Without You, There Is No Us

My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite Hardcover

Buy
Add Without You, There Is No Us to Goodreads

A haunting memoir of teaching English to the sons of North Korea's ruling class during the last six months of Kim Jong-il's reign
 
Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. It is a chilling scene, but gradually Suki Kim, too, learns the tune and, without noticing, begins to hum it. It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the 270 students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has accepted a job teaching English. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them to write, all under the watchful eye of the regime.

Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic, especially for Suki, whose letters are read by censors and who must hide her notes and photographs not only from her minders but from her colleagues—evangelical Christian missionaries who don't know or choose to ignore that Suki doesn't share their faith. She is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. To them, everything in North Korea is the best, the tallest, the most delicious, the envy of all nations. Still, she cannot help but love them—their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished.
As the weeks pass, she begins to hint at the existence of a world beyond their own—at such exotic activities as surfing the Internet or traveling freely and, more dangerously, at electoral democracy and other ideas forbidden in a country where defectors risk torture and execution. The students in turn offer Suki tantalizing glimpses into their lives, from their thoughts on how to impress girls to their disappointment that soccer games are only televised when the North Korean team wins. Then Kim Jong-il dies, leaving the students devastated, and leading Suki to question whether the gulf between her world and theirs can ever be bridged.

Without You, There Is No Us
offers a moving and incalculably rare glimpse of life in the world's most unknowable country, and at the privileged young men she calls "soldiers and slaves."

Praise

"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

"[A] most enlightening tale about the North Korean darkness…Directs the lights of emotion and intelligence on a country where ignorance is far from bliss."
Kirkus Reviews

Excerpt

part one

Anti—Atlantis

1

At 12:45 p.m. on monday, december 19, 2011, there was a knock at my door. My heart sank. I knew who would be there. I ignored it and continued shoving my clothes into the suitcase. The knock came again. She knew that I was inside, and she was not going to go away. Finally I stopped what I was doing and opened the door. There stood Martha, a lanky twenty-­four-­year-­old British girl with glasses, with whom I had been sharing teaching duties. “You must come to the meeting right now,” she said. I sighed, feeling the weight of the past six months there among thirty Christian missionaries, now gathered in secret for the pre-­Christmas prayer meeting. Then she whispered, “He’s dead,” pointing at the ceiling. I thought that she meant God, and I was momentarily confused. I have never read the Bible, and my family is largely atheist. Then she said, “him,” and I realized she meant the main God in this world: Kim Jong-­il.

Was it fate that my North Korean experience began with his birthday and ended with his death? It was February 2002 when I first glimpsed the forbidden city of Pyongyang as part of a Korean-American delegation visiting for Kim Jong-­il’s sixtieth birthday celebrations. It was only a few months after 9/11, and George W. Bush had just christened that country part of an “axis of evil,” so it was an inauspicious time for a single American woman to cross its border with a group of strangers.

Over the next nine years, with each implausible crossing of its immutable border, I became further intoxicated by this unknown and unknowable place. This isolated nation existed under an entirely different system from the rest of the world, so different that when I arrived in 2011, I found myself in “Juche Year 100.” The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) follows a different calendar system, which counts time from the birth of their original Great Leader, Kim Il-­sung, who died in 1994; Juche, which roughly means “self-­reliance,” is at the core of North Korea’s foundational philosophy. Almost every book I ever saw there was written by or about the Great Leader. The state-­run media, including the newspaper Rodong Sinmun and Chosun Central TV, reported almost exclusively on the Great Leader. Almost every film, every song, every monument heralded the miraculous achievements of the Great Leader, the role passed down through three generations, from Kim Il-­sung and Kim Jong-­il to Kim Jong-­un, who was twenty-­nine when he assumed power in 2012 and became the world’s youngest head of state. It has been reported that every home in the country is fitted with a speaker through which government propaganda can be broadcast, and that more than thirty-­five thousand statues of the Great Leaders are scattered across the country.

But while the regime dabbles with nuclear weapons, provoking repeated United Nations sanctions, the people of North Korea suffer. The 1990s famine (known as the Arduous March)killed as many as three million, more than a tenth of the entire population, and even now the World Food Program reports that 80 percent of North Koreans experience food shortages and hunger. It is estimated that forced labor, executions, and concentration camps have claimed over a million lives since 1948. According to the latest UN report, the DPRK maintains some twenty gulags holding some 120,000 political prisoners (Human Rights Watch estimates 200,000). These numbers are inevitably approximate since nothing there is verifiable. Almost no North Koreans are allowed out—­defectors risk execution—­and almost no foreigners are allowed in except those on packaged tours, most holding European passports, and they get to see only what is allowed. In this global age of information, where secrets have become an anachronism, North Korea stands apart.

