This Is The One Book You Should Read To Better Understand North Korea

by Melissa Ragsdale

I'm sure you, like me, have been hearing a lot about North Korea in the news lately. Tensions are high between America and North Korea, to put it mildly. Yet, the truth is, North Korea remains an enigma to most Americans. The things that we do know paint a picture of a terrifying, totalitarian regime that clutches a tight fist around its citizens, limiting their freedoms at every turn. The government's control over the media and the dangers that come with speaking out in North Korea (or even leave) make it difficult for us to get any reliable information about what the country is actually like. Yet, in Suki Kim's remarkable memoir Without You, There Is No Us, readers catch a harrowing glimpse at the real circumstances that North Koreans deal with on a daily basis.

In 2011, American journalist Suki Kim posed as a missionary to teach English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a school for the sons of the country's elite class. It was an incredible risk for her to write this book. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech do not exist in North Korea, the government is very hostile to the media, and the price of disobedience is high. Kim had to be very careful to keep her role as a writer a secret. She took rigorous notes, and hid them on a flash drive that she kept with her at all times. She was constantly being watched by the school's "counterparts", and she even had to be careful not to arouse the suspicions of her students, since they would be obligated to report any remotely suspicious activity.

Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim, $12, Amazon

But it wasn't just posing as a writer that was dangerous for Kim. Life in North Korea is a place of strict rules and forbidden topics. As foreigners, the teachers at the school were under particular pressure not to reveal any unapproved information about the outside world. As Kim notes, "even the simplest question could be a minefield" and she often had to equivocate or play stupid when speaking with her students. She writes:

Once a student asked me if it was true that everyone in the world spoke Korean. He had heard the Korean language was so superior that they spoke it in England, China, and America. I did not know what to say. Perhaps he was testing to see if I would contradict all he had learned thus far, and would later report me. Or maybe he was just curious. So, I took the safe road: "Well, let me see, in China, they speak Chinese, and in England and the United States, they speak English, the way we speak Korean in Korea. However, I live in America and I speak Korean when I speak to my parents, so one might say that the Korean language does get spoken in America." This took some quick thinking.

Without You There Is No Us makes it clear just how effectively the propaganda-machine of North Korea has worked, giving its citizens a warped view of the outside world. Kim's students were adult, university-aged men, and throughout the book, many of them demonstrate naive and false ideas about how the world works. They often parrot back ideas to her about the vulgarities of America and the glories of North Korea, even when it defies logic. It's simultaneously heartbreaking and eerie to read just how deeply and systematically their worldview has been manipulated. And as stifled as their knowledge was, Kim was teaching the most highly-educated men in the country. These students were so privileged, in fact, that during her time there, Kim learned that all other universities had been closed down, except for theirs.

One of the things that is so fascinating about this book is to see how Kim used clever techniques to learn more about her students' lives, and to debunk some of the myths that they had been force-fed about America and the world outside North Korea. Reading this book, it's easy to be amazed by how clever Kim is. As you read, you watch her carefully toe the line on what she is able to reveal to her students, often using subtle uses of language to inspire them to think critically about the information that has been handed to them.

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While every aspect of Kim's lesson plans were intensely monitored, one of the most prominent parts of her curriculum turned out to be an intriguing source: letter-writing. As an English teacher, Kim required her students to write her letters, and through the letters she learned a lot about their daily lives. Even with the obstacles of a language barrier and the risks of speaking out of turn, Kim gleaned a great deal of information about about her students' individual joys, worries, and interests.

In Without You There Is No Us, Kim is able to show a part of North Korea that we don't ever get to see: the people. The North Korean government has effectively built a wall between its citizens and the rest of the world. It is devilishly easy to think of the country as having a single face: Kim Jong-un. But this book shines a much-needed light on the people living beneath his oppressive rule. Readers are able see the humanity of her students, even as they conduct lives ruled entirely by a system built on fear.