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 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. She is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. To them, everything in North Korea is the best, the tallest, the most delicious, the envy of all nations. Still, she cannot help but love them—their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished.
As the weeks pass, she 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. The students in turn offer Suki tantalizing glimpses into their lives, from their thoughts on how to impress girls to their disappointment that soccer games are only televised when the North Korean team wins. Then Kim Jong-il dies, leaving the students devastated, and leading Suki to question whether the gulf between her world and theirs can ever be bridged.
Without You, There Is No Us offers a moving and incalculably rare glimpse of life in the world's most unknowable country, and at the privileged young men she calls "soldiers and slaves."
About Suki Kim
Suki Kim is the author of the award-winning novel The Interpreter. She has been traveling to North Korea as a journalist since 2002, and her essays and articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, and the New York Review of Books. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim, a Fulbright, and an Open Society fellowship. Born in Seoul, she lives in New York.
"Strangely terrifying…A beautifully written book that greatly expands the limited bounds of what we know about North Korea’s ruling class."
—Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy
"Terrifying and sublime, Without You, There Is No Us is a stealth account of heartbreak. Suki Kim, brilliant author of The Interpreter, penetrates the soul of her divided country of origin, bearing witness to generations of maimed lives and arrested identities. This look inside totalitarian North Korea is like no other."
—Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite and Quiet Dell
"This superb work of investigative journalism is distinguished by its grave beauty and aching tenderness. So skilled is Suki Kim in conveying the eeriness and surreal disconnect of the North Korean landscape that I sometimes felt I was reading a ghost story, one that will haunt me with its silences, with its image of snow falling upon a desolate campus, with the far laughter of her beloved students."
—Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss
"Like an explorer returned from a distant planet or another dimension, Suki Kim has many extraordinary tales to tell, among them how different—and how awful—life is for those who live in North Korea. The devil is in the details here, for her gritty narrative focuses on everyday events to reveal how repression shapes daily life, even for the most privileged. Yet Kim also bears witness to that part of the human soul that no oppressor can ever claim."
—Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana
"In language at once stark and delicate, Suki Kim shatters the polemic of North and South Korea. She couples an investigative reporter's fierce desire to strip away the fiction of the Hermit Kingdom with an immigrant's insatiable hunger for an emotional home, no matter how troubled and no matter how impossible."
—Monique Truong, author of The Book of Salt
"Combining a great novelist's eye for character and a skilled journalist's grasp of politics, Without You, There Is No Us helps us understand North Korea like nothing else I have ever read or watched. The elegance of Kim's prose and her great compassion for ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary situation kept me turning the pages, riveted by her story. This is a book that rejoins North Korea with humanity."
—Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City
"What a unique book this is! It delivers a beautifully and bravely observed inside account—startling, insightful, moving—of the planet's most notoriously closed and bewildering society. But what I liked best about it was being in the company of Suki Kim's voice—so intimate, vulnerable, obsessive, resilient, confiding and charming."
—Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name and The Interior Circuit
"[A] most enlightening tale about the North Korean darkness…Directs the lights of emotion and intelligence on a country where ignorance is far from bliss."