My obsession with this troubling country—­because it indeed became an obsession—­was based on more than just journalistic interest. The first time I entered North Korea, I was not sure what a “delegate” was and did not know much at all about the pro–­Kim Jong-­il group I was traveling with. This makes me sound either extremely irreverent or extremely young, but I was neither. My ignorance was willful. Since getting a visa into the country was so difficult, I thought it was best not to appear too inquisitive. But there was something else, too: a part of me, a very insistent voice inside, did not want to know those details. For those of us who grew up in 1970s South Korea, anything to do with North Korea is accompanied by a certain foreboding. And for those of us whose family members were abducted into North Korea, this fear runs still deeper. If I had known as much as I do now, more than a decade later, I doubt I would have made that first, fateful trip. But I did get on a flight from JFK, on Korean Air, one of the world’s most modern and luxurious airlines, and then almost twenty hours later, via Seoul and then Beijing, boarded North Korea’s state-­owned Air Koryo, where the only reading material was a magazine about the Great Leader. And I would cross that same border into Pyongyang repeatedly for the next nine years.

Every story has its origin in a time that came before. My obsession had its roots even before I was born, in 1945. It was then, when the five-­thousand-­year-­old kingdom of Korea was divided by the Allies who liberated it from Japan, that everything went wrong. And since then everything has continued to be wrong, and nothing, not even the three-­year-­long war that began in 1950, has made much difference.

Or maybe my obsession became inevitable when I was a child growing up in South Korea. The years I lived there remain unnervingly still, pristinely intact in my mind. As I get older, the memory of those years grows bigger, each nook casting a longer shadow. Such is the condition of a first-­generation immigrant for whom everything is separated into now and then, into before the move and after. The ocean that separates the adoptive home and the old country also divides time.

I was just thirteen when we came to America. The early eighties in South Korea was a time of political unrest and economic upheaval, and my father’s businesses—­from the shipping company and mining ventures to the hotels—­collapsed rapidly. Bankruptcy in South Korea was punishable by a hefty jail term, and we fled our home in the dead of night. Like many new immigrants to America, my family was now poor and kept moving—­from Queens to Jersey City to the Bronx to Fort Lee. I grasped few of the vast changes that seemed to have occurred overnight in my physical surroundings. I knew that I was no longer in Korea, and yet it was beyond my comprehension that this loss of home was permanent. Another foreign concept that took time to absorb was that I was now Asian, a term that I had heard mentioned only in a social studies class. Back home, yellow was the color of the forsythia that bloomed every spring along the fence that separated our estate from the houses down the hill; I certainly never thought of my skin as being the same shade. Those years were also marked by silence. My mother tongue was suddenly gone, replaced by unfamiliar sounds called English. It seemed a miracle when I took the SAT and made it to college.

After graduation, I spent a couple of years in London, searching for something I could never quite name, then returned to New York to a series of part-­time jobs and a rent-­stabilized apartment in the East Village, where I spent my twenties. But I never felt at home there either and kept subletting my apartment and taking off, often on meager writing fellowships that required me to live in some remote place, whether it be a hundred-­year-­old cabin in New Hampshire or an empty room facing a desert hill in Wyoming. There were no cell phones then, and I was always calling my parents collect. I remember getting off a Greyhound bus one afternoon and standing in a phone booth outside a coffee shop in Taos, New Mexico, and my father, on the line from New Jersey, ending the call with: “If you keep moving like this, one day you’ll be too far away to come back.”

During those itinerant years, I once found myself on the Ligurian coast of Italy, which sounded better than it felt. It was a place whose awe-­inspiring beauty so oddly failed to touch me that for years afterward I would look for an opportunity to drop the word Liguria in conversations, such as “I wore this dress often that autumn I was living in Liguria” or “I never finished that novel I was working on in Liguria,” as if to remind myself that I had spent nearly two months there.

