WRITING ABOUT Dennis Rodman’s forays into diplomacy earlier this year, director of the Choson Exchange, Andray Abrahamian, reminded readers that, “in media discourse, North Korea is the classic enemy. The regime’s injustices, quirks and dysfunctions are reassuring to Americans that their own country is just the opposite: Normal, well-functioning, a land of peace and liberty.” Sadly, much like the Korean peninsula’s division, this equation has persisted long past the Cold War that gave rise to it. In 2002, George W. Bush relegated the country to his Bond-esque axis of evil, something President Obama has done precious little to rectify. Simultaneously, pop culture abounds with worn-out tropes about North Korea. To the internet savvy, North Korea is little more than joke twitter accounts and tumblrs that show Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il or his son Kim Jong-un “looking at things.” Meanwhile, Trey Parker, Matt Stone, Tina Fey, and Seth Rogen have all tried their hands at lampooning this supposedly basket case country.

Yet there are those providing more than tired jokes about the idiosyncrasies of this last frontier of the Cold War, and one purveyor of this broader view is journalist and novelist Suki Kim. Her compelling reports for Harper’s, The New York Review of Books, and others have expanded and deepened our understanding both of life in the North, and the West’s profound misapprehensions about it. Kim’s memoir, Without You, There Is No Us, is her latest entry in a growing catalogue of DPRK-centered writing. Although not of the epic sweep of Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea or documentary filmmaker Daniel Gordon’s 2004 film A State of Mind, Kim’s book is a fascinating, if deeply fraught document about the education of the North Korean elite, an aspect of the country that until very recently has been almost completely occluded.

Titled after the refrain her students sang about Kim Jong-il, Without You, There Is No Us chronicles Kim’s two semesters posing as an English teacher at the newly opened, privately funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). If fortune is the right word, then Suki Kim had the great fortune to be in the DPRK three years ago, amidst the uncertainty of its communist-royal succession, and she bookends her memoir with the death of Kim Jong-il, a truly momentous event in North Korea. Kim was in a fragile state when she entered the country, having escaped “a horrible breakup” in New York and come to Seoul to tend to her sick sister. Then she got the okay to return to the DPRK. Pyongyang might not have been the best place to seek a respite from sadness, and her state of mind, mixed with the potent mood of unease pervading the country, results in a memoir shot through with paranoia and ennui.

In her last major piece on North Korea for Harper’s, published in 2010, Kim had traveled to Yanji, China, where many defectors turn up after crossing the Tumen River. The road to Seoul is, at best, a perilous one: “The Mongolian route is quickest, but it involves trekking across the Gobi Desert, which is exactly as terrible as it sounds.” Many return to or simply remain in Yanji, where they live in constant fear of Chinese authorities, scraping by on what little work they can find and the kindness of Korean churches. Kim doesn’t shy away from observing that defection is big business. Those who stand to profit include journalists, NGOs, shady brokers who promise passage to the South, and most of all churches, which, she reports, exploit defection to solicit funds from evangelical Koreans the world over. Evangelicals see the godless masses of China and North Korea as brass rings in the quest for souls to save. Clandestine churches, numbers of which are run by Koreans, and which suffer periodic crackdowns by the Chinese authorities, have sprung up in Yanji (and all over China).

But for those with more ambition, aiding a few defectors is not enough. One such person is the founder of PUST, Dr. James Kim.[1]

James Kim’s initial success was in Yanji, where his Yanbian University of Science and Technology (YUST) has been operating since the ’90s. Suki Kim first learned of his ambition to replicate YUST outside Pyongyang in 2008, while covering the New York Philharmonic’s performance in the capitol city. She was incredulous that a country notorious for religious intolerance and extreme nationalism would allow PUST to set up shop, but applied for a job nonetheless. James Kim claims the school is entirely funded by donations, and that most of the money is from the faithful in South Korea and the United States. Teachers are unpaid, and there are strict prohibitions against proselytizing (one teacher was fired for leaving “Christian texts” in a school bathroom); but when Dr. Kim refers to the school as an “embassy from the kingdom of heaven,” he leaves little doubt as to his ultimate mission.

