If there will be a nuclear war in 2018, it will most likely have something to do with North Korea. So you may as well use your last weeks alive to read about that country.
Suki Kim pulled off a fantastic journalistic feat, tricking not only the North Korean government, but also the internationally funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), which is a cover for Christian missionaries. Ms Kim was neither an English teacher, nor Christian, but wanted to write a book about North Korea. Thus, during her months in Pyongyang, she was always afraid of being uncovered by either the North Korean government or by her international colleagues and bosses.
The result is Without You, There is no Us, a reference to a song about the Great Leader, of course. The students at that university are no ordinary students, they are the sons of North Korea’s elite. Maybe because Ms Kim is not only American, but also Korean, the students warm to her and gradually open up, revealing a fascinating insight into how closed-off from the world even the elite in North Korea is. On the other hand, despite some bonding, the students are always ready to lie to cover up technological or other deficiencies in North Korea.
Ms Kim conveys the feeling of being in that tense situation where she has to think about the consequences (for herself and her students) before every sentence. However, at times she goes into too much detail about her personal life, the story of her family and her on/off relationship with a boyfriend in New York, which really has no place in the book.
In a way, it feels like she wanted to add some extra plots to fill the book, because there is really not much happening at the school. Ms Kim can never leave the compound alone or unsupervised and even her communication is monitored. This isolation explains one of the drawbacks of the book: it’s an interesting insight into that university, but it’s not representative of North Korea. The teenagers there are better educated, better fed, financially better off, better connected than the rest of the country. Halfway through her term, Ms Kim finds out that all other universities in North Korea have actually been closed and that PUST is the only one still operating.
At least to readers who already know something about North Korea, the most shocking revelation in Without You, There is no Us are the similarities between the North Korean regime and the Christians running the university. They both praise their leader/idol in hymns and speeches, repeating the ever-same chants, believing that he has everything under control and that he will guide and steer everything towards the better.
Sometimes, the Christians seem even crazier, for example when they rationalize the suffering, oppression and hunger in North Korea as a test imposed by God. At the end of the term, the teachers are allowed to show their students one film. But the movies must not be political, critical, advocate individualism or portray the archenemy USA in a positive light. Finally, Ms Kim receives approval from the North Korean counterparts to show a Harry Potter film. One of her Christian colleagues storms into her office, furious. “I’ll never show that to any of my students! What’s your motive for wanting to show such filth to our students? What kind of a Christian are you? What would Christians around the world say about our decision to expose our students to such heresy?”
But if that is your thing, PUST is looking for teaching volunteers. It’s unpaid of course, because you will get your reward from God. (The university meanwhile takes in millions in donations from churches around the world.)
While Without You, There is no Us focuses on a small group of elite students, the second book focuses on one city, Chongin, and this is a smart choice because everywhere in North Korea is more poor and grim than in the capital Pyongyang. In Nothing to Envy (also based on a North Korean slogan), Barbara Demick spoke to six defectors from Chongin and uses their stories to weave together a disturbing and at times heart-breaking image of life in North Korea for ordinary people.
How Ms Demick uses these stories, enriched by research, to convey a feeling of almost living the harrowing life in North Korea oneself is masterful. Of course she has the advantage that her subjects have already fled and are now free to talk. In this book, the personal stories are no superfluous side plot, but the relationships between parents and children or between two lovers, all of them made incredibly harder by political and economic circumstances, illustrate how much the dictatorship intrudes even the personal lives of everyone.
Nothing to Envy is much richer in detail than Without You, There is no Us. I learned about people collecting tree bark and grass to avoid starvation, children collecting human feces, that any North Korean needed a special permit to visit Pyongyang, that they were scared to death when they couldn’t produce tears in a public mourning of the late Kim Il Sung, that the TV set is preset to the government channel and that government officials make house calls to check that it hasn’t been tampered with.
One important fact I learned from both books is that the North Korean political philosophy can hardly be called communist. It is rather militaristic and filled with propaganda of racial superiority above everyone else in the world.
So, both books were very interesting, but the second one was clearly better and offered more insight into a larger part of the population over a longer period of time. If you want to read only one book about North Korea, I would go for Nothing to Envy.