Without you, there is no us

We are watching you

I reserved a copy of Suki Kim’s latest book, Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, based on my interest and curiosity about a nation I knew little about beyond its secrecy and closed doors. 

Like anything peripherally familiar, adding knowledge brings the realization of how little you *really* knew.

Suki Kim did not just write a book about her time “with the sons of North Korea’s elite.”   She carried you along on her trip to the stark institutional prison-like setting, let you taste the “cloudy porridge” and “watery boiled rice,” made you fear (with her) rules such as “never hint that there is something wrong with their country,” or, when taking chaperoned trips “do not approach or start a conversation with anybody.”  And, of course, the warning: “Everything you say and do will be watched.”

Yet, she also showed us the humanity in the boys, who were not only North Korea’s sons, but, as she often lamented, like her own.


Without You, there is no us

You have to admire the thoroughness of the regime, as carried out by the leadership at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a Christian-funded university where Suki Kim has gone to teach English alongside missionaries: every lesson plan, book, and movie is screened by the “counterparts” to ensure they do not impart undesired content, such as religious messages or Western ideals.  We do not learn much about “the counterparts” except that they are mostly unidentified but watching and screening everything including external email communications (Suki addresses this by writing emails in partial code to her “lover,” but alas he seems on a different wavelength entirely and seldom grasps their meaning. Even here, connection has eluded her).

Suki was born in South Korea, and her closeness to the topic is genuine: her grandmother lost a son to the divide of North and South, and many of her family members were never seen or heard from again after 1945.  Her parents immigrated to the United States when she was 13, and like many first generation children she relates strongly to both America and childhood home South Korea.

As a journalist, she knew that the best and perhaps only way to get into the minds and workings of North Korea and therefore write knowledgeably was to actually go there.  Her trip to teach at the missionary Christian school is made under what she describes as doubly false pretenses: she’s not a missionary or a Christian, and she’s not a teacher.  More credit is due than she gives herself:  For not actually being a teacher, I was struck by how good she was both in her patient interactions with students, as well as with boundary setting and lesson planning.

Without You, There Is No Us, a refrain from a song Suki heard repeatedly blasted at PUST (the “you” being the Great Leader Kim Jong-il), is perhaps the eeriest book I have read since George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There are obvious similarities between the two: individuals must follow strict orders under threat of being sent to a gulag, one of an estimated ten political prison camps throughout North Korea where workers are tortured, forced to perform slave labor, or executed. In fact, North Korea is on record as having the worst human rights violations in the world. It is estimated that 200,000 people languish in these prisons.

Life on the outside isn’t pretty either — even for North Korea’s most elite “sons” whose parents are wealthy enough to keep them from labor camps and send them to the “elite” PUST.

Between the power outages, outdated computer equipment and information, travel restrictions, forbidden knowledge of the outside world (students assume kimchi is one of the most popular dishes in every country, as one example), restricted “internet” that does not have answers but functions mostly as an Intranet and connector for North Koreans (again, monitored at all times), inability to express anything freely (one student said he liked to sing “rock songs” and immediately reddened and looked down. Another then awkwardly changed the subject), and the emaciated starving workers Ms. Kim observes on a rare outside trip (accompanied by “monitors” at all times and carefully guided) North Korea is broken.

Ms. Kim struggles with the rules by her second trip, wanting to show the students what they are missing by leaving her Macbook out in plain sight or using her Kindle in view. However, little interest is shown and she’s left wondering about the implications of such an awakening: they are stuck here. Better to be trapped and not know?

Images waking up

Studying another culture forces a contrast between it and your own, allowing, one hopes, insight into your own culture. Sometimes these contrasts provide poetic interpretations of familiar occurrences like photo development, which one student described as “images waking up.”

As our picture of a country awakens, we begin to compare their rules to our own.  Though seemingly ridiculous, I did find myself asking:

Are we like North Korea?

The other day, a friend of mine said that we were just like North Korea: “people get fired for speaking their political beliefs,” was the main example given. Mind you, this was over a few beers.

Nevertheless, though I am prone to draw comparisons where none exist (the very nature of creativity! Right?) I was irritated at his assertion.  Certainly, we can find similarities in our culture, but we have freedoms, I told him.  In our bookstores, there are not just books by and about The Great Leader(s).  We can see any movie we want, not just propaganda films for, again, the Great Leader.  We (mostly) can say what we want and protest when we want to. Freedom of religion and belief.

However, there is one mechanism that struck me as similar to North Korea, but the source of this mechanism does not lie in our government. Nor does it stem from our corporations, though we see it operate in both arenas.  Let me tell you a short story to illustrate.

Pulmonary chains

A few years ago, I helped build a fence along with other neighbors for a tied-up dog, led by the non-profit called the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, who have done tremendous work to provide fencing at no cost to poor families who cannot afford to build a fence (and landlords are unwilling to foot the bill).  This coalition was also instrumental in outlawing the tying up of dogs in Durham, NC, where I live.

We built the modestly-sized fence enclosure for a pit-mix named “Star,” who was just brimming with love.  Pictures of her being held like a baby by volunteers, playing fetch, and romping around were taken and shared.  She was happy, healthy, and now, able to roam free.

In subsequent weeks and months, I’d pass by her yard on walks with my dog Syba.  At first, she seemed fine, and greeted us happily.  Soon, however, I began to notice her startling weight loss and other signs of neglect such as a lack of water in her enclosure, and became concerned.  We and others brought over dog food to her owners, but the problem persisted. The fence was locked to avoid anyone “stealing” her.