The process of securing a North Korean visa is labyrinthine at best, and Kim’s application was delayed, due in part to the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship, which chilled North-South relations and delayed the opening of the school. But the Cheonan incident was not the only major event to complicate the atmosphere in North Korea. The Arab Spring was in full swing and its potential effects were not unnoticed by authoritarian governments in East Asia. Furthermore, though unbeknownst to many of the faculty, Kim Jong-un and his uncle Jang Sung-taek[2] had begun the final stages of maneuvering the younger Kim’s succession to power. Finally in April 2011, while caring for her sister in Seoul, Suki Kim was informed by the school that she should have her bags packed and ready; her visa approval was imminent.

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Despite its being marketed as a memoir, Suki Kim has stated that her students are the central characters in her book. “It was clear,” she writes, “that these were not the North Koreans I was used to seeing depicted in the media.” She continues:

I had spent months interviewing defectors in Chinese border towns as well as in Seoul, and nothing in their testimony could have prepared me for these young men. Most of the defectors were impoverished farmers from the northern edge of the country, bordering China, very far from Pyongyang. My students, however, came from the upper echelon of the DPRK. Many of them had transferred from either Kim Il-sung University or Kim Chaek University of Technology — the equivalent of Harvard or MIT.

Her students are at the top of the songbun, the North Korean caste system.[3] Most of their families live in Pyongyang and enjoy the vast privileges that come with residence in the DPRK’s showcase city. Food, electricity, heat, and amenities, while not plentiful anywhere in the country, are at least available, if sporadic. Privileged as they are, thoughts of defection may never occur to these boys, who spend their afternoons in Juche[4] classes, marching in unison, playing team sports, and guarding the campus Kimilsungism[5] study hall in shifts.

Kim formed an unusual relationship with the boys, at once affectionate and full of distrust. She writes that “the sight of their faces warmed me instantly” — and despite her being everything they’ve been taught to hate (South Korean, American, English-speaking), they reciprocated. In one class, she wonders aloud if it is possible to be friends with an enemy. “‘No!’ they shouted out.” But when asked about her, one student replied, “You are different because you are our teacher.”

Kim’s access to the boys constitutes the unique nature of her book, and although she appears cautious about over-analyzing, she illuminates just how sheltered they are. In 2011, the rest of the DPRK’s university population was furloughed under the pretense of aiding building projects in preparation for Kim Il-sung’s one hundredth birthday in April 2012.[6] Yet the sons of the elites were kept at a guarded, private school under foreign auspices, unable to see their families. Either the Party or the boys’ parents, with their influence, were shielding them from potential fallout during Kim Jong-un’s succession or as a precaution against the unrest spreading across the authoritarian world.

Meanwhile, the boys are extremely inquisitive, if alarmingly uninformed about the world beyond the DPRK:

They were always comparing themselves to the outside world, which none of them had ever seen, declaring themselves the best. This insistence on ‘best’ seemed strangely childlike, and the words best and greatest were used so frequently that they gradually lost their meaning.

With travel restrictions, censorship, lack of internet access, and incessant propaganda, they can hardly be faulted for not knowing that it is the DPRK, not the rest of the world, which lags behind in economic, cultural, and technological development. Americans, of course, use similarly patriotic language, as any political speech will show, and what teenage boy isn’t prone to hyperbole, especially when “teachers in this tiny, locked compound were like superstars”? But, according to Kim, the lack of knowledge runs far deeper:

These were North Korea’s brightest students, yet photos of the United Nations, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Pyramids of Giza elicited only blank responses… Hardly anyone knew what country had first landed men on the moon, despite the fact that they were science and technology majors. Asked what year computers were invented, most had no idea; it was only after much consultation that one team ventured a guess: 1870.

But in spite of their ignorance and posturing, Kim finds herself growing attached and wanting to parent them. She writes of a July evening, watching them play basketball: “All I saw was their heartbreaking youth and energy, and I wished then that they could have the whole world, all of it, that which had been denied to them for twenty years of their lives.”