Some experiences are like that. You live through them, and yet you aren’t quite there. Korea was the opposite. My first thirteen years remained real for me like nothing since. When you lose your home at a young age, you spend your life looking for its replacement. Over the years, I have never considered any apartment more than temporary. Each one remains spare, with bare walls and no personal touches—as though I might need to grab everything in a few seconds and run. People often ask me where my things are. The question always brings me back to South Korea; in my mind, I finally return. I put down my suitcase at the base of the incredibly long flight of steps I have never forgotten and look up at my childhood home, towering above.

Strangely, in 2002, when I visited Pyongyang for the first time, I felt more at home than I had since I left Seoul as a child. There was a sense of recognition. The past was all right there before me: generations of Koreans separated by division; decades of longing, loss, hurt, regret, guilt. I identified with it in a way that I could never shake off. I thought that if only I could understand the place, then I could find a way to help put the fragments back together. Like most Koreans, whether from the North or South, I dreamed, perhaps irrationally, of reunification. I returned repeatedly until 2011.

I am often asked, “Which Korea do you come from? North or South?” It is a nonsensical question. The chance of me or any Korean out and about in the world being from the North is almost nil. Virtually no one gets out of North Korea. It is a locked nation. Locked away from South Korea, from the rest of the world, from those of us whose families got trapped there. It is the sort of a lock for which there is no “open sesame,” and the world seems to have forgotten why it was sealed tight to begin with and who threw away the key.

My Korea is the South—­the industrial, overachieving, better half that spewed out Hyundai and Samsung and in the six decades since the bloody war has established itself as the fifteenth richest country in the world. But the South is never just the South. Its very existence conjures up the unmentionable North, which, with its habitual nuclear threats and the antics of its bizarre dictator, casts a shadow far beyond its own peninsula. In recent years, North Korea has steadily become a siren for the hankering mind, making outsiders wait and guess and then wait some more, indefinitely.

Both my parents hail from families separated by the partition. And it is really the unrequited heartbreak of those separations—­a heartbreak that lasts generations—­that brought me North. If this were the sort of story that invites readers to nod with empathy and walk away both satisfied and educated, I would say that I traveled full circle. But in truth my journey was barely half a circle, a sad one that could never be completed, because those who were at the center of the harrowing history are almost certainly long dead, or old and dying, and time is running out before their stories are lost in the dust of the past.

The Korean War lasted three years, with millions either dead or separated. It never really ended but instead paused in the 1953 armistice exactly where it began, with Koreas on both sides of the 38th parallel. Historians often refer to it as the “forgotten war,” but no Korean considers it forgotten. Theirs is not a culture of forgetting. The war is everywhere in today’s Koreas.

There is, for example, the story of my father’s young female cousins, nursing students aged seventeen and eighteen, who disappeared during the war. Decades later, in the 1970s, their mother, my father’s aunt, received a letter from North Korea via Japan, the only contact her daughters ever made with her, and from that moment on, she was summoned to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency every few months on suspicion of espionage until she finally left South Korea for good and died in San Antonio, Texas. The girls were never heard from again. And there was my uncle, my mother’s brother, who was just seventeen when he was abducted by North Korean soldiers at the start of the war, in June 1950. He was never seen again. He might or might not have been taken to Pyongyang, and it was this suspended state of not knowing that drove my mother’s mother nearly crazy, and my mother, and to some degree me, who inherited their sorrow.

Stories such as these abound in South Korea, and probably North Korea, if its people were allowed to tell them. Separation haunts the affected long after the actual incident. It is a perpetual act of violation. You know that the missing are there, just a few hours away, but you cannot see them or write to them or call them. It could be your mother trapped on the other side of the border. It could be your lover whom you will long for the rest of your life. It could be your child whom you cannot get to, although he calls out your name and cries himself to sleep every night. From Seoul, Pyongyang looms like a shadow, about 120 miles away, so close but impossible to touch. Decades of such longing sicken a nation. The loss is remembered, and remembered, like an illness, a heartbreak from which there is no healing, and you are left to wonder what happened to the life you were supposed to have together. For those of us raised by mothers and fathers who experienced such trauma firsthand, it is impossible not to continue this remembering.

Reader's Guide

1. Before reading Suki Kim’s memoir, what were your impressions about life in North Korea? By the end of the book, had your understanding changed? How does Suki’s account differ from others you may have read?

2. In Chapter 1, Suki writes that the “unrequited heartbreak” of her family’s separation during the Korean War prompted her to undertake repeated trips to North Korea. How does this background inform the narrative? Have you ever returned to your family’s country (or countries) of origin? How connected do you feel to the cultures of your ancestors?

