Date finished: May 6th 2015
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union we’ve lived, by and large, in a rather open world, and since the innovation of the internet these borders have been torn down further. It’s inconceivable to think that there’s anywhere in the world that could truly be described as ‘off the map’ these days.
There’s one exception to this general rule: North Korea, the sealed-off communist state, run by a man described as ‘The fat boy with the bomb’. Rumours of starvation, execution and brutal repression sometimes escape its borders, but there’s little consensus as to the situation in the country. It’s only occasionally that we get a glimpse of insight into North Korean life.
Without You, There Is No Us is one insight into this strange dictatorship. When Suki Kim, an American investigative journalist, applied to work at Pyongyang University for Science and Technology as an English teacher for a year, she didn’t ever expect to be accepted. Much to her surprise, she soon found herself at the helm of several classes composed of the sons of North Korea’s elite in the only university in North Korea open that year, sealed off from the rest of the country.
Her insight into the workings of North Korea are limited but nonetheless valuable. Unable to leave the campus without a lot of paperwork and permission-seeking and possibly under almost constant surveillance, Kim’s experience concerns purely herself, campus life, and the students and what they can tell her. It is rarely that she ever sets foot outside the university, and when she does she strongly expects that the occasional examples of poverty she glimpses from the bus are more representative of the North Korean situation than the showy events to which the organised school trips are sent.
It’s the insight that drives one through this book, a fascinating look into a culture and people sometimes very much like ourselves, but often completely alien and strangely naive. The North Korean’s have some lessons on computers at university but are mostly ignorant of concepts such as the World Wide Web. It’s these strange quirks of the country that intrigue and, unfortunately, not the often-insipid writing of Kim, and her tiresome personal tangents about her non-existent sex life with an ephemeral man who we know only as her ‘lover’.
Nonetheless, beyond these irritating asides, the book is a fascinating insight into censorship and control in the North Korean education system, and the quaint innocence of the students is a much-needed humanisation of the country’s people.
North Korea’s regime may prove pivotal in the twenty-first century. It’s only just opening up, and whilst this is by no means the best-written or most-enlightening work on the country, it’s regardless a valuable addition to the body of work emerging from this bizarre country.