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Beneath this familial relationship is an undercurrent that Kim perceives as jarringly duplicitous. By her third week at PUST, she “was growing increasingly disturbed by the ease with which they lied.” For Kim, this issue makes for a confusing, stressful relationship. “These moments of doubt were like poison,” she writes. “I was not sure who they were, and I felt like a mother terrified of her own children, an extremely ugly feeling. But then one of them would say something adorable, and I would shake it off.” There are the fibs of teenage boys like a student claiming to have cloned a rabbit in fifth grade, but there are tougher ones for Kim:

I would sometimes find one replaced by another. One time, when I inquired about the whereabouts of the missing student, his two classmates answered immediately, in unison.

“Oh, he has a stomachache,” one said, just as the other said, “Oh, he went to get a haircut.”

“Which one is it, is he getting a haircut or is he sick?” I asked.

“Oh, he went to get a haircut but got a stomachache,” both answered, with no hesitation.

The students also describe doing things that contradict Kim’s prior experiences in the DPRK, such as buying fresh flowers at a Pyongyang market or going to a store that doesn’t exist. When she presses them further, however, they feign incomprehension or simply ignore her questions.

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In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick relates how difficult defectors can be. They are cagey, uncommunicative, and sometimes hardened — all qualities needed to escape the DPRK successfully. Suki Kim’s students provide an interesting parallel. Even for elites, generally shielded from the worse deprivations of North Korean life, it would be impossible to ignore completely the country’s grave institutional disparities. But to acknowledge such inequalities, which they are told cannot exist under Kimilsungism, is impossible. Misdirection or feigning incomprehension is a psychic survival mechanism; the best option available for North Koreans — especially those within the core class — is to square the contradictions they face daily.

These boys are being prepared for life in a world of innuendo and doublespeak, where words are either shorn completely of meaning (propaganda) or not what they appear on the surface (politics). They are skilled at reading emotions and facial expressions (“they seemed almost trained at it”), and at a single slip of the tongue unease instantly descends. When a boy blurts out he loves singing rock ’n’ roll, she writes, “he turned red, quickly checking to see who might be listening. I had never seen anyone scan the room so fast.” Considering the life before them, their antics make some sense. But Suki Kim recoils, and her quickness to judge their behavior assures that the divide between her and her students will not be bridged.

Meanwhile, they’re not the only ones dancing around the truth. Despite the school’s warnings to teachers about speaking to the press, from the moment Kim learned of PUST, she planned to write about it. While there, she transcribed conversations as quickly as possible to avoid the pitfalls of memoir, saving her notes to two USB sticks, one of which remained on her person at all times. She never discloses her agenda to the administration, her fellow faculty, or her students, which duplicity only serves to compound her anxiety.

Of course, had she been forthright about her intentions, she would never have gotten the visa in the first place; so some level of caution was necessary for this book to be written. Still, her dishonesty has left her open to criticism, and rightfully so. The ethics of her choice cast doubt on her reliability (another de facto peril of memoir), and her fear of discovery appears to have colored her impressions and descriptions with paranoia and distrust. Former faculty have questioned her portrayal of the PUST as little more than a prison. Perhaps their claims of personal freedom while employed at the school are as naive as Kim’s criticisms seem cynical. However, her actions have certainly affected the atmosphere of good will many organizations operating within the North work to build, goals that Suki Kim would seem to consider important.

Kim has responded to these criticisms, saying that she isn’t happy to have lied but is comfortable with her choices. Had she left it at that, her explanation, while boilerplate, would have been satisfactory. Instead, she’s made her own accusations: “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.” This justification rings hollow. Agendas, conscious or unconscious, are not the same thing as purposefully going undercover.

