Review: Without You There is No Us

“There’s no freedom,” he sighed, “They are watching us constantly. I know they are recording everything we say and keeping files on us, and I feel really bad all the time . . .” from Without You There is No Us.

Without You There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim
291 pages
Published by Crown, 2014
Genre: Memoir, current affairs
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I would definitely give this one another read.

Reviewed by Indiana

Spoiler Free

As tensions between the United States and North Korea continue to heighten I decided to finally pick up Without You There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim.

I meant to read it when it first came out in 2014, but somehow it got away from me. With North Korea popping up in my newsfeed on a near-daily basis, I figured now would be as good a time as any.

Suki Kim, an author, journalist and teacher, was admitted to teach at a missionary school in North Korea in 2011. Although she went under the guise that she was just going to teach, she planned to write of her experiences, to give people outside the country a look inside that no one has had in decades.

Kim, who is from South Korea and has family members who have disappeared into North Korea, never to be heard from again. She wanted to understand the country that had become such an important part of her family history, as well as her country’s history. Within the memoir, she weaves in her personal experiences getting into the school, other teachers/missionaries’ stories, and the political/social history. It feels seamless and her experiences are startling.

Her students are constantly using “group think.” They don’t do anything alone and they lie for one another whenever they need to. They also settle on their beliefs through one another. For instance, they did not believe that it could snow in New York, no matter how many times Kim told them. They also had a hard time believing that the internet could really connect them to the outside world, that they could find out any piece of information they needed just by Googling it (just as a reminder, this took place in 2011).

The students and the teachers were under surveillance at all times, something which caused more than a few intense situations where Kim thought her notes might be discovered. All teachers had “minders,” or government representatives who followed them around. Students were paired off so they couldn’t really be on their own.

As if that’s not suffocating enough, things around the school changed at the drop of a hat and without explanation. The students would disappear in the middle of the day (possibly for military training), or suddenly the movie that Kim wanted to show to her students was not accepted by the higher-ups.

There are only brief glimpses of North Korean life outside of the school grounds. But they’re powerful and grim. During one scene, Kim is traveling with a group and notices someone walking who looks completely emaciated and Kim eventually finds out is a slave. It’s shocking, although not completely surprising.

Kim’s experience was chilling to read and I really can’t imagine being brought up in that culture. It’s well worth the read and a great way to get into what has been a highly politicized topic over the years.

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