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Book Review: Without You, There Is No Us

Author: Suki Kim
Publisher: Crown
Published: 2014
Number of Pages: 304
My Rating: 4

Summary from
          A haunting memoir of teaching English to the sons of North Korea's ruling class during the last six months of Kim Jong-il's reign
          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 accepted a job teaching English. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them to write, 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.

        This book was exactly what I was hoping it would be- a rare glimpse into the life of the world's most mysterious country, North Korea.

         Suki Kim is a journalist who poses as a missionary posing as a teacher in order to gain access to North Korea. Originally from South Korea, Kim has lived in the United States for a number of years as a writer and a student. She hears of an opportunity for teachers at the only university that is currently open in North Korea- Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). All other universities have been closed and students forced to help with construction around the country. However, the 270 males at PUST are high-class and from elite families so they are allowed to continue with their studies. 

          Despite issues with her visa, Kim is able to make the journey to North Korea where she slowly travels to the country's capital, Pyongyang. She shares vivid details of the people and places she sees as she travels, even though it is very apparent that she isn't supposed to see things outside of the guided tours and carefully orchestrated events. She finally reaches the campus where she quickly realizes that everything she does, and says, is closely monitored and recorded. 

         She meets her students, college-aged men who want to improve their English language skills, and works hard to gain their trust and respect. This is not an easy feat by any means. These young men aren't allowed to call, email, or visit their families at all and have little to no free time outside of classes and have no access to computers or regular TV.  I found it interesting and yet heartbreaking to hear about how these men lived- it was obvious they were expected to do their studies and mandatory duties without complaint, but at times it seemed like they had no second thoughts about all of the work and it was just second nature to them. 

          Kim is also disturbed by their obsession with their country, their great leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and how ahead they think are with everything compared to the rest of the world. She tries to give them glimpses of life outside of North Korea and subtly shows them things such as her Mac computer, her Kindle, and her talk of the internet, something they have absolutely no access to. She lives in constant fear, however, of being discovered and punished. It was shocking to hear the naivety of these twenty-year-olds, especially since they are living in a country that is considered to be the most advanced (at least by its leaders and people). 

          What I liked most about this book, besides the information and views of this mysterious country, was all of the humanity that Kim brought to the table. It is a work of nonfiction, but she shares stories from her family life as well as her feelings about the boys that are simply heart wrenching. Her parents lost family members when the North and South split, and those in North Korea were never heard from again. She also shares stories of the boys that will make you laugh, hurt, and cry for them. They seemed like a truly amazing group of kids that were born on the wrong side of a border. 

       Overall, this was a great book. It was informative and shocking, and was unlike anything that I have ever read before. Suki Kim did a wonderful job reporting what she saw and sharing all of the facts while inserting her feelings and emotions about the entire experience. The boys she teaches will grow on you and you will finish the book with sympathy for them, hoping they will one day have a chance to live outside of watching eyes. If you are wanting to read a unique book that will open your eyes, be sure to check out this fascinating and heartbreaking story. 

-Busy Brunette 


  1. I really liked this one as well - read it for Nonfiction November. And it made me curious to read even more about life in North Korea, esp since her focus was on the elite. I'm now curious about regular people - so I have Nothing to Envy and Escape from Camp 14 on my TBR list.

  2. Ooh I will have to check those out, too! This was the first time I read a book about this topic and it definitely piqued my interest.


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