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

Nonfiction November

I read this book as part of Nonfiction November hosted by Katie at Doing Dewey, Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness, Becca at I’m Lost in Books, and Leslie at Regular Rumination.

Nonfiction – MemoirWithout You There is No Us, Suki Kim, North Korea
Released October, 2014
304 Pages
Bottom Line: Read it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: eGalley provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Plot Summary of Without You, There Is No Us:

A memoir of Suki Kim’s time teaching English in a Christian missionary sponsored school (Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, aka PUST) for elite North Korean college age men outside of Pyongyang, North Korea.

My Thoughts on Without You, There is No Us:

Without You, There Is No Us shares a fascinating and horrifying glimpse into the black box that is North Korea, an “unknown and unknowable” world as Kim describes it. I’ve been fascinated with life in North Korea ever since I read the novel, The Orphan Master’s Son (which I didn’t like overall, but it did whet my appetite for more information about North Korea). 

A lot of the book covers Kim’s experience as a PUST teacher…

Kim, a native of South Korea that immigrated to the U.S. at age thirteen, was using her role as a teacher at PUST to clandestinely gather material for her journalism career. Like all the teachers at PUST, she was watched constantly by North Korean “minders”, her lesson plans were approved in advance, and her movements were severely restricted. She was not allowed to share information about the outside world with her students and was too terrified of the consequences to try to circumvent the rules. I wondered what would have happened had she been honest with her students about the broader world. A part of me thinks the deluge of information would have been so earth shattering for them that they wouldn’t have been able to wrap their heads around the implications at all. These were so-called “elite” students that had never heard the word “skiing”. How would they then be able to understand the implications of an open, global Internet? 

But, for me, this book is more about the strong sense of place…

Without You, There Is No Us is the name of a North Korean song with the “you” referring to Kim Jong-il, the country’s former “Dear Leader”…which describes North Korea in a nutshell. It’s a country where not much goes in or comes out (except, Dennis Rodman, apparently). I think it’s this mystery that intrigues me, in the way that snakes intrigue me as long as they’re contained, but terrify me if let loose. After reading Without You, There Is No Us, I am completely flabbergasted that such a backward place can exist in the modern world. The level of isolation, strangeness, and naiveness of its people is breathtaking.

  • North Korea follows a calendar system that counts time from the birth of their original Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung (who died in 1994).
  • All artistic endeavors (books, songs, art, plays, TV shows, etc) are either created by or about the Great Leader.
  • North Korean people cut the grass with scissors.
  • Kim was instructed to either bring or arrange for delivery of her own butter, refrigerator, and toilet paper, as those items are not readily available in North Korea.
  • Jeans are outlawed because Kim Jong-il (North Korea’s leader until very recently) associates them with America.

Though I learned a lot, Without You, There Is No Us left me with even more questions…

Kim’s perspective of life in North Korea from teaching at PUST is predominantly of the elite, ruling class. On infrequent excursions outside the school walls, Kim spotted “small, dark, emaciated people with dead eyes” along the sides of the road and working in fields. I’m now curious about what life is like for them and plan to read Escape from Camp 14, the story of a North Korean labor camp defector, which will hopefully give me the other side of the picture.

If you’re interested in life in North Korea, Without You, There Is No Us is a great place to start. 

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  1. TJ wrote:

    I’ve already had Without You, There Is No Us and Escape from Camp 14 on my list, and your review confirms that I should really read both of them. Like you, I have a hard time comprehending how North Korea can exist in this day and age. Do you know anything about the book Dear Leader? The summary sounds very interesting, though it is not about ordinary people in North Korea.

    Posted 11.12.14 Reply
  2. Well, you know I enjoyed the book as well, but I do agree that it also raises a TON of questions! You are right that Kim’s memoir is very specific to her experience as a teacher at PUST–and of course, the regime didn’t let her go anywhere else. It was incredible how her every movement was watched, and each time she left the university, what she saw was carefully orchestrated by the regime. It made me think of “Potemkin villages,” those fake villages built to fool Russian Empress Catherine II. In fact, I’ve read that North Korea has a kind of Potemkin village on their side of the DMZ to try to encourage South Koreans to defect there; of course, everything looks wonderful at this town on the border, but it is completely different from how most North Koreans live.

    I’d also like to read Escape from Camp 14. The other book I’ve been hearing a lot about is Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.

    Posted 11.12.14 Reply
  3. Sarah, I’m so glad you were able to read this one; this is actually a great reminder, because I meant to add it to my list of non-fiction TBRs. I’m thrilled to hear that you enjoyed it; it sounded intriguing to me, but sometimes I am disappointed with the direction of a non-fiction book after I begin. Thanks so much for sharing this review!

    Posted 11.12.14 Reply
  4. A very revealing book. Thanks for sharing your review.

    Posted 11.12.14 Reply
  5. I read The Orphan Master’s Son, and like you, did not really like it. I was hesitant about this book, but after reading your review, I’m going to give it a try. I am really interested in learning more about the culture of North Korea.

    Posted 11.13.14 Reply
  6. Great review! I was really intrigued by all the little details you included. I’m very interested in reading this book as it sounds fascinating. I gave my husband Escape From Camp 14 and he passed it onto my brother, so still waiting for my turn to read the book. Are there any other books about North Korea you are planning to read?

    Posted 11.13.14 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      My sister in law loved Escape from Camp 14! Nothing to Envy: Lives of Ordinary North Koreans is another one I’ve been hearing about, but haven’t read yet. It’s a fascinating/horrifying country!

      Posted 11.13.14 Reply
  7. great review, Sarah!

    Posted 11.13.14 Reply
  8. Sounds like an intense reflection on a country I know nothing about. Cut the grass with scissors?!? Adding to my TBR, it will be a good choice for our Travel the World in Books reading challenge.

    Posted 11.15.14 Reply
    • admin wrote:

      Yes – it would definitely be a perfect fit for the Travel the World in Books Challenge! And – I was shocked about the scissors too!

      Posted 11.15.14 Reply
  9. Susan wrote:

    Nice review. North Korea sounds very chilling. She must be very determined and brave to go there.

    Posted 11.23.14 Reply

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