By Narrelle Gilchrist
Twenty boys, sitting at desks. They watch, respectfully, as their teacher writes out a new concept on the blackboard. A boy raises his hand to ask a question. It is a scene that could take place anywhere, all over the world. And yet, this classroom, these students, are part of no ordinary scene. Between these boys and their teacher, there is an unbridgeable distance, and between this room and the rest of the world, there is an impassable abyss. The students are the sons of Communist Party elite, and this room is in North Korea. For half a century, the world has been left to only guess at the reality inside North Korea, a country cut off from the rest of the world by a wall of ice and censorship. But for the first time, a window has opened up into that reality. The teacher at the front of that room has shared her story with the rest of the world.
Without You, There Is No Us is a one in a kind memoir that chronicles the rare journey of an undercover journalist into the heart of North Korea. Suki Kim, a Korean American writer, spent nine months in North Korea, posing as a missionary and teacher at a university for the sons of the political elite. That university, Pyonyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), is run and funded by Christian missionaries. In a world where Western influence is evil, PUST has been allowed to stay open for one, key reason: North Korean leaders need a place to educate their sons at a time when there is no money to keep other schools open. This university, desperate for teachers, created a perfect opportunity for Suki Kim, who was yearning to catch a greater glimpse of the country her ancestors came from.
From the first page, Kim’s investigative memoir is a fascinating read. She describes the psychology, routines, and everyday attitudes of these young men and their superiors, all of whom have been indoctrinated with propaganda from birth. Watched at every second by adult “minders,” Kim discovers a startling reality at PUST. Not only do her students know nothing of the outside world, but they are also ready to believe and follow anything they are told by their government. Lies are part of their routine. “It came too naturally to them,” Kim writes, “such as the moment when a student told me that he had cloned a rabbit as a fifth grader, or when another said that a scientist in his country had discovered how to change blood type A to blood type B…” And yet, these lies are told with a profound innocence and ignorance, one that brings to mind dystopian society in George Orwell’s 1984, where the people of Oceania believe wholeheartedly the falsehoods put out by their government, even when they flatly contradict what was seen a moment before. The government of North Korea has forced the same mindset on the people of North Korea. As Kim puts it, “having been told such lies as children, they could not differentiate between truth and lies.” Whenever they are presented with any evidence that contradicts with the word of their leader and god, Kim Jon Il, the thick layers of indoctrination set in, and the truth is put down immediately as the word of evil capitalism.
It is this world that Suki Kim struggles to observe, understand, and in some small fashion, change. These young adults who have never before seen a foreigner are simultaneously fascinated with and repulsed by their teacher, struggling to reconcile the kind-hearted human they are presented with and the image of corrupt America that is engrained in their minds. The result is a relationship that is fraught with both compassion and distrust, affection and dislike. Kim cannot help but love her students, even as she is disturbed by their words and actions. Throughout the nine months she lives in North Korea, she is constantly alarmed by her students’ lack of basic privileges, like calling their parents while at school, and their unquestioning complacency with the oppressive and brutal society they lives in. At the same time, she yearns to subtly break through their layers of conditioning and plant seeds of change in their minds. At times, “I slipped on purpose,” she writes, “say[ing] things like ‘Yes, I learned to play pool when I did an exchange program in London during college.’ Or ‘I backpacked across Europe when I was your age,’” to give them a hint of the freedom enjoyed by the rest of the world. Briefly, her students have a glimpse of the outside world, realizing that the oppression they experienced didn’t have to be their reality. Yet, those moments are fleeting, and layers of indoctrination quickly douse water on the sparks of change.
Without You, There Is No Us offers a rare window into a world that has been separated from ours for over fifty years. A captivating novel that can’t be put down, Suki Kim depicts harsh political realities through every day life in a way that we can all relate to. She describes her eye-opening truths and experiences in a way that blends dedicated journalism with raw emotion. Both for the political aficionado and for the every day American ignorant of foreign affairs, Kim’s novel is a must-read.
Narrelle is a homeschooled teen from West Palm Beach, Florida. In addition to writing, she enjoys singing in a choir and playing piano, and loves literature, politics, history, astronomy, and physics.