On top of which Kim hid the fact that she is not a Christian, fearing it would prevent her from working at PUST. That no one interrogated her about her faith before she was hired should have tipped her off that religion is not the school’s first and only priority. Several former faculty members have discussed being atheists or liberal Christians, insisting they were never made to feel unwelcome for their beliefs. In truth, the PUST faculty hails from many cultures, evidence that, at the very least, lip service is paid to the need for diversity of thought. Maintaining such a position seems like a no-brainer for the school in face of a government that does not tolerate plurality. Therefore Kim’s assumptions about religious intolerance at PUST merely add to her overly simplistic portrayal.

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In the ’60s and early ’70s, scholars saw religion in the US as a disappearing force. It would soon be relegated permanently to the private sphere, its study left to anthropologists and historians. But then religion returned to the public sphere. Its resurgence has caused no small amount of concern among liberal or technocratic America. A common response has been to marginalize or ridicule fundamentalist beliefs, which can admittedly sound strange or different. The film Jesus Camp springs to mind as an exemplar of this problem. It presented some of the most radical fundamentalist beliefs (held by children no less), and foisted those beliefs onto the 80 million or so fundamentalists in the US. The nonreligious (of which I include myself) watched the film and assured themselves that the motivations of these people were indeed crazy. Out goes the window a chance for dialogue or what philosopher Donald Davidson referred to as “charity” regarding the beliefs of others.

Suki Kim is no stranger to this mode, and a streak of antagonism regarding Christianity appears in much of her writing. Suzy Park, the protagonist in her novel The Interpreter, questions her sister’s faith and her parents’ use of church as little more than a networking tool. In Kim’s Harper’s report on defectors, she attributes less than saintly motivations to churches and their parishioners. In Without You, There Is No Us, she uses anecdotes about the beliefs of only a few of her missionary colleagues as if they represent the school’s official beliefs or intentions. This strategy, however, comes off as little more than an excuse for her unwillingness to engage frankly with her colleagues, something she had already precluded by hiding her identity.

It’s during her second semester, in the fall of 2011, that Ruth, a fellow teacher, expresses concern over the spiritual consequences of Kim’s taking communion and suggests that perhaps their goals for their students are different.[7] She tells Kim that the Lord’s plans, inscrutable though they are, include the suffering of the North Koreans for some greater purpose: “‘This life here is temporary. They will be received by Him in heaven.’” This offends Kim, and she snaps at her colleague: “‘So you are saying that it’s okay for North Koreans to rot in gulags because in your estimation it isn’t real? […] Why don’t you go check out a gulag and then dare tell me that it’s temporary?’”

But a few months earlier, in a bizarre scene in a Pyongyang church on Election Day, itself a risible institution in North Korean politics, as the choir sings a tune that turns out to be one of Kim’s paternal grandmother’s favorite hymns, she’d thought back to her own family’s relationship with religion. Her grandmother’s “half-hearted Christianity” had been a balm for panic attacks brought on by a difficult, philandering husband. Whether or not she was “true believer,” Kim concluded, “church had offered her some comfort in her tortured life, and I was grateful for that.” Why then can she not accept that religious faith, while outlandish to her, may work similarly for some citizens of the DPRK?

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As her second and final semester wears on, Kim’s caution begins to flag. She leaves electronics like her Kindle and laptop on her classroom desk more often, hoping to arouse curiosity. She also becomes more honest with her students: “By November I was becoming increasingly reckless, and truthful.” She broaches taboo topics, like her time studying at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, and tells her students that in any country but theirs she could connect to the internet just about anywhere she pleased: “I knew I should not be talking about this, but I could not keep silent.”

And sometimes it backfires. For an essay writing exercise, she assigns an article highlighting Mark Zuckerberg’s entrepreneurship and resulting wealth. Her students react unexpectedly to this. In a collective action, they submitted theses critical of American nuclear policy, hunger in the US and England, and the first-world obsession with money:

What I had intended as inspirational, they must have viewed as boasting and felt slighted. The nationalism that had been instilled in them for so many generations had produced a citizenry whose ego was so fragile that they refused to acknowledge the rest of the world.

