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without you there is no us

Book Review:‘Without You, There Is No Us’

By Fraser Cameron

10 December 2014

Suki Kim’s ‘Without You, There Is No Us’ is a fascinating account of teaching at the exclusive English language high school for Pyongyang’s elite. Part of a Christian faculty of English-language teachers, the Korean born Kim recounts a boring daily grind, rising at 5am, lessons for 12 hours six days a week, and in bed by 8pm as there is no power or heating. Her students have never travelled outside the DPRK, have never heard of the Internet and are imbued with the constant propaganda of the regime. Television and radio only cover the speeches and appearances of the Great Leader. Many subjects in class are off limits such as the American way of life, the Bible, or questions about the Great Leader. Students have no idea about life outside, whether fashion, pop culture or even the Pyramids. Kim describes the amazing ability of the students to brazenly lie about everyday life in the DPRK. Outside the classroom contact is limited to stilted conversation in the cafeteria.

The students have almost no contact with their parents and are obsessed about their grades, although parental influence is key to advancement in the hermit kingdom. Although the faculty are working for nothing, hoping to establish a Christian foothold if things were to change in the future, they are still asked for contributions for food, outings as well as medical care.

Kim, a writer, has different motives from teaching than the other faculty members.   Intent on writing a book, she has to hide her USB sticks from discovery by the DPRK staff and also her agnostic beliefs from the other Christian faculty members. After two semesters including an icy winter with no heating in her bedroom Kim decides she has had enough and decides to leave. But the day of her departure coincides with the death of the Great Leader. The students are in shock and too distraught to bid her farewell.