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Emotional prisoner — a review of 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

After listening to her emotional interview on CBC’s The Current I quickly bought Suki Kim’s memoir of her two semesters teaching English in North Korea Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.

It was a quick listen (with an excellent narration by Janet Song), and on the whole enjoyable, despite the fact that it is very depressing. Not just because of the subject, but due to the tormented, lovelorn state of the author. After a failed engagement she packs up for missionary life in North Korea(!?) — you can’t imagine the type of emotional distress the author was under.

The book is limited in a number of ways. First, it ends with the death of Kim Jong Il, and thus only depicts life under his regime (the author left the school in December of 2011). Second, the subjects are the “sons of the elite”, so this it is obviously not a view into the daily life of “average” North Koreans. Third, the author is undercover (as an evangelical missionary), so the extent of her access is limited. Lastly, she is not able to give any comprehensive insight into the regime. All she has are a collection of interactions with her male, 19-20 year old students.

Though narrow in scope, it is a very novel perspective which makes it a valuable addition to the literature. As it was only published a few months ago, I am curious as to if it will stand up to scrutiny.

The book is tedious at times, when it feels like Kim is just copy/pasting chat logs of unbelievable North Korean claims of superiority. But she intersperses the snippets of conversation with biographical information about her parents escape during the breakout of the Korean war, and her own escape to America as a young teen. It is through these stories that she provides some semblance of historical context. If you are truly interested in the North, you should certainly pick up some other books — Without You is not meant to be comprehensive. However, I do think it would be a good primer for those interested more in human stories rather than lengthy analytical tracts ensconced in theoretical frameworks.

Overall I felt the execution was good, and evidenced Kim’s skill as a novelist. The book is dialectical, or at least dualist. Husbands and wives, mothers and sons, brothers and sisters, South and North, open and closed, god (Him) and Kim Jong Il (Him), etc. For immigrants there are two times, before and now — same as the division between the Koreas. The layering of symbols and metaphors is evocative and all done to very good effect.

At a few points I questioned the veracity of the author. As she reacted to the obdurate nationalism of her students, she herself seemed to flare up with American patriotic fervour herself. I understand that this book is not supposed to be a critical examination of the problems of the West, but it did come off as simplistic. What else did she simplify? She cannot be honest with anyone around her. Is she honest with us? Will we ever know?

Have a listen to the Current interview, and if it sparks your curiosity I can assure you that the book is worth it. Also, check out her photo album of North Korea.