3. In the prologue, Suki refers to PUST as a “prison disguised as a campus.” How does PUST’s isolation affect its culture? How do Suki and the other teachers deal with the monotony of life at PUST?

4. Suki carefully plans her lessons in order to expose her students to tidbits of information about life outside North Korea, especially technology and the Internet, without running afoul of the “counterparts.” If you were in Suki’s situation, what subjects or ideas would you want to teach?

5. On the trip to the apple farm, Suki is initially charmed by the idyllic rural landscape, but she is horrified to discover that the workers are stunted and emaciated. How do Suki’s encounters with North Koreans outside PUST affect the way she views her students? Were there any moments you found particularly striking?

6. In Chapter 20, Suki describes PUST’s “remarkably tight” buddy system. Though impressed by the boys’ devotion to each other, she is disturbed by how quickly these alliances can shift: “I noticed that with the shuffling of classes from summer to fall, most of the pairings changed as well, and students were never seen with their former buddies again.” What does this suggest about the nature of relationships in North Korea? Is true friendship possible under these circumstances?

7. Though Suki’s students are smart and hardworking, they struggle to write simple essays. Why do they find this task so difficult?

8. The curriculum at PUST was restricted not only by the government but by the religious values of the missionaries. How did these restrictions affect the quality of education? What did Suki achieve for the students by letting them watch Harry Potter?

9. Were you surprised that the North Korean government condones a missionary-run school on its soil? What purpose does PUST serve for the North Korean government? For the missionaries?

10. Although Suki’s students were in their early twenties, and many had attended co-ed schools, they seemed to have had limited experience with dating. What do their beliefs about love reveal about gender and family in North Korea? What role does Suki’s relationship with “the man in Brooklyn” play in the narrative?

11. In Chapter 1, Suki writes: “Historians often refer to [the Korean War] as the ‘forgotten war,’ but no Korean considers it forgotten.” How does the war affect Suki’s life today? The lives of her students? Did it surprise you that North Korea considers the United States its “number one enemy”?

12. Discuss the book’s title, taken from a song Suki frequently heard the students chanting: “Without you, there is no us, without you, there is no motherland.” How do daily rituals help tie the students to the Kim regime? What other aspects of everyday life serve this purpose?

13. Suki’s students learn to condemn the United States and South Korea in their Juche training, yet they are eager to hear Suki discuss her life in New York. How do they reconcile Suki’s background with her role as an authority figure? Are there any points when their relationship frays?

14. In Chapter 13, Suki is deeply moved when her students crowd around her to take their class picture. She writes, “The teacher who took the photos told me that all the students wanted to stand close to their teachers. Being physically near them was the most they could do to show their love.” Were there other times in the book when strong feelings remained unspoken? Have you experienced something similar in your own life?

15. Suki’s students believe that the Korean language is superior and universal. Yet their government allows, even encourages, English-language instruction for its top students. How was Suki able to use language as a bridge? What did it mean to her students when she dared to speak Korean in their final days together?

16. Though Suki is unnerved by the ease with which her students lie to her, she eventually grows to love them. Why do you think this was the case? After reading the book, do you find the boys to be sympathetic?

17. Some in the West speculated that the death of Kim Jong-il would destabilize the North Korean dictatorship and might open the door to reunification. After reading Without You, There Is No Us, are you hopeful about North Korea’s future? Why or why not? What responsibility, if any, does the international community have to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people?

Q & A

 A conversation with Suki Kim, author of Without You, There Is No Us
 
Q. In 2011 you traveled to North Korea to teach at a school staffed entirely by foreigners and kept notes secretly the entire time. If your notes had been discovered, you could have been deported, or even imprisoned. What made you willing to take that risk?
A. I’ve been obsessed with North Korea all my life. I was born and raised in South Korea and immigrated to the U.S. when I was 13 years old. Members of both sides of my family were taken to North Korea during the Korean War and never seen again. Beginning in 2002, I traveled there to report stories for various magazines. When I learned about PUST (Pyongyang University of Science & Technology), a university staffed only by foreigners, I realized this could be an unusual opportunity to get behind the curtain, and I applied for a job there.
My goal was to write a book that humanizes North Koreans. I wanted to go beyond the almost comic images of the Great Leader—of a crazy man with a funny hairdo and outfits, whose hobby is threatening nuclear war. The truth is so much more dire and frightening. I wanted to help outsiders see North Koreans as real people, as people we can relate to, so that we can begin to care about what happens to them. That was my goal and it seemed worth the risk.

