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Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite Hardcover – October 14, 2014
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"Chilling…reminds us that evil is not only banal; it is also completely arbitrary."
—New York Times Book Review
"Quasi-apocalyptic, but amazingly not speculative…I devoured [it] for its wry and rare observations on that inexplicable land."
—Daniel Handler, Wall Street Journal
"Daring...Kim finds that paranoia is contagious — and can become chillingly routine. 'My little soldiers were also little robots,' she writes before departing, mourning not only that she must leave, but that they must stay."
"Remarkable…A deeply unsettling book, offering a rare and disturbing inside glimpse into the strangeness, brutality and claustrophobia of North Korea… Kim's book is full of small observations that vividly evoke the paranoia and loneliness of a nation living in fear and in thrall to its 'Great Leaders'…Her portraits of her students are tender and heartbreaking, highlighting the enormity of what is at stake."
"A book about censorship, trust, fear, love, and truth, seen through the prism of a school that functions as a comfortable prison…The title comes from a song the students sing in honor of 'The Dear Leader,' including the lyric, 'Without you, there is no us.' Within that title, and this book, is a multitude of truths."
"Sometimes personal histories retain a potent electromagnetic force, [like] Suki Kim's rivetingly topical look inside the most isolationist country on earth."
"Enthralling...Reveals the perplexing innocence and ignorance of one of the world’s most secretive countries."
—O: The Oprah Magazine
"A devastatingly vulnerable account... Kim’s stark and delicate language, intertwined with the suspense of being an undercover journalist in a foreign-yet-familiar land, truly humanized North Korea for me."
"Touching, beautifully written...A rare, intimate portrait of life in the world’s least-known country: grinding poverty for the masses, bland tedium for the ruling class, no fun, no freedom, and fear for all."
—Katha Pollitt, Salon
“[Kim’s] account is fascinating…She is an outsider telling an inside story…Her relationship with her students is the most interesting part of her book…It is tempting to treat the cult of the North Korean Kim dynasty as a grotesque joke, as the makers of The Interview, the recent Hollywood movie about an assassination plot against the current "Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un, have done. Suki Kim, quite rightly, does not. The oppression and starvation of millions of people, and a gulag that enslaves up to 200,000 prisoners, many of them worked to death, is really not that funny… Kim got a close look at some of the cult’s manifestations…Her frustration and rage about the waste of young lives and talent crushed by a horribly oppressive system is entirely justified. Being punished for dissent is bad enough. But to be forced to parrot lies and keenly applaud one’s enforcers is a form of constant mental torture.”
—Ian Buruma, New York Review of Books
"A vivid, uncompromising and intensely personal account."
"A starkly revealing look at this hermit nation...Kim opens herself as well as the DPRK to scrutiny...Moving and emotionally evocative."
"Offers great details about [the students’] blinkered worldview…A frank depiction of North Korean life."
"Readers intrigued by Kim Jong Un's recent extended absence from public view can gain insight into the repressive system that shapes North Korea's ruling class from Suki Kim's new memoir."
"We in the West know almost nothing about life in North Korea, including even how its elites live (read Suki Kim's terrific Without You, There Is No Us for one of the few accounts)."
"Suki Kim’s compelling reports for Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, and others have expanded and deepened our understanding both of life in the North, and the West’s profound misapprehensions about it.…[This book is] a fascinating, if deeply fraught document about the education of the North Korean elite, an aspect of the country that until very recently has been almost completely occluded… Kim’s access to the boys constitutes the unique nature of her book [and] illuminates just how sheltered they are."
—Los Angeles Review of Books
"[An] extraordinary and troubling portrait of life under severe repression…[Kim’s] account is both perplexing and deeply stirring."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A rare and nuanced look at North Korean culture, and an uncommon addition to the 'inspirational-teacher' genre."
—Booklist, starred review
"A touching portrayal of the student experience in North Korea, which provides readers with a rare glimpse of life in this enigmatic country...Well-written and thoroughly captivating."
—Library Journal, starred review
"Strangely terrifying…A beautifully written book that greatly expands the limited bounds of what we know about North Korea’s ruling class."
—Barbara Demick, author of Nothing to Envy
"Terrifying and sublime, Without You, There Is No Us is a stealth account of heartbreak. Suki Kim, brilliant author of The Interpreter, penetrates the soul of her divided country of origin, bearing witness to generations of maimed lives and arrested identities. This look inside totalitarian North Korea is like no other."
—Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark and Termite and Quiet Dell
"This superb work of investigative journalism is distinguished by its grave beauty and aching tenderness. So skilled is Suki Kim in conveying the eeriness and surreal disconnect of the North Korean landscape that I sometimes felt I was reading a ghost story, one that will haunt me with its silences, with its image of snow falling upon a desolate campus, with the far laughter of her beloved students."
—Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss
"Like an explorer returned from a distant planet or another dimension, Suki Kim has many extraordinary tales to tell, among them how different—and how awful—life is for those who live in North Korea. The devil is in the details here, for her gritty narrative focuses on everyday events to reveal how repression shapes daily life, even for the most privileged. Yet Kim also bears witness to that part of the human soul that no oppressor can ever claim."
—Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana
"In language at once stark and delicate, Suki Kim shatters the polemic of North and South Korea. She couples an investigative reporter's fierce desire to strip away the fiction of the Hermit Kingdom with an immigrant's insatiable hunger for an emotional home, no matter how troubled and no matter how impossible."
—Monique Truong, author of The Book of Salt
"Combining a great novelist's eye for character and a skilled journalist's grasp of politics, Without You, There Is No Us helps us understand North Korea like nothing else I have ever read or watched. The elegance of Kim's prose and her great compassion for ordinary people caught up in an extraordinary situation kept me turning the pages, riveted by her story. This is a book that rejoins North Korea with humanity."
—Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City
"What a unique book this is! It delivers a beautifully and bravely observed inside account—startling, insightful, moving—of the planet's most notoriously closed and bewildering society. But what I liked best about it was being in the company of Suki Kim's voice—so intimate, vulnerable, obsessive, resilient, confiding and charming."
—Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name and The Interior Circuit
About the Author
Suki Kim is the author of the award-winning novel The Interpreter and the recipient of Guggenheim, Fulbright, and Open Society fellowships. Her essays and articles have appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, The New Republic, and the New York Review of Books. Born and raised in Seoul, she lives in New York.
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Top Customer Reviews
1) Autobiographical - It's a memoir, so references to her background are not only expected, but helpful in explaining her interactions. Her Korean-American background is something that made her more accessible to her students. I do agree, though, that the frequent references to her "lover" got a bit tedious and unnecessary.
2) Doesn't answer questions - First, I think one point of the whole book is that neither the author, her North Korean students, nor the other teachers are given explanations for the regime's or the school's actions. For the most part, I think Kim does a good job of providing her observations with some background to help lead the reader to form their own ideas of why the regime does certain things. "Laughingbull" also mentioned that she did not explain the regime's hypocrisy in simultaneously condemning all things American while teaching its most elite students English. Again, a continuing theme throughout the book is that the regime often contradicts itself - I did not feel this point needed to be explained. They have a practical need for their elite to learn English -- knowing your enemy -- that I think is something that they can easily explain in their propaganda. It makes perfect sense that they would like their scientists to understand English. I'm sure the recent Sony hackers had a pretty good working knowledge of English....
3) Narrow view - Again, no kidding. This is a memoir, not a research book. The author is very up-front about the fact that she gained a very limited, but rare, exposure. However, a major difference in the perspective that she describes in this book, compared to other books about life in NK, is the type of people that she was exposed to. Other books I've read are mostly accounts of defectors, who were generally from more impoverished backgrounds. Kim's students give a insight to the lives of the "privileged" class.
Bottom line though: very interesting and well-written, I had a hard time putting the book down once I got started.
I also recommend the book "Nothing to Envy" for an account of the lives of "ordinary" North Korean citizens.
There is not much I can say after reading the two books, "Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea" by Jang Jin-sung and "Without You, There Is No Us" by Suki Kim.
They both tell a similar story of a particularly inhumane country, North Korea, but from different perspectives. It is difficult to sit here, in the United States, and read these two books while trying to understand or comprehend what we are reading. While I have traveled world wide and have taught, as a professor, in different countries, I have never in my travels come across someplace described, I think honestly and truthfully, as primitive, as imprisoning or as controlled as is North Korea.
Jang was part of North Korea's elite with access to Kim Jung-il. He was a poet and highly placed in North Korea's department of internal propaganda. In other words, he was the ultimate insider. It was his position to read foreign, mainly Southern Korean, literature. Then Jang was to write articles and poetry, in which the North Korean readers would assume he was South Korean, extolling the virtues of Kim Jung-il. As such he became jaded with what he saw in North Korea, particularly after a trip to his childhood city and finding what has become of childhood friends. He witnesses poverty and famine first hand and begins writing a secret poetry regarding his thoughts. He begins sharing items with a college friend who he recognizes as also disillusioned about North Korea. One of these is a South Korean book which is lost by his friend. Knowing that the outcome would be death of both of them, they escape using their elite credentials to a border town and then, to China. A good part of this book is their travails in China as fugitives and then his escape to South Korea.
The second book, by Kim, is the story of a South Korean-American who is selected by a religious group to teach English to the elite sons of the leaders in North Korea. She writes of her essential imprisonment in a university, the lack of the barest essentials of common life elsewhere and of the inability to freely convey ideas while teaching. Everything is guarded in what is said and what is acted on. The students, she realizes are competent liars in what they will say and do. She must communicate with the students in English and she is forbidden from using Korean, her mother language. So many subjects are taboo that normal conversation is almost not possible. And yet, she is there to teach everything to students while being allowed to say almost nothing! Everything is vetted by the Koreas, whether it is her minders, Korean counterpart censors or even her fellow teachers. The students, despite being of the sciences, know nothing about the internet and are not allowed access to it. The students are kept in military order, not even allowed to talk to their parents who are just in some cases across the wall of the university. So both the teachers and the students are, in effect, prisoners.
These two books, one by an insider and one by an outsider, will leave you depressed about North Korea. What can be said of a nation that willfully starves its peoples? What can be said of a nation where everyone must think and do the same thing? What can be said of a nation where death is the only exception to worshipping its leader? What can be said of a nation where critical thinking is a death sentence, in fact, even reading of unauthorized critical thinking is a death sentence?