Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Koreas Elite

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The people of North Korea are so isolated they have no idea about anything outside their country, and enormously little about what goes on in it. By breaking down the family unit, they have destroyed links, safety nets, support and community. Everyone reports on everyone else. Minders, monitors and counterparts are everywhere. All have the power to denounce. New buildings are designed to be transparent; there is little or nothing in the way of privacy possible. Permission is necessary to go anywhere. Roads are so empty, rurals sit on them as outdoor gathering places. Individuals are totally controlled.

They are told where they will study, who they will be friends with and what they will do, all day every day.

This is the North Korea into which Kim Suki taught English to elite students of wealthy, powerful parents. There is a dreary, grinding sameness to the days. Choices are essentially zero. She had to be careful of every word she spoke, because no one is allowed to know what life is like anywhere else. Teachers had to ensure they didn't sit with the same students in the cafeteria as it would arouse suspicions. Her all male, mid twenties students were as teens are in the USA, champing at the bit to see a Harry Potter film, pining for parents who were not permitted to see them assuming they could even find them , and feeling totally constricted in what should be the most creative, productive, chance-taking parts of their lives.

Instead, it is a life of the military drudgery: long pointless hours guarding empty halls, being reassigned to new "buddies" totally abandoning the old ones and boring, minimal food. The internet is of course off limits, so even these students had no way to research their specialty - technology. Instead they have an offline intranet, as useless as it sounds.

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite by Suki Kim

The concept of phoning anywhere in the world on Skype - pure fantasy, not even worth believing. They are constantly preparing for war. They are taught to want to kill all foreigners.

Suki Kim - Without You, There Is No Us

The draft is ten years for men, seven for women. Propsects outside the army are even bleaker. It is all the more intense because the author didn't just visit, she lived it with them. She kept her notes on USB sticks, never allowing her thoughts to remain on a hard drive that might be left unattended. She had to be careful about the other teachers as well, mostly Protestant fundamentalist missionaries. It gets to her, and she cries often. The lack of human contact, let alone compassion, keeps the tension level absurdly high.

In the end, some human connections were made, tentatively, under the cover of creative writing assignments.

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But that was all. The book is as powerful an indictment of North Korea as any ever written, despite or perhaps because of its total lack of access to the power brokers and decision makers. There is no talk of politics or philosophy. Juche is a fact of life, period. This is real life in North Korea, where paranoia is mainstream.

This was a fascinating look at the elite of North Korea, or, more specifically, the sons of the elite that Suki Kim taught over the course of two semesters at a quirky institution run by evangelical missionaries really For instance, when Japan and North Korea face off in soccer, the game isn't aired until after it's clear that the North Koreans have won -- and even then, it isn't made clear that the game is essentially irrelevant, because it's only to finalize rankings among those who have failed to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil.

This wasn't flawless, however.

Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite

I found it surprising that Kim was as surprised as she was by her students' naivete: for someone who had traveled to North Korea, who had interviewed defectors, who was familiar with the region, even a leap of imagination should have brought her to realize some of the stuff that seems to astonish her so greatly? Nor does Kim's style impress me all that much. The reason to read this is precisely the reason it found a publisher: it's a unique glimpse at a part of the world it's safe to say we'll otherwise never see. It should have contained far more background on the Kims, on what Juche is, on the historical context beyond her family's personal history and given us a greater sense of what is happening in North Korea today -- the story there is important enough to warrant it, and I certainly cared far more about that than I did about Kim's fussing about the fate of the casual relationship that she had left behind in the US to take up the post.

The latter were irrelevant to the narrative and distracting; we care about Kim only insofar as she provides us with a window into this closed world. Ultimately, the book's value lies in the fact that first-hand accounts of North Korea are so very, very rare. If it weren't for that, I'd be less prone to recommend it, and even now would say this comes in as a distant second to Barbara Demick's "Nothing to Envy". Here at Walmart. Your email address will never be sold or distributed to a third party for any reason. Due to the high volume of feedback, we are unable to respond to individual comments.

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Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite

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See our disclaimer. 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 , and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the students at the all-male 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 gone undercover as a missionary and a teacher.

Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them English, 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.

As the weeks pass, she is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. At the same time, they offer Suki tantalizing glimpses of their private selves—their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished. She in turn 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.

But when Kim Jong-il dies, and the boys she has come to love appear devastated, she wonders 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. Customer Reviews. See all reviews.


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The book reminds us that evil is not only banal; it is also completely arbitrary. To call North Korea a banana republic — the term historically used to denote little dictatorships with only one export — would be an insult to bananas. For North Korea produces nothing the world needs, and the regime knows it. To cite just one, the government has, until very recently, concealed the existence of the World Wide Web. Pretty much every other major Communist nation in history has tried its best to keep scientists abreast of cutting-edge research and technology.

North Korea, meanwhile, does not seem to have any world-class scientists — or world-class anything else. There is no North Korean equivalent of the Bolshoi Ballet. The country seems unable even to produce a world chess champion, for crying out loud. The first time they use it, they are bewildered that any given search term could produce hundreds of thousands of results.