Suki Kim was born in Seoul, South Korea, and moved with her family to the United States when she was 13. She traveled all over the world during her young adult years, but North Korea was an elusive source of fascination. She had family there, but no way to contact them or even to know if they were still alive. She first visited the country in 2002 as a journalist accompanying a pro Kim Jong-il group. But it wasn’t until 2011 that she got to spend an extended amount of time there as part of a team of missionaries allowed to come as teachers at a school for elite young North Korean men. This book is her memoir of those six months.
Because so much of what happens there is a mystery, it’s hard not to be fascinated by any glimpse we can get of life in North Korea. Because Kim spend such a long time in the country interacting with North Koreans who weren’t assigned simply to mind her, I was hoping to get a new perspective that was not available in Barbara Demick’s excellent Nothing to Envy.
What Kim offers is a look at the lives of those who are ostensibly well-served by the oppressive North Korean regime. These are the men who are given the opportunity to learn, instead of being forced to spend all their time in hard labor. What they will do with their learning is unclear—perhaps they are the minders and censors of tomorrow—but from Kim’s perspective, these were young men who wanted to know more about the outside world while taking great pride in the world they had. This tension between curiosity and self-satisfaction is perhaps the most interesting piece of the story for me. These men had so many questions and wanted to experience so much, but every time they realized something was possibly inferior about their country, they had to bend the facts into North Korea’s favor. Kim was sensitive to their plight, and her job required her to avoid open criticism of North Korea, but she sought ways where she could to open their eyes to what they were missing. Yet there’s always a barrier because neither she nor or her students can be wholly honest. (In fact, the students’ frequent dishonesty was a problem Kim referred to again and again.)
Although I appreciated getting this look at North Korean life, I sometimes thought this might be better as an article or even a series of articles. The first half of the book in particular felt repetitive. For the most part, Kim focuses on her students and her work. Once in a while she gets off track to share her feelings about her lover back in New York, and these bits always felt tangential to me. And I had reservations about her way of getting into the country and her attitude toward her fellow teachers. For all her colleagues knew, Kim was in the country because her love of Jesus compelled her to bring some light to North Korea, but Kim has no interest in her fellow missionaries’ faith. Whether the missionaries should have been there in the first place is open to debate as well, but Kim’s deception bothered me more than any scruples I might have about these sorts of mission efforts. I had a lot of reservations about this part of the story. I could go into more detail, but I’ll leave that aside because it’s not a major part of the narrative. It brought me up short every time the religious aspect came up.
Although I’m glad to have read this (mostly), this book is overall not nearly as impressive as Demick’s work, and I’d recommend Demick before this. (And I’d recommend this before the aggravating graphic memoir Pyongyang by Guy Delisle.)
E-galley received for review consideration via Netgalley.