Sep 25, 2016

Without You, There is No Us, by Suki Kim

North Korea: the black hole of international politics, the unknowable, confounding, belligerent nation that pops up on our radar every once in a while when seismographs register another nuclear test, or a lucky defector manages to tell his or her tale of unending woe. For most of the world, North Korea is a minor, albeit slightly worrying inconvenience, more notable for its various humanitarian crises than anything else. China is its only ally, and Japan its most nervous antagonist. But for South Koreans, the North is a source of constant pain, a reminder of families torn apart and a war that destroyed a generation, along with its parents and children.

Kim's memoir is notable for many reasons, the first of which is drawing attention to this pain that is largely unknown outside of Korean communities. She writes of her mother and grandmother and their flight from Seoul, from which Kim's uncle never returned. He could have been killed in the war, or taken to the North to work in a gulag, or alive with a family. For so many Koreans, this ripping apart of families remains a wound that cannot possibly heal because there is no way to know what actually happened to their loved ones. This scar is passed along the generations, so that Kim feels her mother's pain, and her grandmother's.

Even if this book were terribly written, it would be fascinating for its unprecedented look inside North Korea. Kim spent a year teaching young men English. The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology is hardly any of those things: funded and staffed entirely by Christian missionaries, the students at PUST are taught only one subject - English - and are nearly all the sons of North Korea's elite. Their worldview is so utterly different from our own, stunted and limited, not to mention completely warped by the propaganda they live with. Even that's an understatement; propaganda is their way of life, there is nothing else to compare it to. To list even half the ways in which these children grow up with misinformation would take pages and pages; I encourage you to read the book, as it defies expectation.

I only have two qualms about the writing, one general and one specific. Generally, the writing is (and I wish I could think of a better word for this) slightly childish. While this is partly a good thing, in that it puts us into Kim's fragile state of mind, it also becomes a bit repetitious. Again, this might be her intention, to echo the inane repetition of each day, but the writing is just so emotional that it becomes annoying. Specifically, I absolutely detest her usage of the word "lover." She's referring to a man back home, someone she used to date and had reconnected with shortly before leaving for North Korea. He's not a boyfriend, and she doesn't want to use his name, so I understand her need for some other label, but in today's language, "lover" is a strong word that denotes an extra-marital affair, and very few people use it at all. So every time it cropped up in the book (which is fairly often), it jarred me and completely took me out of the reading experience. I wish she had just picked a pseudonym for this man, as she did with all the others in the book.

Still, if you have any interest at all in this enigmatic country, I strongly encourage you to pick this up. It's a quick, enthralling read, one of very few like it that can educate you about one of the world's last unknowable places. Writing this book was an act of bravery for Kim, and I thank her for it.

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