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.
- More about North Korea.
- Thanks to Dieter for Without You, There is no Us and to Maryam for Nothing to Envy! If you also want to support this blog, I always appreciate a book from my wishlist. But please don’t send a Bible.
- This review was also published on Medium.
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When I was still in the hotel / themepark industry, I often used to read this guy’s website (he travels the world, reviewing themparks). Here is his review of North Korea’s parks. Along with some interesting photos…
The old theme parks look depressive, but then, I guess, old theme parks look depressive in many places. I remember the one in Tiraspol, for example.
And I liked the photo of the guy reading a book on the roller coaster!
It reminded me of you. I guess it means that in a world deprived of all the normal trappings that some take for granted, even in those places where most people have nothing, when they do eventually get something like a rollercoast, a book still wins.
That guy must be quite some nerd.
If you are more into listening than reading, here’s a recent interview with Barbara Demick:
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The new, free e-book NORTH KOREA BEHIND THE VEIL is a collection of an insider’s short stories, articles and uncensored images, providing a unique insight and a different perspective on the so-called Hermit Kingdom. — And this is what motivated the author, who lived and worked for seven years in North Korea, to publish it: “North Korea has been portrayed for decades as a monolithic gulag network filled with slaves and a hellhole by the mass media. The socio-economic changes North Korea has undergone over the last decade or more have been almost entirely unreported. Indeed, by the beginning of 2017, mass starvation had long ceased, while more and better-assorted markets emerged throughout the country (and yet you’re still reading that ‘North Korea’s regime is starving its population’). Fewer people are punished for political crimes than in the past (but you still read that three generations of a family are sent to the gulag for the slightest political crime). The rising middle class has been transforming the rigid old political class system since marketization has enabled people from lower classes to build their own business, with some becoming rich and even more influential than many party and government officials from the privileged ‘core class,’ something prohibited two decades ago. Yet, you’re still told by the media that a North Korean’s fate is solely defined by the social ‘caste’ he belongs to and so on. Business people around the world have had no access to any news of positive progress, while any stories of ‘normal’ development are generally considered not to be newsworthy by the media. — Alas, the strangulating economic embargo which was imposed later in 2017, a de facto collective punishment, is bound to reverse this progress, causing enormous and unnecessary suffering to the North Korean people.” — Author Felix Abt is a politically neutral businessman and, therefore, does not share partisan views about North Korea. He is, however, critical of unfair North Korea reporting and does what he can to contribute to a more objective view of a country he knows much better than the journalists and bloggers writing about it. He was an investor at several legitimate Joint Venture companies in North Korea which are now being driven into bankruptcy by U.N. “sanctions.”
— Check it out and download it here: https://independent.academia.edu/AbtF
Having business interests in North Korea certainly makes one “politically neutral” about North Korea. ;-)
Do you have any thoughts on North Korea’s recent openness since the Winter Olympic Games?
I am really no expert on Korea (I have never even been there), but if there is any openness at all, maybe it’s because the both Koreas want to remove some of the tension brought by rhetoric from Mr Trump. With all the different goals between North and South Korea, I assume none of them want to go down in “fire and fury” because of a madman in Washington.