Can you paint a picture for us of what life is like there?

I can only paint a picture of life at PUST since teachers and students were hardly ever allowed out. The campus had a guardhouse and a gate, and the only times we were allowed to leave were during group outings, either to go sightseeing or grocery shopping. We were always accompanied by minders, whose job was to watch us and make sure we did nothing unauthorized. Sometimes they even followed us to the bathroom. The places we saw on our outings were the standard attractions that the regime allowed foreigners to see, so they were inevitably immaculate and unrevealing. Whether it was a mountain or a museum or a fruit farm or a subway, everything ran according to a script, and the script was always focused on the splendid achievements of the Great Leader, either Kim Jong-il or Kim Il-sung.

PUST was established and funded by evangelical Christian missionaries, so to get a job there you had to pose as both a missionary and a teacher. Did that pose an ethical dilemma for you?

Deliberately lying, especially when you know it might hurt other people, doesn’t feel good, but I’m comfortable with the choices I made. I did feel guilty letting my Christian missionary believe I was one of them, but my priority was telling the story of my students’ lives. And in truth my missionary colleagues also lied, since their greater goal was not to educate the students but to convert North Koreans to Christianity in the future. The other dilemma was knowing that publishing my book might negatively affect either my former students or the university. Although none of the students did anything more than express curiosity, I changed all names and identifying details in order to protect them. I don’t know whether there will be any negative consequences for PUST, but my allegiance is not to them.
 
Tell us a few of the ground rules the PUST administrators gave you ahead of time.
We were told never to discuss the outside world in detail. Never compare; do not hint in any way that life is better outside. Never talk about politics. Never say the names of the Leaders: Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un. They are considered deities, so it is disrespectful to refer to them by name or point at their images. Do not wear jeans; Kim Jong-il doesn’t like them because they’re a symbol of America. Never talk about Christianity—no uttering “Jesus” or “church” or “ministers.” Since we knew our rooms were most likely bugged, the missionaries would simply mouth “M” when they wanted to say “minister.”  
 
What surprised you most about the young men you taught?
The duality of their personalities. They were the crème de la crème of North Korea, mostly from wealthy families in Pyongyang, and yet they were respectful, earnest, almost provincial. They could be sweet and boyish, yet they were fervent followers of the Great Leader, and when they were in that mode, they seemed one-dimensional and almost robotic. Three times a day, they marched to the cafeteria, in formation, chanting patriotic songs, like soldiers. They spoke in a way that was very scripted. There were phrases all my students repeated all the time, such as "powerful and prosperous nation,” an expression I had already heard from other North Koreans on previous visits. Their songs were extremely violent and aggressive towards America – for example, the lyrics of one song were about hunting the heads of Americans – but at the same time they were incredibly excited for the chance to watch Harry Potter.
 
You say that you came to love your students. What did you love about them?
We were more or less trapped together in a walled compound, and in those circumstances love or understanding or camaraderie often develops. It was not possible not to love them. My students were very innocent, almost childlike, because they had been so sheltered from the world. They still had that old-world ethic of respecting their teachers and obeying their parents, and they were shy. Shyness is something I haven’t seen much in young people of the same age in the United States. In this odd way, they seemed pure.
 
In the book you talk about how much the students lied. What did they lie about, and why?
They would lie about almost anything with an ease that I found unnerving. They would tell
me they had slept very late on days when I had seen them doing their morning exercises at 6 AM. They would tell me they called their parents all the time, when in fact they were not allowed to at all. They told me they had partied with their friends during the summer break, when I knew that most of their friends at other universities had been assigned to work in construction fields that summer. Their lies seemed to be about their system and the restrictions that they were not allowed to reveal. For example, they all had guard duty. From evening until the following morning, no matter how severe the weather, six students took turns standing outside the empty building on campus known as Kimilsungism Study Hall, guarding the spirit of their dead Great Leader. But they wouldn’t admit to doing it, and even when they did, they wouldn’t talk about it.
Of course, lying and secrecy were all they had ever known. From the time they were born, my students had been told that the Korean War was started by South Korea and the United States, that their Great Leader Kim Jong-il was admired around the world, and that their nation was the most powerful and prosperous on the planet. In a country where the government invents its own truth, how could they be expected to do otherwise?
 
