There Is No Us Without You by Suki Kim is a memoir of an author looking for her own self- identity. Some may consider it a novel of betrayal as the author admits that she took on a false identity to get access to a closed society in order to get the information presented here. She apologizes for that. I am in agreement that in some situations the end justifies the means; there was no other way to get the information presented here. This book shares a theme with The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeon Seo Lee. Both authors left Korea in their teenage years, both spent a lot of time in other countries and both had feelings of “coming home” when they were able to spend time upon their return to Korea (both North and South). Lee’s book is reviewed elsewhere in this blog. I read and reviewed both in preparation for meeting this author at the UBUD writers and readers conference in Bali, Indonesia from 27 to 31 October 2016.
Both authors offer similar observations of daily existence in North Korea under the rule of three generations of the “Kim” family: Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un. It is difficult for a westerner to appreciate the acceptance of conditions of life described by Suki Kim that the population of North Korea endures. But when nothing else is known, what is the alternative? Suki Kim deplores and is saddened by the conditions under which creative, intelligent minds are diverted from creativity and critical analysis to a creativity that is targeted to better ways to conform to the demands of an autocratic system. From a background of Korean pride, she makes several important observations on daily life at a school for elite youth in North Korea.
In order to get into North Korea, in order to accept a job as a teacher while gathering material for this book, Kim had to agree to alter her behavior so as not to offend a student population that she would face. By following the rules, and there were many, she would also be able to avoid sanctions from bosses, political minders, and possible government spies who would be checking on her compliance and motivation for being in North Korea. Although saddened by the unthinking compliance of her students, she writes of herself “We accepted our situation meekly. How quickly we became prisoners, how quickly we gave up our freedom, how quickly we tolerated the loss of that freedom.” (p. 88).
Accepting the teaching job, Kim was a part of a missionary group. They had frequent motivational meetings to keep strong in a faith that found conditions in North Korea unacceptable. In one meeting Kim made this observation. “I could not help noticing that if you replaced the word Jesus with Great Leader, the content was not so different from some of the North Korean songs my students chanted several times each day. In both groups, singing was a joyful, collective ritual from which they took strength.” (p. 110). In the current political environment of the US, replacing Jesus or Great Leader with “Trump” might explain some of the mindless reactions reported by the US press.
Kim again makes a connection between governmental mind control and religion when she writes of Rachel, a colleague, searching for evidence of a bell which supposedly formed the basis for the establishment of an early church in Pyongyang. “Rachel found the students strangely gullible, yet it was she who roamed the ditch beside the teachers’ dormitory, searching for the spot where the sacred bell from the first church of Pyongyang had “accidentally” been found on the PUST campus. We believe what we want to believe. If these sad people wanted so desperately to hold on to the myth of their Great Leader as the rightful heir to Dangun, who could blame them? The blame really lay with those who perpetuated these stories to control the masses.” (p. 133-134). Control of the masses? How can we control the masses? Perhaps through the manipulation of mass media. Again, we have modern day relevance of Kim’s observations.
Throughout the book, I read to find instances of mind control and how the population related to and dealt with it. How could there be so much loyalty in the face of constant hunger? How can there be a population-wide acceptance of and knowledge about the existence of a group of attractive women kept for the service of top leadership? How can an entire population be ignorant of the existence of the internet thinking instead that an intranet communication network was a satisfactory substitute?
There is much to recommend in this book. The big thing to watch is the way Kim’s thinking changes over time. Out of a sense of Korean pride, she is at first proud to see the progress and dedication of her students. At the same time, she is depressed about the paucity resources available to her during her employment. But she returned for a second term of teaching. Then she writes of her growing dissatisfaction with the ease that some students found it easy to lie. She became increasingly uncomfortable with the student defensiveness that allowed a student to claim that he had cloned a rabbit while still in the 8th grade.
Suki Kim wrote a valuable memoir. It is a psychological study in the ways to enforce compliance with absurd conditions in a surreal environment. She had to accept a lot, she had to conform, but she had the luxury of a time limit. She could call a time-out. She could escape. She could, and did, report her experiences to the world that, in my case, held an incredulous audience.