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Without You, There Is No Us
Cover of Without You, There Is No Us
Without You, There Is No Us
My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite
by Suki Kim
Borrow Borrow
A haunting account 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 gone undercover as a missionary and a teacher. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them English, 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."
From the Hardcover edition.
A haunting account 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 gone undercover as a missionary and a teacher. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them English, 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."
From the Hardcover edition.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book

    part one

    Anti--Atlantis

    1

    At 12:45 p.m. on monday, december 19, 2011, there was a knock at my door. My heart sank. I knew who would be there. I ignored it and continued shoving my clothes into the suitcase. The knock came again. She knew that I was inside, and she was not going to go away. Finally I stopped what I was doing and opened the door. There stood Martha, a lanky twenty-­four-­year-­old British girl with glasses, with whom I had been sharing teaching duties. "You must come to the meeting right now," she said. I sighed, feeling the weight of the past six months there among thirty Christian missionaries, now gathered in secret for the pre-­Christmas prayer meeting. Then she whispered, "He's dead," pointing at the ceiling. I thought that she meant God, and I was momentarily confused. I have never read the Bible, and my family is largely atheist. Then she said, "him," and I realized she meant the main God in this world: Kim Jong-­il.

    Was it fate that my North Korean experience began with his birthday and ended with his death? It was February 2002 when I first glimpsed the forbidden city of Pyongyang as part of a Korean-American delegation visiting for Kim Jong-­il's sixtieth birthday celebrations. It was only a few months after 9/11, and George W. Bush had just christened that country part of an "axis of evil," so it was an inauspicious time for a single American woman to cross its border with a group of strangers.

    Over the next nine years, with each implausible crossing of its immutable border, I became further intoxicated by this unknown and unknowable place. This isolated nation existed under an entirely different system from the rest of the world, so different that when I arrived in 2011, I found myself in "Juche Year 100." The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) follows a different calendar system, which counts time from the birth of their original Great Leader, Kim Il-­sung, who died in 1994; Juche, which roughly means "self-­reliance," is at the core of North Korea's foundational philosophy. Almost every book I ever saw there was written by or about the Great Leader. The state-­run media, including the newspaper Rodong Sinmun and Chosun Central TV, reported almost exclusively on the Great Leader. Almost every film, every song, every monument heralded the miraculous achievements of the Great Leader, the role passed down through three generations, from Kim Il-­sung and Kim Jong-­il to Kim Jong-­un, who was twenty-­nine when he assumed power in 2012 and became the world's youngest head of state. It has been reported that every home in the country is fitted with a speaker through which government propaganda can be broadcast, and that more than thirty-­five thousand statues of the Great Leaders are scattered across the country.

    But while the regime dabbles with nuclear weapons, provoking repeated United Nations sanctions, the people of North Korea suffer. The 1990s famine (known as the Arduous March)killed as many as three million, more than a tenth of the entire population, and even now the World Food Program reports that 80 percent of North Koreans experience food shortages and hunger. It is estimated that forced labor, executions, and concentration camps have claimed over a million lives since 1948. According to the latest UN report, the DPRK maintains some twenty gulags holding some 120,000 political prisoners (Human Rights Watch estimates 200,000). These numbers are inevitably approximate since nothing there is verifiable. Almost no North Koreans are allowed out--­defectors risk execution--­and almost no foreigners are allowed in except those on...

