Summary and book reviews of Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

Without You, There Is No Us

My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite

by Suki Kim

Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim
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    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Oct 2014, 304 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2015, 304 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Book Summary

A haunting memoir of teaching English to the sons of North Korea's ruling class during the last six months of Kim Jong-il's reign

Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. 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 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields - except for the 270 students at 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 accepted a job teaching English. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them to write, 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. She is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. To them, everything in North Korea is the best, the tallest, the most delicious, the envy of all nations. Still, she cannot help but love them - their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished.

As the weeks pass, she 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. The students in turn offer Suki tantalizing glimpses into their lives, from their thoughts on how to impress girls to their disappointment that soccer games are only televised when the North Korean team wins. Then Kim Jong-il dies, leaving the students devastated, and leading Suki to question 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."

3

AS IT HAPPENED, THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS—THE DAY WHEN A group of mostly American teachers took on the education of 270 North Korean young men—fell on July Fourth, but no one seemed to notice the irony. There was no red, white, and blue here. No barbecues and fireworks. Never having taught English as a second language before, I felt nervous as well as excited. Remembering the dress code, I put on a light blue button-down shirt, a calf-length gray skirt, and a pair of low heels. I had been warned that women generally did not wear pants in North Korea, and I could not remember ever having seen them on previous trips to Pyongyang.

At 7:15 a.m., I stood outside my dormitory facing the five-story structure where classes were held, known as the IT (Information Technology) building. To its left was the monument I had seen when we first drove in. Students called it the Forever Tower because the words OUR GREAT LEADER IS FOREVER WITH US were carved into one side, top to bottom. It ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Before reading Suki Kim's memoir, what were your impressions about life in North Korea? By the end of the book, had your understanding changed? How does Suki's account differ from others you may have read?

  2. In Chapter 1, Suki writes that the "unrequited heartbreak" of her family's separation during the Korean War prompted her to undertake repeated trips to North Korea. How does this background inform the narrative? Have you ever returned to your family's country (or countries) of origin? How connected do you feel to the cultures of your ancestors?

  3. In the prologue, Suki refers to PUST as a "prison disguised as a campus." How does PUST's isolation affect its culture? How do Suki and the other teachers deal with the...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Most recent books about North Korea concentrate on the terrible conditions most of the population must endure, and many readers will be familiar with the food shortages and repressive political atmosphere rampant throughout the country that affect its most vulnerable citizens. Kim's book is one of the few, however, that describes what life is like for North Koreans who are being groomed for leadership positions in the regime: the sons of wealthy and powerful members of the military and government who were her pupils during her months at PUST. It's a portrait of a culture and way of thinking that is equally alien to many.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

Full Review (810 words).

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Media Reviews

Vogue

Sometimes personal histories retain a potent electromagnetic force, [like] Suki Kim's rivetingly topical look inside the most isolationist country on earth.

O, The Oprah Magazine

Enthralling...Reveals the perplexing innocence and ignorance of one of the world’s most secretive countries.

Kirkus Reviews

[A] most enlightening tale about the North Korean darkness…Directs the lights of emotion and intelligence on a country where ignorance is far from bliss.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review.Extraordinary and troubling…Her account is both perplexing and deeply stirring.

Library Journal

Starred Review. This well-written and thoroughly captivating book is highly recommended for anyone looking to grasp a better understanding of North Korea.

Booklist

Starred Review. A rare and nuanced look at North Korean culture, and an uncommon addition to the 'inspirational-teacher' genre.

Author Blurb Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite and Quiet Dell
Terrifying and sublime, Without You, There Is No Us is a stealth account of heartbreak... This look inside totalitarian North Korea is like no other.

Author Blurb Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss
This superb work of investigative journalism is distinguished by its grave beauty and aching tenderness. So skilled is Suki Kim in conveying the eeriness and surreal disconnect of the North Korean landscape that I sometimes felt I was reading a ghost story, one that will haunt me with its silences, with its image of snow falling upon a desolate campus, with the far laughter of her beloved students.

Author Blurb Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana
Like an explorer returned from a distant planet or another dimension, Suki Kim has many extraordinary tales to tell, among them how different - and how awful - life is for those who live in North Korea...Yet Kim also bears witness to that part of the human soul that no oppressor can ever claim.

Author Blurb Monique Truong, author of The Book of Salt
In language at once stark and delicate, Suki Kim shatters the polemic of North and South Korea. She couples an investigative reporter's fierce desire to strip away the fiction of the Hermit Kingdom with an immigrant's insatiable hunger for an emotional home, no matter how troubled and no matter how impossible.

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Beyond the Book

North Korea's Pyongyang University of Science & Technology

Dr. Kim Chin-Kyung (aka Kim Jin Kyong, James Kim) is the founder of both the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) and its older sister institution, the Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST) in China. It is at PUST that Suki Kim worked on assignment as an English teacher.

Born in 1935 in Seoul, Kim was a soldier in a South Korean student battalion during the Korean War. He was wounded in 1950 in a particularly ferocious battle (only 17 out of 800 members of his unit survived) and as he lay on the field he promised God that if he lived he would "return the love to my enemies." He cites this incident as the basis for his life-long ambition of opening pathways to peace between the United States and South Korea ...

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