Without You, There Is No Us, Suki Kim’s 2014 memoir, is the scariest book I’ve ever read. How can a memoir be scary? Because it’s a Korean-American teacher’s account of the six months she spent teaching North Korea’s most elite college students, and what they do and don’t know about the world is truly shocking.
It’s safe to say all of us have a general idea about what happens in North Korea, Kim asserts that almost nothing we read is entirely true. Even reliable outlets like CNN and the New York Times come back with exaggeratedly positive reports of time spent in the country [Kim calls out a particular concert in which both outlets claimed that audience members were ‘weeping with joy’—when, in fact, no one cried—or even seemed particularly moved—at all]. Kim’s account spares no negative detail.
Kim arrives in North Korea, after six weeks of waiting for visa approval in China, in 2011, where she begins teaching at Pyongyang University of Science & Technology [PUST], the most elite university in North Korea, where her students are the sons of the wealthiest men in the country, and are heralded as the great emerging minds in the fields of Science & Technology. Funny, then, that she is expressly forbidden from informing them of the existence of the Internet—all they know is intranet, and the last films and television series they have seen were produced in China in the 1970s.
Kim has no qualms about revealing the oppressive, regressive nature of the regime. To use one example out of the hundreds the book contains, no one in the nation is allowed to wear jeans, as Kim Jong-Il, the ‘Precious Leader’ at the time, considered them ‘too American.’ I found myself cornering pages that shocked me: the fact that they have flowers called “kimilsungias” and “kimjungilias”, that the students are barely allowed to communicate with their families, and that, despite being the country’s finest minds, they have never heard of taxes. The only thing the students knew about America, in fact, was the price that the United States purchased Alaska for—this factoid had been drilled into them from a young age as proof of American Imperialism.
As Kim becomes closer to her students, she finds that, disturbingly, they all carry the innate ability to lie on command. When students miss class—presumably to engage in party-related activity or studies—their fellow classmates always resort to an immediate excuse that they seem to have agreed upon in advance. They frequently claim to have done things that there is no way they could have—skiing, international travel—to attempt to prove the liberal nature of their country. They claim that Pyongyang is the ‘most beautiful city in the world’, has the tallest buildings, and that all other countries dream of catching up to their progressivism. The party has primed their students to absorb everything they feed to them as absolute fact—when Kim tries to teach them otherwise, they immediately assume she is the liar.
The students exhibit a fair share of concerning traits, but they are at all times respectful. They express affection towards Kim and are devastated when she informs them she won’t be returning for a third semester. Their behavior towards her renders the memoir heartbreaking—because no matter how fond the students are of their professor—their love towards her will never override their loyalty to the party. As North Korea’s most elite, promising young minds, they are the nation’s only hope for change. And, as Kim realizes during her final hours there, which happen to coincide with Kim Jong-Il’s death, they are not ready to abandon the oppressive familiarity of their Precious Leader and his party for something new…and it’s not clear they ever will be.