Thursday, January 22, 2015

"Without You, There Is No Us", Suki Kim writes about six months in North Korea

"Without You, There Is No Us", a book of non-fiction by Suki Kim, is sub-titled "My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite".  It is a chronicle of her unique experience in 2011 of teaching English at Pyongyang  University of Science and Technology(PUST), a walled compound with 270 students, and in fact the only college students in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea(DPRK) that year as all other institutions of higher "learning" were shut down so students could work in agriculture or construction, for what purpose it is unclear.  Unclear decisions in the DPRK seem to be normal as the book develops.

Suki Kim first became known here through her first book, "The Interpreter", read about 10 years ago. That book was a novel, and the protagonist Suzy Park, had emigrated to the United States with her parents and sister at the age of five.  The book is in no small part a story of their adjustment but also is built around a murder mystery.  Her parents were itinerant greengrocers in parts of metropolitan New York and when Suzy was in her late teens they were both murdered in their store with single gun shots to the head.  The police feigned interest and discovered nothing.  For Suzy and her sister Grace the mystery lingered and changed their lives.

That story is not the real strength of "The Interpreter".  Reading it at that time I distinctly remember thinking that the book read more like non-fiction when it involved the lives Suzy, Grace, and their parents(rereading parts in the last week the thought remained).  It just seemed to be too realistic to not be partially or largely based on truth, slightly altered, and that was the opinion here, right or wrong. The murders, at least of her mother, were fiction and the intrigue around that story had to be fiction as well.  Nevertheless, truth seemed to be all over this fiction.  The book received positive critical attention when it was published in 2003 and won several literary awards.

Since that time Suki Kim has not written another novel despite the success of her first.  Her work has all been focused on journalism, much of it focused on Korea, especially North Korea where she has been traveling to on assignment since 2002.  She has received a Fulbright Research Grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and her work has been published in Harper's, The New York Review of Books, and the New York Times, among other publications.  As background, she emigrated to New York at the age of 13 with her sister and parents.

In one interview about "Without You, There Is No Us" she noted that she has changed the names of students and teachers that she worked with, changed the schedules of places they went, and liberally paraphrased some of what was said in discussions, all with the purpose of obfuscating her sources and activity from the DPRK regime once the book was published.  That sounds like a not so novel way of protecting sources.

"Without You, There Is No Us" refers to the Great Leader, whether it be the founder of the DPRK Kim Il-sung, his successor Kim Jong-il, and the current family leader Kim Jong-un.  The mythologies built around these leaders are amazing in their exaggerations, and in the case of the latter two are just ludicrous.  Kim describes a completely closed society with little information about the outside world, a completely controlled society with every activity possible scrutinized, and one that exists in stark poverty except among the elite in Pyongyang and maybe a few other cities. Power is unreliable across the country, as in electricity and heat, and food is often minimal in its diversity and the quality and quantity available.  That is of course except for the top government and military leaders and their families.

Even at PUST, the power is not reliable and Kim and her fellow teachers sleep in multiple layers of clothes in the winter.  How does PUST exist?  How weird is this?   PUST was founded and financed by a group of evangelical Christians whose ultimate goal is to covert North Korea to their rigid faith once a change in regime eventually comes, if that time ever comes.  How they adequately disguise this is unclear, but they lay low and accept all of the censorship, scrutiny, and surveillance that their presence requires, and North Korea accepts their money.  How Kim worked her way into this group is also unclear, but, as the book tells it, she just applied for a job teaching English, and with her Korean background she was eventually hired on at a moment's notice and headed off to the school from New York.

The life that she lived there sounds grim, with little communication with the outside world, few brief phone calls allowed, all mail read and censored, classes monitored, and only her evangelical fellow teachers to socialize with.  Kim is decidedly not an evangelical Christian.  What relieved her boredom and her spartan life was the relationships that she built with her cloistered students, her ongoing interest in the country, and obviously the fact that she planned from the outset to use this as a way to write about North Korea in a way that few if any have the opportunity to do.  Among the many things that had the most impact on her was that these students, sons of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country, were also for the most part oblivious about the outside world.  To them the DPRK was one of the most powerful countries in the world and Pyongyang was one of the most beautiful cities.  If they by any chance knew otherwise, saying so would have been blasphemy so from this perspective it is impossible to know what they knew.

"Without You, There Is No Us" received good but not great reviews from what I can see here with just a few samples looked at so far.  Kim took exception to the New York Times Book review section review of December 14th and immediately wrote a Letter to the Editor of that section that was published on December 28th.  One would need to Google the book review on 12/14/14 to understand the letter fully, but here I will just quote the last paragraph of Kim's letter to the book review.

"But my book is about the exact opposite --- how evil is not arbitrary in North Korea, and how it is systematically meted out from the top down, the military dictatorship that exploits the myth of the Great Leader to its citizens imprisoned in a gulag posing as a nation."

This book was a fascinating look into North Korea, and getting a deeper understanding of the author was also intriguing.  What she writes next will be of interest, and what evolves in North Korea will be better understood.  Now we just wait for Dennis Rodman's next celebrity tour of the isolated and dangerous country.

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