If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Without You, There Is No Us is the title of a romantic drama in the same vein as Me Before You. However, the reality is a little more sinister. In fact, “without you, there is no us” is a lyric in a patriotic song about Kim Jong-Il. Suki Kim is a journalist who goes undercover as an Evangelical Christian undercover as a teacher at Pyong-Yang University of Science & Technology (“PUST”). She teaches English to the children of (we assume) North Korea’s elite for half a year and writes a book about it. The book is fascinating because there simply aren’t that many memoirs about North Korea.
Most of the things that frustrated me about the book are more indicative of the North Korean political climate rather than Kim’s writing or experience. There just simply aren’t that many facts, statistics, or events in the book. Not a lot happens to Kim, because North Korea is controlling all of her experiences within Pyong-Yang: from group field trips to go hiking in the mountains to grocery shopping at approved markets for foreigners. However, I think Kim could have filled in some of the gaps with the political history of Korea or the history of the Korean War. I understand that to protect some of the people she met in North Korea, she had to change names and facts, but with so little facts already in the book, this rescrambling of information made the book less substantive than its alleged tell-all on the elite of North Korea.
A small thing that drove me (and my book club) crazy was Kim’s insertion of her “Brooklyn lover” into her memoir. While I understand that she felt isolated and cut off from her friends and family while in North Korea, I didn’t buy this connection to an ex-boyfriend. I was much more interested in Kim’s family’s reaction to and estrangement from her time in North Korea. Kim’s stories about her family’s time in Korea during the Korean War was so interesting and powerful, that I felt a much stronger investment in those relationships than in this arbitrary one that flutters in and out of her mind throughout the book. Our book club thought perhaps this was just a symptom of her solitude in North Korea — nostalgia for old flames. While it may have been true, I think she (or her editor) should have pushed through this a little more to get to the truth behind her experience.
I read this book as part of our book club, and our discussions revolved mainly around how much we know about North Korea, the parallels between North Korean youths and our own childhoods, and how the media (or lack of) can control our lives, both in North Korea and in New York. While I didn’t love this book, I am very glad to have read it. It made for some great discussion over brunch as well!
Have you read the book? Here are some discussion questions below to get your book club thinking about the book, hopefully over a few glasses of wine!
- On the trip to the apple farm, Suki Kim is initially charmed by the idyllic rural landscape, but she is horrified to discover that the workers are stunted and emaciated. How do Suki’s encounters with North Koreans outside PUST affect the way she views her students? Were there any moments you found particularly striking?
- Were you surprised that the North Korean government condones a missionary-run school on its soil? What purpose does PUST serve for the North Korean government? For the missionaries?
- Some in the West speculated that the death of Kim Jong-il would destabilize the North Korean dictatorship and might open the door to reunification. After reading Without You, There Is No Us, are you hopeful about North Korea’s future? Why or why not? What responsibility, if any, does the international community have to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people?
- Do you think Kim’s expose was dishonest to the organization she was affiliated with? What kinds of risks could happen due to the publication of this book?
- Suki Kim’s students have a hard time grappling with the idea of the truth. Do you think her students are intentionally deceitful or do they have a different understanding of what is true?
Some of these questions were written by myself, while others came from Suki Kim’s official discussion guide. If you’re curious about her, but don’t want to read the entire book just yet, she gave a Ted Talk in 2015. Watch it here.
I would recommend this book to people who are curious about North Korea, current events, or listening to podcasts with obscure history facts.