Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite

by Suki Kim


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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."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307720665
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 10/13/2015
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 212,382
Product dimensions: 7.80(w) x 5.10(h) x 0.70(d)

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. Her essays and articles have appeared in the New York TimesHarper’s, The New Republic, and the New York Review of Books. Born and raised in Seoul, she lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt

part one

Excerpted from "Without You, There Is No Us"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Suki Kim.
Excerpted by permission of Crown/Archetype.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

Book club discussion guide for WITHOUT YOU, THERE IS NO US by Suki Kim.

1. Before reading Suki Kim’s memoir, what were your impressions about life in North Korea? By the end of the book, had your understanding changed? How does Suki’s account differ from others you may have read?

2. In Chapter 1, Suki writes that the “unrequited heartbreak” of her family’s separation during the Korean War prompted her to undertake repeated trips to North Korea. How does this background inform the narrative? Have you ever returned to your family’s country (or countries) of origin? How connected do you feel to the cultures of your ancestors?

3. In the prologue, Suki refers to PUST as a “prison disguised as a campus.” How does PUST’s isolation affect its culture? How do Suki and the other teachers deal with the monotony of life at PUST?

4. Suki carefully plans her lessons in order to expose her students to tidbits of information about life outside North Korea, especially technology and the Internet, without running afoul of the “counterparts.” If you were in Suki’s situation, what subjects or ideas would you want to teach?

5. On the trip to the apple farm, Suki 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?

6. In Chapter 20, Suki describes PUST’s “remarkably tight” buddy system. Though impressed by the boys’ devotion to each other, she is disturbed by how quickly these alliances can shift: “I noticed that with the shuffling of classes from summer to fall, most of the pairings changed as well, and students were never seen with their former buddies again.” What does this suggest about the nature of relationships in North Korea? Is true friendship possible under these circumstances?

7. Though Suki’s students are smart and hardworking, they struggle to write simple essays. Why do they find this task so difficult?

8. The curriculum at PUST was restricted not only by the government but by the religious values of the missionaries. How did these restrictions affect the quality of education? What did Suki achieve for the students by letting them watch Harry Potter?

9. 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?

10. Although Suki’s students were in their early twenties, and many had attended co-ed schools, they seemed to have had limited experience with dating. What do their beliefs about love reveal about gender and family in North Korea? What role does Suki’s relationship with “the man in Brooklyn” play in the narrative?

11. In Chapter 1, Suki writes: “Historians often refer to [the Korean War] as the ‘forgotten war,’ but no Korean considers it forgotten.” How does the war affect Suki’s life today? The lives of her students? Did it surprise you that North Korea considers the United States its “number one enemy”?

12. Discuss the book’s title, taken from a song Suki frequently heard the students chanting: “Without you, there is no us, without you, there is no motherland.” How do daily rituals help tie the students to the Kim regime? What other aspects of everyday life serve this purpose?

13. Suki’s students learn to condemn the United States and South Korea in their Juche training, yet they are eager to hear Suki discuss her life in New York. How do they reconcile Suki’s background with her role as an authority figure? Are there any points when their relationship frays?

14. In Chapter 13, Suki is deeply moved when her students crowd around her to take their class picture. She writes, “The teacher who took the photos told me that all the students wanted to stand close to their teachers. Being physically near them was the most they could do to show their love.” Were there other times in the book when strong feelings remained unspoken? Have you experienced something similar in your own life?

15. Suki’s students believe that the Korean language is superior and universal. Yet their government allows, even encourages, English-language instruction for its top students. How was Suki able to use language as a bridge? What did it mean to her students when she dared to speak Korean in their final days together?

16. Though Suki is unnerved by the ease with which her students lie to her, she eventually grows to love them. Why do you think this was the case? After reading the book, do you find the boys to be sympathetic?

17. 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?

