachers. However, I did like her description of the field trips the teachers took. Actually, "like" isn't quite the right word. Anne and I both found them creepy and were reminded of the graphic novel Pyongyang by Guy Delisle in which he visits the "gift" museum on a road with no exits.

The ending of the book was sad for me because even though the author had built a rapport with her students when the "Great Leader" died the day before she left, the country went into mourning and she didn't get the chance to say good bye to the students. Yet, this symbolized all that is true about North Korea: it is all about honoring their leader(s), acting as one for the good of the State, and putting everything personal aside. Such anathema to the U.S.

Challenges for which this counts: none

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