Without You, There Is No Us

Without YouSuki 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.

This entry was posted in Memoir, Nonfiction. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Without You, There Is No Us

  1. Jenny says:

    We really are living parallel reading lives right now — I’m currently reading the memoir of a Chinese-American woman who spends a few years living in Beijing!

  2. booklustblogger says:

    I have been interested in this book because, of course, North Korea. Interesting that you think it would have been better written as a series of articles rather than as a book. Sometimes I wonder if people just write books because they generally sell better, I would guess, than a collection of articles might.

    • Teresa says:

      I think there’s more money in publishing a book, especially if it sells well. But the push to write a book makes some books feel padded, which happened here.

  3. I read Nothing to Envy this past week while I was on vacation — such a wonderful book. Although the Suki Kim book fascinated me as well, I think you’re right that it would have been better as a series of articles. Did you think Kim’s reporting was justified? I fretted about it, whether her goal of revealing more about life inside North Korea justified possibly putting the school and the students in danger. I dunno.

    • Teresa says:

      I think Nothing to Envy ruined me for this book. It had so much more depth. And isn’t Mrs. Song the best? As far as her reporting goes, I think the students are kept generic enough that it would be hard to identify the few who made remarks that could raise alarm in the government. I also got the impression that the minders knew pretty much everything that was going on. I just don’t remember her revealing much that would cause trouble.

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