Without You, There Is No Us

As soon as I saw Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim I knew it was a book I had to read. I've always been fascinated by North Korea and the stories of people who have been there and people who escape from there. The picture painted of life in North Korea is at the same time fascinating, terrifying, and heartbreaking. Suki Kim's book was so compelling because she had an inside view of how people in North Korea live - not just the tour they take people on. The description reads:

"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 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 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. 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."

I have to say that this is one of those books that is extremely difficult to put down. I couldn't stop reading it because I just had to know what was going to happen next, but at the same time it was heartbreaking and sad to read. The plight of the people of North Korea is devastating and overwhelming, and unfortunately it doesn't seem that there's much we can do to help them. I'm hoping this book at least raises awareness of what they are going through and what's really going on behind the scenes. This is one of the most compelling pieces of journalism I've read in a long time. Do yourself a favor and pick up this book and learn what's going on in North Korea.

I received a copy of this book from Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.


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