Book Review: “Without You There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite,” by Suki Kim
Broadway Books, 2014 More Info HERE
by David Anderson, J.D.
Tourism to North Korea is possible, but as your reviewer wrote in Forbes lately it’s a hazardous and horribly unethical destination. That said, Ms. Kim’s book is one of the most insightful reads a NK buff can use to explore from an armchair.
Published in 2014, it could have been written yesterday: with the exceptions of a little stronger “capitalism” and more cell phones, nothing has changed. Ms. Kim’s year there was in 2011, just before the end of Kim Jong Il and the reign of his son, “Fatty 3” as the Chinese like to call him. There are many decent pyongyangologists, but few speak Korean, which obviously hampers a deeper understanding, and many have only visited occasionally or fleetingly.
Born in Seoul, Ms. Kim came to America at the age of 12 with her family in the 1980s. She suffered a sense of dislocation and cultural buffeting, as anybody would at such a tender age, and compensating for that she has become an incredible writer and a keen observer of human nature.
Her book chronicles a year as a volunteer ESL teacher at the fascinating Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Established in 2010, PUST is founded, financed, and run by South Korean and American Evangelical Christians, but the foreign teachers were absolutely forbidden to preach or talk of Christianity there. Outside the book, two Americans are currently in jail in NK for doing just that sort of thing so Ms. Kim finds herself with a trying bunch of Christian Westerners not preaching Jesus in the world’s most militantly atheist country. Well, atheist if you don’t count KimIlSungism. That’s the kind of bizarro-land NK is: although they hate outside religion, since the school is paid for by foreign Christians and staffed by holy volunteers, it’s tolerated behind closed doors. And they need the foreign instructors who will work without pay.
PUST is college for the crème-de-la-elite of society: children of the one-percenters. The students are even exempt from the 10 year (8 for girls) compulsory military conscription and obligatory annual month of field labor for city and country dwellers alike.
Ms. Kim is always watched, monitored, spied upon and guarded in her conversations with students. Any remotely political conversation or lesson would lead to big trouble, including but not limited to describing her international travels, the “real” internet or dating, lest it be seen as a comparison and thus criticism of NK. That’s a tall order since everything is utterly different there. The constant surveillance and vigilance understandably takes a psychological toll on the outsider because NK is not just a different country, it is a different dimension.
The country is decades behind the rest of the world, but the hermetically sealed nature of their civilization prevents these students from knowing that. Ms. Kim’s elite science-engineering (!) students don’t fully grasp that their country’s intranet is more like a large company’s office network, and nothing approaching the outside world’s uncensored-by-Kim internet. Even that pokey little intranet is only available to a fraction of the citizenry like her students. It is, like the entire nation, population, and media, cut off from the outside world.
Her unique position as a teacher allows a depth and length of interaction she’d get nowhere else and her students’ ignorance of outside culture, technology, democracy, and even history is profound. When you control the entire mass media of a country for 70 years, as the Kims have, you can brainwash a population of 25 million.
A boys’ boarding school, PUSK is more a gilded cage for teachers and students who can only leave the campus in pre-approved groups, escorted and “minded” for select shopping trips and excursions. The kids can’t visit their parents in Pyongyang 30 minutes away, but it’s what NK wants to be: decently fed and housed and entirely cut off.
On those rare, supervised outings with her fluent Korean she steals glimpses of the grim reality for non-elites: “Small, dark, emaciated people with dead eyes. Slaves and soldiers.” Most North Koreans are hungry, medically untreated, and often living without electricity or heating in winters hitting 20 below. Nobody complains, under threat of the Gulag: it is not a happy land despite the propaganda from the speakers and billboards which shout “We have nothing to envy.”
In her second semester, a little surer of her place, Ms. Kim carefully tries to teach some Western culture to her naïve charges like multiple TV channels, advertising, dating with her goal to influence her students: the next generation of leaders.
She describes the country and what she is allowed to see as one big lie, a studio set frozen in place as if the pause button was pressed after the Korean War in 1953. Supervised by minders, with the school staff she visits the usual tourist sites, including the one (phony) Potemkin charade Christian “church” the dictatorship stacked with central casting actors: cue fake priest, fake parishioners and real tourists. It’s a pretense of religious freedom in a country where religious beliefs will get one sent to an icy concentration camp.
Adding to Ms. Kim’s torment and isolation was the fact PUST’s teachers, her coworkers and cultural allies, were actively oppressive of her. Being missionaries with wildly different values (she isn’t religious) there was friction with and isolation from them also. She often makes the link between her devout Evangelical coworkers’ religious brainwashing, and that of the NK citizenry. Replace “Jesus” with “The Dear Leader Kims” and you’re on the right page, except North Koreans have no choice in the matter. With a lover back in Brooklyn she dare not mention to anybody, Ms. Kim argues with a Christian colleague about the “heresy” of showing her students Harry Potter. She suffered on many levels to report the madness of the “Peoples’ Paradise,” her only team mates judgmental American Bible-bashers.
Her actions are heroic. If discovered her notes, surreptitious thumb drives, and manuscript would have almost certainly seen her in deep trouble in a country where trouble can run deep. She researched and recorded on the QT, all the time under complete surveillance. Her living circumstances were tolerable: luxurious by local standards but primitive by Western ones. She had to bring her own coffee, butter, cigarettes for bribes, and even a refrigerator with her.
It’s hard for free people to get our heads around North Korea which is one of the reasons why this book is so fascinating from a political and psychological perspective. Ms. Suki Kim’s 300 pages are the most insightful explanation of this fascinating and tragic bizarroland published in last two decades.
David Anderson is an Australian-American attorney in New York City. He writes on international politics and law for Forbes and counterpunch.org and follows events in North Korea.
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