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Without You, There Is No Us: My Time With the Sons of North Korea's Elite 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This does not focus on hardships as reported by defector testimony as in many books. Experiences are from one who taught english abroad in NK, to college students. I really enjoyed reading of her experiences.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is as much about the brave woman who writes it as the very important, secret, society in North Korea. I loved this book. I've read other stories about those who've escaped North Korea, but to read a story about a Korean American who is able to "freely" enter to teach English and live amongst this young "upper crust" student body, is a gift. This reads like an excellent thriller, and it's TRUE! Many thanks to Suki Kim!
Lauderdalian More than 1 year ago
This book is about the experiences of a Korean-born American citizen in her late 20s who teaches English at an elite, Christian-based college in North Korea. She is not Christian. The book is remarkably well written. It will hold your interest to the last page. Even though much of it is almost like a day-by-day account of her interactions with her students, their minders, and fellow teachers, she makes it a fascinating story. Along the way, the reader learns much about the almost unbelievable suppression of nearly everyone in North Korea. One is reminded of the book 1984 with big brother watching nearly everything. Highly recommended!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very much enjoyed this first look i got at N Korea...looking forward to read other books on topic to compare. The use of the word lover did become annoying at times.
Ziggy317 More than 1 year ago
Fascinating! This is an amazing story -- I will think of Suki Kim's "gentlemen" whenever I see North Korea and its ridiculous leader in the news.  I hope she was able to open their minds a little; she certainly opened mine.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I normally don't comment on other reviews, but the one entitled "Terrible, Terrible, Terrible" is obvious trolling by an agent of the DPRK (North Korean) government as evidenced by their marginal English fluency. On the one hand I almost think B&N should remove it, but on the other freedom of speech is exactly why this book is so important. There is no such thing as bad press after all, and the fact it was upsetting enough to the DPRK government to troll the author with negative Nook reviews is precisely why you should read it. The author put herself through a lot of hardship to bring the truth to light, both from the prison like conditions imposed on it's people and the constrictions placed upon her ability to share even the most innocent tales like Harry Potter with her students because of the rigid theocratic mindset of the Missionaries who ran the school. Hers is truly a unique perspective as someone who spent a significant amount of time who could speak Korean and English, allowing her to pick up more of the unfiltered truths the regime works so hard to keep the outside world and it's own people from knowing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This expose of the everyday lives of the people of North Korea is a must read for all people fortunate enough to live in free societies. The author writes a humane account of her time teaching the elite North Korean students. She is drawn to them as individuals, but there is a rigid barrier between them and anyone from a western background, Kim writes with humor and compassion, but also elaborates how impossible it is to break through and try and influence the minds of these young me,n who have been so indoctrinated by their closed society, and their reverence for the "Great Leader, that "Without Him, There is no Us" . What a chilling thought for those of us who live in a free Republic.
Jubo More than 1 year ago
I was looking forward to this thinking it was an undercover report that would have, not only the depth of a professional, but also some thoughtful insight, considering the author herself is Korean. Imagine for a moment that a sulky, over-indulgent teenager is sent over to North Korea to keep a diary. This book would be the result. Her big takeaway: she laments the fact that her students will never know who Mark Zuckerberg is.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
AnnetteOC More than 1 year ago
Few outsiders get an opportunity to peek into the closed world of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, i.e. North Korea). Suki Kim is one of them. Curious about life on the other side of the concrete wall, the South Korean-born, American journalist jumped on an opportunity to teach English at the newly-formed Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the only private academic institution in North Korea, funded largely by Evangelical Christians. It was 2011, when the DPRK was preparing to celebrate the centennial birthday of its first “Great Leader” Kim Sung-Il but ironically ended up mourning the death of its second “Great Leader” Kim Jong-Il instead. Disguised as a missionary disguised as a teacher, as she puts it, Kim taught writing to the sons of North Korea’s educated class while secretly taking notes for her book, Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, A Memoir (Crown Publishers, 2014). This idea of pretending, linked with the concepts of truth/honesty and falsehood/lies, serves as a running theme. Undercover Kim confronts a student body that lies about its county’s successes and living the good life as well as cheats on assignments, seemingly automatically without conscience. The students’ behavior matches her overall experience in the DPRK, where the oppressive government puts on displays for the benefit of foreign visitors, hiding the poor, underfed, and overworked peasants who make up most of the population. Rather than merely assuming that everything isn’t what it seems, Kim’s position on the inside allowed her to see first-hand these contradictions in action. And while she is no supporter of North Korea, she maintains a healthy amount of objectivity, willing to take a critical look at herself, South Korea, and the United States, trying to understand the North Korean view. For example, she becomes more aware of how Americanized South Koreans must appear to the North Koreans when the Sinicization of North Korean culture (due to its close relationship with China) begins to bother her. Despite all the lying that had to take place to bring about the book, Without You comes across as a very honest account. There were a few things that left me dissatisfied, however. At times, I felt that the book was a little disorganized, and the ending was definitely too abrupt. In addition, I was left wondering as to whether she ever “got closure” when it came to the pain over her family’s losses brought about by the north-south division. While I don’t doubt that Kim’s experience had a profound effect on her, she doesn’t transfer that well to the reader. The book offered very little in the way of surprises, portraying life in the DPRK pretty much how anyone who has watched a documentary on North Korea, or even – yes, I’m saying it – The Interview, would’ve imagined it. Without You is definitely a good read, but I wouldn’t say it’ll be a game changer. Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on GoodReads.com. There was no obligation to write a review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fascinating read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Do not waste the time or money on this one!. Ms. Suki Kim deceives a group of missionaries in accepting her as a Christian English teacher, willing to go to North Korea and teach English to North Korea's affluent's children. Suki deceives the PUST (Pyongyang University of Science and Technology)staff and leadership, PUST staff deceive the North Koreans into believing they are there to teach, and North Korean leadership deceive the kids being taught, that they are educating themselves to a freer life. From midway through the book to the end of the book, all we get is page upon page of Kim's moaning and complaining about "her" circumstances in North Korea. She's depressed, she has no friends, her lover in NYC doesn't really love her, she can't find any good food to eat and on and on it goes for more than 100 pages. I have read 2 other books on North Korea, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and The Orphan Master's Son. Both of them are much much better than this story.