Perhaps, but her assumption of their biases only calls attention to her own. Despite US prosperity, one in six Americans struggles to get enough to eat. The US incarceration rate is the highest in the world, not to mention its intolerable use of violence, sexual assault, and abuse of power as forms of punishment. And, as John Delury has pointed out in these pages, “the amount of firepower and force arrayed along either side of the DMZ is a heartbreaking feat of staggering defense spending,” much of it thanks to a US military budget greater than those of the next eight countries combined. That one person is worth billions of dollars may not be cause for celebration, especially when he helms a company in the business of “monitoring” its users.

Suki Kim left PUST only days after North Koreans were informed of Kim Jong-il’s death. Many of her students had been infants when Kim Il-sung died, and were visibly distressed. In the West, speculation about Kim Jong-il’s successor had been going on for months, and Kim Jong-un’s ascension to the DPRK throne was cause for Western media to trot out tired images of goose-stepping troops on review and the faithful crying at the loss of their Dear Leader.

North Korea’s depiction in Western media, full of contradictions and absurdities, tells us perhaps more about ourselves than the North Koreans. We rarely bother trying to understand why the North acts the way it does, preferring to fall back on clichés about brainwashed masses controlled by a safari suit-clad dictator obsessed with nuclear weapons. Kim’s journalism has helped illuminate some of the method in North Korea’s perceived madness, and her book provides a welcome glimpse into the lives of some of the DPRK’s least understood citizens. As preoccupied as she is with her students’ behavior and values her observations help us to consider how relationships, politics, culture, and language work differently around the world, something especially important when considering a place as inaccessible as North Korea.

Unfortunately, however, the circumstances surrounding the writing of the book may wind up interfering with the experience of the students she claims to care about. On the final page, Kim strikes a tone of contrition: “I am sorry to cause the president and faculty of PUST distress,” and she says that she is “deeply concerned about the future of Korea.” But just before, she has acknowledged that she used the fact that “PUST was still in its first year of operation, and still disorganized,” to provide her “a fuller experience” in the DPRK. It seems to this reader, however, that Kim exploited the situation for the sake of a better story, presenting an extremely narrow picture of a school whose mission of engagement should have aligned with her own. In the end, the publication of Without You has likely subverted her bright wishes for North Korea’s future since it will inevitably stoke the unease between the secular and more fundamentalist institutions working there. In fact, her actions may result in PUST’s hiring only those with strong missionary credentials, thus altogether eliminating diversity at the school. What Kim seems not to appreciate is that coalitions sometimes necessitate strange partnerships. An end to starvation and repression, and perhaps someday unification, are broad and laudable goals regardless of how they are motivated.

Without You, There Is No Us contains no great answers — from the beginning and all the way through Kim remains pessimistic, especially about the fate of her students’ and their desire for a unified country. At one point, she writes:

as the sun the color of mournful pomegranate fell behind the Forever Tower, behind the smoke stack, behind this city, this school, behind the children of the elite who were now my children for a brief time, these lovely, lying children, I saw very clearly that there was no redemption here.

Her use of the word “redemption” is telling. Kim came to the DPRK to escape her sorrows. But she should have known that a place with such systemic problems could not possibly offer her solace. Nor are her students the focus of her memoir. Without You, There Is No Us remains a book about one person, as fragile and susceptible as any other, living in a place few have ever seen, among a group of young men preparing to assume control of a country whose direction is anything but clear. Here’s hoping they prove her worst fears wrong.

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[1] James Kim is the only name besides Suki’s not to be changed in Without You, There Is No Us.

[2] Jang would be publicly denounced and executed as the younger Kim consolidated his power in 2013.

[3] Based on a number of characteristics, especially those concerning family background and revolutionary credentials, though quite complicated, the songbun is broken largely into three classes, the “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile.”

[4] Juche translates, roughly, as self-reliance, and is at the core of North Korean ideology.

[5] Another word for Juche ideology.

[6] Which would also represent the beginning of the second century according to the Juche calendar.

[7] n.b. that this teacher seemed perfectly aware that Suki Kim is not a Christian, undercutting somewhat Kim’s assumption that nonbelievers might be rooted out.

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John W. W. Zeiser is a critic, poet, and apprentice coffee roaster in Los Angeles.