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Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite

Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite - Suki Kim I was lucky enough to get this from the giveaways program, but it was at the top of my list to read anyway.

Suki Kim pretended to be a missionary to get into a Christian school opening up in North Korea as a teacher. She kept a journal while she was there during one summer session and one fall semester, at great risk, and has published this memoir of her experience. Just writing this takes pure chutzpah, and a little bit of, well, detachment. There could be grave consequences for people she cares about. The book's existence is dangerous.

As a memoir, it's fantastic. While I'm not sure I'm a big fan of Kim personally, I really enjoyed her writing style, and she managed to communicate the fun house aspects of living in North Korea: disorienting, suffocating, straight-jacketing, but not so much fun. The stand-out characteristics that really made me ponder were the role of truth/lies in her life and her students' lives and the effects of being watched all the time on her and her fellow teachers.

The complicated nature of truth lines up with the only other book I've read about North Korea, [b:The Orphan Master's Son|11529868|The Orphan Master's Son|Adam Johnson||16467838]. Her students lied so easily that it was difficult for her to tell truth from fiction. They had been lying and lied to all their lives. How do you have conversations with students that have so many untruths? The most poignant for me, as a scientist and teacher, was her roadblocks when she tried to teach them how to write essays. The whole idea of an argument being evidence-based was so far outside their experience that she gave it up almost immediately after introducing it.

In the end, of course, she became very attached to her students, as is inevitable, even as she described what she didn't like and couldn't understand about them. If she hadn't, she would seem less than human. Yes, she didn't see everything, and yes, her students were the rich ones, living off the bony, over-worked backs of average North Koreans who were violently oppressed and starving. She's aware of that. Of course her experience is biased toward what she was able to see, experience, and put together. So it isn't a complete picture. But it's an important one, and one of the few real pictures of life inside North Korea that we have.