North Korea, Culture; Continent: Asia

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

  • A Korean-born New Yorker goes down the rabbit hole to teach at a prestigious North Korean university
  • 285 pages (291 pages including Acknowledgements and Author’s Note)

Here in the West, we’ve all seen the video clip of the attractive North Korean woman in her brown uniform, directing traffic for the empty streets of Pyongyang. All the networks seem to trot that one out anytime the “the people” of North Korea come up, right after Kim Jong-un and an image of a rocket blowing up on the launch pad. You’d think she was the only one in there, except for a crazy dictator with nutty hair and some frustrated rocket scientists. Author Suki Kim wants to broaden your impressions of this largely inaccessible nation with her story of young North Korean men – accomplished, serious college students aged about nineteen or twenty from the best families of North Korean society.

Jesus and Suki Kim Sneak In…?

To research and write her story of North Korea’s elite young minds, Kim poses as a missionary, so she can gain a teaching position at PUST (Pyongyang University of Science and Technology). PUST is funded and operated with foreign monies from a Christian organization, and its teaching staff are evangelical Christians. According to Kim, the university is regarded by its foreign administrators as a back door to bring religion into a closed society, and providing education is a secondary goal. The missionary teachers need to be subtle in their primary objective, of course: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, a.k.a. North Korea) has minders and counterparts on site – government officials monitoring everyone’s behavior –  always watching and listening. No religion is officially sanctioned in this country, so these missionaries must not make the Bible available to their intended flock, must pray with their eyes open, and must avoid any mention of Jesus. Instead, the teaching staff tries to blow Christian-themed The Chronicles of Narnia by the minders as the film for movie night (spoiler alert: movie selection becomes a source of conflict).

For Kim, whose family is largely atheist, “Praise the Lord!” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Somehow, she not only has to convince the North Koreans around her that she is an innocuous English teacher, but she also has to convince the faculty that she is a solid Christian. Not everyone attends the worship meetings in the faculty dormitory, and not everyone budgets for the handful of field trips arranged for teachers. Consequently, Kim doesn’t raise suspicion by opting out of most trips and all worship meetings. She keeps a quiet, polite profile and avoids becoming too friendly with anyone who could get her into trouble (i.e., nearly everyone). Still, it’s a struggle not to blow her cover, even among the veteran faculty who know enough to keep conversations minimal.

Down to Work

Kim uses the exercises of writing essays or letters (which will never be read by the addressees) as assignments for her classes. At first, the idea of writing an essay is entirely outside their paradigm because she assigns topics that draw on individual experience or opinion. She is hoping to coax out some personal thoughts. However, these boys have few experiences not shared with an assigned buddy who keeps an eye on them. If one of these young men is asked a question in class but seems to stumble, everyone else chimes in to help him. Furthermore, they are issued their opinions by the state, with rhetoric rather than fact behind these notions. To Kim’s students, the ideas that America is evil and that everyone worldwide looks forward to the day the DPRK vanquishes them are entirely factual, res ipsa loquitur. Other essays will support their thoughts with DPRK-sanctioned content, fictional to the point of preposterous in some cases, drawn from the campus intranet, which has been presented to them as the Internet. Not only has their exposure to the outside world been essentially zero, but the critical thinking skills of these intelligent young men have been stunted.

Letter-writing assignments provide different insights than the essays. The first letters are addressed to her, and seem obsequious in their polite praise and bland recycling of DPRK-approved ideas. As time passes, she gets a better look at what her students are thinking. During the time Kim is teaching, most universities are closed, and most college-age men have been reassigned to various construction sites around the country, their educations on hold indefinitely. As the story unfolds, the boys plainly worry about their friends assigned to these job sites and wonder when they will see them again. More disclosures about girlfriends (or lack of them) come out. More curiosity about the West leaks through.

Food for Thought

Lunchtime conversations constitute many of the book’s most powerful moments. Students and teachers dine together in the cafeteria, and Kim is sought out as a lunchtime companion. A Korean herself, she recognizes the customs they describe, and chatting with her is an excellent opportunity for a student to practice his English. The small tables afford relatively more intimate talks, too. At first, questions that lead to taboo topics require some creative answers from Kim. Sometimes, there is a momentary lapse in the chatter, as everyone at the table knows that the conversation has crossed a line and needs to take a different turn. Eventually, Kim teaches her students (who are not allowed to speak to a teacher in Korean) the phrase “let’s change the topic,” and that expression becomes the new penalty flag.

As the terms progress, a few of the boys begin to let on that they realize what they have been told their entire lives may not be entirely factual. Maybe the Chinese film made popular in the DPRK about a North Korean girl isn’t really beloved the world over (and maybe a character called Harry Potter is). Maybe blackouts are not common in wealthier countries, and maybe the Internet isn’t the same thing as the school’s officially sanctioned intranet. They can only hint that these ideas have entered their heads, of course, and only to a trusted teacher when the minders aren’t paying their closest attention.

Finally…

Ultimately, Kim develops a deep affection for her students, kept naïve and yet keenly intelligent and curious. They share innocent jokes about who might or might not like someone’s sister, play basketball and work hard to master their English skills. These polite young men are more complete characters than the glimpse of the lonely Pyongyang traffic cop when Kim is done sharing them with you.

Is this book strictly history? No, of course not. It all takes place only a few years ago. However, it’s worth the read because Kim’s students are anchored to their nation’s history. She can’t give you a sense of her “gentlemen” without discussing history, and Kim’s experiences at PUST will color anything else you are likely to read about North Korea, past or present.

Image: Kok Ling Yeo from Singapore, 2008. This monument in Pyongyang is Kim Il-sung’s birthday present to himself to commemorate North Korea’s liberation from Japan. Visit his photography website at https://www.flickr.com/photos/yeowatzup/albums.

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