Saturday, August 26, 2017

Book Review: 'Without You, There Is No Us' by Suki Kim

The ruling Kim clan (no relation the author) has created a monster, mostly to itself. The people of North Korea are so isolated they have no idea about anything outside their country, and enormously little about what goes on in it. By breaking down the family unit, they have destroyed links, safety nets, support and community. Everyone reports on everyone else. Minders, monitors and counterparts are everywhere. All have the power to denounce. New buildings are designed to be transparent; there is little or nothing in the way of privacy possible. Permission is necessary to go anywhere. Roads are so empty, rurals sit on them as outdoor gathering places. Individuals are totally controlled. They are told where they will study, who they will be friends with and what they will do, all day every day. This is the North Korea into which Kim Suki taught English to elite students (of wealthy, powerful parents).
There is a dreary, grinding sameness to the days. Choices are essentially zero. She had to be careful of every word she spoke, because no one is allowed to know what life is like anywhere else. Teachers had to ensure they didn’t sit with the same students in the cafeteria as it would arouse suspicions. Her all male, mid twenties students were as teens are in the USA, champing at the bit to see a Harry Potter film, pining for parents who were not permitted to see them (assuming they could even find them), and feeling totally constricted in what should be the most creative, productive, chance-taking parts of their lives. Instead, it is a life of the military drudgery: long pointless hours guarding empty halls, being reassigned to new “buddies” (totally abandoning the old ones) and boring, minimal food. The internet is of course off limits, so even these students had no way to research their specialty – technology. Instead they have an offline intranet, as useless as it sounds. The concept of phoning anywhere in the world on Skype – pure fantasy, not even worth believing.
They are constantly preparing for war. They are taught to want to kill all foreigners. The draft is ten years for men, seven for women. Propsects outside the army are even bleaker.
It is all the more intense because the author didn’t just visit, she lived it with them. She kept her notes on USB sticks, never allowing her thoughts to remain on a hard drive that might be left unattended. She had to be careful about the other teachers as well, mostly Protestant fundamentalist missionaries. It gets to her, and she cries often. The lack of human contact, let alone compassion, keeps the tension level absurdly high.
In the end, some human connections were made, tentatively, under the cover of creative writing assignments. But that was all. The book is as powerful an indictment of North Korea as any ever written, despite (or perhaps because of) its total lack of access to the power brokers and decision makers. There is no talk of politics or philosophy. Juche is a fact of life, period. This is real life in North Korea, where paranoia is mainstream.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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