Following her obvious starvation, with ribs jutting out, her behavior of course changed and she became withdrawn and angry.  After trying to work with the owners, neighbors called animal control but their backlog prevented much in the way of sustained actions.

Complicating these interactions was the dynamic of different socio-economic classes (they were struggling to survive, most apparently), and most certainly racial tension when bossy (in our case, whites) arrive to tell them how to raise their dog, essentially.

But we weren’t going to just let her starve.

One day, her cage was empty.  Soon, the fence was gone.  No explanation, but we all believed she had died.

When I told my boss at the time this story, an African-American community leader, she said something poetic that I’ll never forget: “You can break the chains from the dog’s neck, but breaking the chains from people’s hearts is harder.”

Though most of us would not approve of starving a dog, our own hearts may have “chains” we are not aware of – much like Suki’s students.

We can’t tell the heart’s chains to loosen, either.  We must go about it another way: a way that is similar to how Ms. Kim and the missionaries were forced to operate within the bounds of North Korea.


What could not be said to the students by teachers said everything about the teacher’s motive.  On one hand, the missionaries explicit goal was to convert these North Korean students once the regime ended, and to be there and ready to be embraced when it did. On the other, they could not say or imply anything about Christianity to the students: the teachers were even instructed to pray with their eyes open and without gesture. In other words, an invisible faith.

However, they did have power in what they suggested the students learn. In one case, the missionaries recommended students see the film Narnia, and were very adamant about that choice.  The missionaries were so impassioned, in fact, about the “Christian message” of the movie (though they did not assert this reason beyond their group), that the counterparts took note and forbid it.

Ms. Kim then suggested, based on students somehow knowing a few references from the film, Harry Potter instead.  To which a missionary replied:

“‘Movies are influential. The counterparts might not have a problem with Harry Potter, but we do. There’s a reason why Narnia was chosen. He says so,’ she said, motioning toward the ceiling.”

Ms. Kim realized that “Any new information had to go through two gatekeepers.” One, the missionaries, and the second, the counterparts.

What I found fascinating was the number of forces who wanted to shape these boys’ lives. The missionaries, sent by their own great leader, wanted the boys to become Christan. The North Koreans wanted them to be perfect soldiers and continue their isolation from evil outside forces. Even Ms. Kim, though seemingly the “right” thing, wanted them to become citizens of the world by exposing them to ideas outside the bounds of their country and experience.

In some cases, this backfired.  One of the missionaries tried to teach them to use forks and knives. After a few attempts, the students collectively rebelled and refused.  The teacher was distraught, and the students were irritated at attempts to change them.

We are left wondering: what do the boys want? Arguably, with this level of indoctrination, it’s most likely an impossible question for them to even know to ask.

It is in this dynamic – the subtle attempts to change hearts and minds – that I am reminded of my and others’ own work to bring the suffering of animals raised for food in factories across our country to the “table.”  One cannot simply say or shout, “What you are eating has suffered horribly! Animal lives are worth our consideration. Stop it!” and expect an immediate change.


Mind fields

The change of hearts and minds, particularly indoctrinated with messaging from rich advertisers rather than a country (happy cows come from California, milk it does a body good, protein = meat) and inculcated into our accepted cultural norms, does not change by an accusation.  It’s slower.  It’s the North Korean kind.

In fact, just to admit one cares about animals and becomes vegetarian or vegan for animals or ethical reasons is a tough step for people to take: most prefer to cite health or the environment to avoid this ethical admission (which is often taken as an accusation in itself).

Showing films with factory farm footage or animal suffering are often prevented or not allowed.  Parents become upset when their kids see images of animals in factory farms, but feed them these same animals.

This comparison does not end with animal rights. We can say similar censorship applies to the willingness of one person to say they are agnostic or atheist when the dominant group is Christian, or other belief systems.  But over the years I’ve noticed people are particularly sensitive about the topic of eating animals. Almost an immediate shut-down occurs upon bringing up the topic, such as “I could never be vegan.”

And so our change-making must be with delicious enticements of palate, wallet, and popularity. Being a change agent requires diplomacy to navigate the minefield of communications much like communications at PUST.

Why you should pick up a copy of this book

It might sound like a depressing read. Certainly, that’s kept me from delving into the world of North Korea.  And make no mistake, you will feel sadness in many of these pages.  The tragedy not only of history but the everyday lives of North Koreans, including these elite boys.

It is perhaps for these boys that you continue the story.  Their often sweet and disarming behavior, even though sometimes deceptive, shines through the narrative and endears you to them as they have the author, who describes them as her “children” more than once.  This might seem condescending, but Suki does not treat them with anything but respect throughout.

For me, Suki’s journey to North Korea has enlarged the world, including my own, enticing me to explore human nature and our heart’s chains in more detail.  It’s also a fascinating study of an almost complete “control group.”  What does it mean to be cut off from the world, in an age of hyper-connectivity?

While the fate of North Korea under its new dictator Kim Jong-un is dubious, several dissidents continue to break the information barrier by launching DVD-filled balloons into the country and otherwise smuggling in knowledge contraband.

And, with continued threats of nuclear activity by North Korean officials, our fates, or at least our politics, are intertwined.

"The statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang (april 2012)" by J.A. de Roo - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org
“The statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang (april 2012)” by J.A. de Roo – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org

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