About the Author-
  • Suki Kim is the author of the award-winning novel The Interpreter and the recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Open Society fellowships. She has been traveling to North Korea as a journalist since 2002, and her essays and articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper's, and the New York Review of Books. Born and raised in Seoul, she lives in New York.
Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine By securing a position as an English teacher and hiding her intention to write a book, writer Suki Kim was able to gain access to the enigmatic and largely inaccessible country of North Korea while teaching at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). Janet Song's measured voicing is precise and serious, befitting the spare, unadorned surroundings in which the author finds herself. Song's lightly Asian-accented tones help portray the author's own South Korean heritage and knowledge of the Korean language, both of which give her additional access to North Koreans. Song does especially well at capturing the stiff recitations and largely unquestioning nature of the North Korean students Kim taught. This is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at one of the world's most secretive nations. S.E.G. © AudioFile 2014, Portland, Maine
  • New York Times Book Review "Chilling...reminds us that evil is not only banal; it is also completely arbitrary."
  • Boston Globe "Daring...Kim finds that paranoia is contagious -- and can become chillingly routine. 'My little soldiers were also little robots,' she writes before departing, mourning not only that she must leave, but that they must stay."
  • Chicago Tribune "Remarkable...A deeply unsettling book, offering a rare and disturbing inside glimpse into the strangeness, brutality and claustrophobia of North Korea... Kim's book is full of small observations that vividly evoke the paranoia and loneliness of a nation living in fear and in thrall to its 'Great Leaders'...Her portraits of her students are tender and heartbreaking, highlighting the enormity of what is at stake."
  • Philadephia Inquirer "A book about censorship, trust, fear, love, and truth, seen through the prism of a school that functions as a comfortable prison...The title comes from a song the students sing in honor of 'The Dear Leader,' including the lyric, 'Without you, there is no us.' Within that title, and this book, is a multitude of truths."
  • Vogue "Sometimes personal histories retain a potent electromagnetic force, [like] Suki Kim's rivetingly topical look inside the most isolationist country on earth."
  • O: The Oprah Magazine "Enthralling...Reveals the perplexing innocence and ignorance of one of the world's most secretive countries."
  • Slate "A devastatingly vulnerable account... Kim's stark and delicate language, intertwined with the suspense of being an undercover journalist in a foreign-yet-familiar land, truly humanized North Korea for me."
  • Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "A starkly revealing look at this hermit nation...Kim opens herself as well as the DPRK to scrutiny...Moving and emotionally evocative."
  • Foreign Policy "Offers great details about [the students'] blinkered worldview...A frank depiction of North Korean life."
  • Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
    "Readers intrigued by Kim Jong Un's recent extended absence from public view can gain insight into the repressive system that shapes North Korea's ruling class from Suki Kim's new memoir."
  • Los Angeles Review of Books "Suki Kim's compelling reports for Harper's, The New York Review of Books, and others have expanded and deepened our understanding both of life in the North, and the West's profound misapprehensions about it....[This book is] a fascinating, if deeply fraught document about the education of the North Korean elite, an aspect of the country that until very recently has been almost completely occluded... Kim's access to the boys constitutes the unique nature of her book [and] illuminates just how sheltered they are."
  • Publishers Weekly, starred review "[An] extraordinary and troubling portrait of life under severe repression...[Kim's] account is both perplexing and deeply stirring."
  • Booklist, starred review "A rare and nuanced look at North Korean culture, and an uncommon addition to the 'inspirational-teacher' genre."
  • Library Journal, starred review "A touching portrayal of the student experience in North Korea, which provides readers with a rare glimpse of life in this enigmatic country...Well-written and thoroughly captivating."
  • Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy "Strangely terrifying...A beautifully written book that greatly expands the limited bounds of what we know about North Korea's ruling class."
  • Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite and Quiet Dell "Terrifying and sublime, Without You, There Is No Us is a stealth account of heartbreak. Suki Kim, brilliant author of The Interpreter, penetrates the soul of her divided country of origin, bearing witness to generations of maimed lives and arrested identities. This look inside totalitarian North Korea is like no other."
  • Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss "This superb work of investigative journalism is distinguished by its grave beauty and aching tenderness. So skilled is Suki Kim in conveying the eeriness and surreal disconnect of the North Korean landscape that I sometimes felt I was reading a ghost story, one that will haunt me with its silences, with its image of snow falling upon a desolate campus, with the far laughter of her beloved students."
  • Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana
    "Like an explorer returned from a distant planet or another dimension, Suki Kim has many extraordinary tales to tell, among them how different--and how awful--life is for those who li
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