In 2011, author and investigative journalist Suki Kim spent months under cover, teaching English to the sons of North Korea's leadership. These were the smartest university students in the country, spared from a summer of construction work alongside their peers, who would build monuments in celebration of their original Supreme Leader's birth. What she saw was both distressing and moving, and is captured in evocative prose in her bestselling memoir Without You, There Is No Us.
The ode Without You, There Is No Us, is sung by North Koreans so often that author Suki Kim finds herself humming the tune even now.
“That song is just played everywhere,” Kim says. “That's the song they sang all the time ... and you'd think that hearing that would be a bit scary, but to me, it's just this weird sense of familiarity, or this odd twist of nostalgia just strikes back because I heard it so many times.”
On stage at Seattle University's Search for Meaning Book Festival, Kim plays that song, one of many dedicated to the “Great Leader” — Kim Jong-il. The lyrics and accompanying photographs that flash across the screen describe North Korea's utter dependence on Kim Jong-il, who died in December, 2011. His death ended the journey Kim took masquerading as an Evangelical missionary, disguised as an English teacher. It is a trip that changed both her life, and the lives of her students, forever.
But Kim will probably never know how her students moved forward.
Kim had traveled to North Korea a few times before, always as either a tourist or a journalist. For those highly supervised crowds, the regime would pull a veil over the atrocities occurring in their country. The paper-thin facade meant to convey that North Korea, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, was a prosperous socialist nation with happy and free citizens. Kim knew better, but understood that the only way she could get the real story was to live as a North Korean. It took years, but eventually she was hired by an Evangelical missionary group that was opening an English university in the capital city of Pyongyang.
Kim's family, like so many from South Korea, was torn apart by the Korean War. Her uncle disappeared to the North and, once the border slashed the country in half, he could no longer come home. Even as the dictatorship of Kim Il-sung, and then Kim Jong-il, continued decade after decade, her grandmother never stopped waiting for him.
“So what happened [in North Korea] for 70 years? Because 70 years suggests that generation died. It was kind of like being in a concentration camp, and no one was there to record it,” Kim says. “I thought about my uncle, for example. At 17, he ended up on the other side of this border in a place he'd not been before because his home is Seoul.”
After she arrived in Pyongyang as a teacher, Kim recalls feeling the unbearable magnitude of what North Korea represents for her family and for generations of Koreans.
“What happens to these millions of mothers and sons whose story basically never got told?” she asks. “I cannot imagine, as a human being, but also as a writer, anything worse than the generation of people dying under persecution or heartbreak. I do believe that generation died of heartbreak.”
And while South Korea flourished over those years and became one of the most advanced countries in the world, its counterpart remained stuck in the era of Kim Il-sung; its population becoming poorer and poorer as the leadership became more and more corrupt.
“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.” — Suki Kim, Without You, There Is No Us
The sons of that leadership became Kim's students, and they continually perplexed and scared her, even as she began to love them as her own children. She expresses these complex feelings both in the book and on stage with a narrative that may seem disjointed, as she jumps around between anecdotes, but eventually all the pieces tie together.
Kim describes often how her students lied with ease, telling tall tales that were easily proven wrong. They shared willingly that they slept late in the mornings, even though Kim saw them out early, clipping the grass on the university campus one blade at a time. They regurgitated praise and admiration for their Great Leader and for their country, which they considered to be the best in the world. Kim could not expose them to anything else.
“I was not sure if, having been told such lies as children, they could not differentiate between truth and lies, or whether it was a survival method they had mastered,” Kim writes in the book.
Even something as simple as writing an essay was a task beyond their capability.
“Essays are about critical thinking, right? It's about introduction, thesis sentence, supporting details, conclusion — they didn't know how to do any of that,” she says to the audience at Seattle University. “Their television only shows the Great Leader; their newspaper is only about the Great Leader. There's never actually any of this stuff: no introduction, no thesis. It's all been told to them, so critical thinking was an impossible thing to do.”
It is hard to imagine that such citizens, kept blind by their government and unable to choose anything for themselves, would be able to succeed in the wider world if the regime suddenly collapsed.
“When [Kim Jong-il] died, I left the next day, and the whole country stopped. I never got to say goodbye to my students,” Kim reflects somberly. “It's their world, it's their god — Great Leader's a god-like figure and father-like figure ... the world that you've ever known has just shattered. So they were in just gigantic, traumatic heartbreak.”
Kim ends Without You, There Is No Us with her departure and a poignant longing for her students to be happy, and for their world to somehow change.
For more information about Without You, There Is No Us and Suki Kim's other work, visit her website.
Feature Photo: Suki Kim answers questions from the audience during Seattle University's Search For Meaning Book Festival. Credit: Gordon Inouye for Seattle University.