What were your students’ knowledge of and attitudes toward the West?
They could be very naïve. One student asked me if people spoke Korean in the outside world and another asked whether it was true that naengmyun (their national dish) was hailed as the best in the world. Their lack of general knowledge astounded me. Many of them did not know what the Eiffel Tower or the Taj Mahal was. They thought their intranet, a censored network of pre-downloaded information, was the same as the Internet. And although their majors were in science and technology, they didn’t know when the first man walked on the moon. But all of them could recite exactly when and for how much Alaska was sold to America—a lesson on imperialism. And they all knew the book Gone with the Wind, although they called it Disappeared with the Wind. I always wondered whether they were allowed to read it because the book is about a war between North and South, and the North wins!
 
What were you most afraid of while you were at PUST?
I was afraid that my notes would be found and I’d be accused of spying. The punishment for that could easily have been hard labor in a gulag. What also scared me, every single day, was that I would get my students in trouble. We developed a real bond over time, and I was afraid I would instill doubts in their minds about the regime. Even teaching them to write an essay turned out to be dangerous, since the idea of coming up with your own thesis and making an argument based on evidence doesn’t exist in North Korea. It was completely foreign to them. They are told what to think, and it requires no proof. Critical thinking is very dangerous. 
Why did you title the book WITHOUT YOU, THERE IS NO US?
That’s a line from a song I heard my students chanting as they marched to the cafeteria. I heard it so often that I memorized the tune and the lyrics. The “you” in the song is clearly Kim Jong-il, and from what I saw, the lyric accurately describes their world. 
 
Life in Pyongyang was vastly different from life in the U.S. In your time there, what was the most difficult thing to get used to?
To never be left alone is extremely exhausting. The minders were always watching, the students were reporting on us; every meal, every conversation, every class was under scrutiny. Our rooms and offices were bugged. Each building on campus was connected by an enclosed walkway with windows on either side, so everything everywhere was visible. We had to get permission for everything as though we were children. Thinking was dangerous, but there was also no time for thinking. It sometimes felt as though “I” did not exist. This was a very foreign feeling—deeply claustrophobic and sometimes almost unbearable.
 
What was it like to be in North Korea on the day that Kim Jong-il’s death was announced? How did the students react?
It was my next-to-last day in North Korea, December 19, 2011, and I was packing for the flight home when I found out. That was the one day when the teachers were invited inside the building where our students had daily propaganda classes with their North Korean professors. It was their holy building, honoring the spirit of Kim Il-sung, the one they literally guarded day and night. Inside, there was a wake of sorts, with a few students greeting mourners in front of a large portrait of Kim Jong-il in the center of the lobby. I didn’t see any of them crying, but their faces were ghostly, as though the sky had fallen. For the rest of the day, the campus remained eerily empty. Dinner was canceled, and the few students I passed did not meet my eyes. I saw my students for the last time at breakfast the next morning. They looked as though they’d been crying all night, as though their souls had been sucked out of them, as though they’d just lost a parent. Their sorrow seemed so absolute and irrevocable that I thought about the song lyric that ended up being the title of my book: Without you, there is no us.
 
What do you think the young men who were your students are doing today?
Right now they are seniors in college. Under Kim Jong-un, there have been fresh rounds of executions and purges, mostly among the elite. In North Korea, when the parents are punished, the children are usually punished too. I worry about their fate.
 
Do you think North Korea will ever become a more open society?
I don’t really see how that’s possible as long as the current regime is in power. For their survival, North Korea must maintain the myth of the Great Leader, which is possible only if the people remain ignorant and powerless, so becoming a more open society would be suicide for the Kim Jong-un regime. Already we are seeing the ruthless side of this young leader. Most of the seven key figures who walked alongside Kim Jong-il’s hearse at his state funeral in December 2011 have since been stripped of their titles, sent to labor camps, or executed. The two superpowers – China and the United States – that could put pressure on North Korea have done virtually nothing to bring about a change. Meanwhile, the inhuman suffering of the people of North Korea continues.

Without You, There Is No Us

A haunting memoir of teaching English to the sons of North Korea's ruling class during the last six months of Kim Jong-il's reign   Every day, three times a day,… More

The Interpreter

A striking first novel about the dark side of the American Dream Suzy Park is a twenty-nine-year-old Korean American interpreter for the New York City court system who makes a… More