Without you there is no us: Undercover among the sons of North Korea’s elite, by Suki Kim (2014).
Score: A unique take on life on North Korea.
Suki Kim is a Seoul-born naturalized American citizen who in 2011 managed to infiltrate a North-Korean university by posing as an Evangelical missionary and English teacher. What makes her book different from other nonfiction pieces about North Korea is that she’s one of the few foreign writers who has managed to infiltrate North Korea and gotten a glimpse of what the Juche doesn’t want anyone to know. She’s not the only one anymore, though: John Sweeney published North Korea Undercover: Inside the World’s Most Secret State in 2015. Still, Kim’s book is an insightful read worth your time.
Kim taught English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, attended by the privileged sons of the elite. Despite that fact, Kim describes poor nutrition, lack of heating, constant blackouts and general dearth suffered by the elite of a country that boasts about being the best in the world in everything. Being the most brutal dictatorship in the world, the students weren’t allowed to visit or call their family or friends, devoted their spare time to forced labor and couldn’t say anything negative about their country, ask about the outer world or even suggest that anything could be better outside North Korea.
Kim combines her narration and description of the events at PUST with historical background of the Korean conflict through memories of her own family: how people were snatched into North Korea in the beginning of the war and never heard from again, such as Kim’s uncle on her mother’s side. How she as a South Korean longed for peace and reunification and how deep the wounds of separation run even in a Korean that emigrated to the US while still a teenager.
Kim mostly focuses on her young, innocent students. She describes how they systematically lie as a way of life, how used they are to watching their words and changing the subject each time it gets prickly. How they brag about impossible things such as having cloned a rabbit in school and how clueless they were about what was going on in the outside world, never having heard of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, LeBron James, Facebook or Twitter, and being vaguely aware of Harry Potter. I am really surprised at how much crap Kim managed to get past the radar, including newspaper articles on all of these, or maybe the counterparts were gradually exposing these future leaders to the outside world as part of their grooming. I have to admire Kim for her infinite sympathy and affection for her students. It could be easy to forget that these young men are also victims despite being so close to the top of the pyramid.
While most of the book focuses on PUST students, during the teachers’ rare and supervised outings to absurd museums and apple farms, Kim described being able to make out emaciated people working all day everyday on farms and factories, bossed around by government officials. Was that carelessness on the minders’ part, or is the truth of the country much more monstrous than that?
You might have noticed that there are two titles going around: My time with the sons of North Korea’s elite: a memoir and Undercover among the sons of North Korea’s elite. The reason is that, as explained in “The reluctant memoirist”, Kim’s editor insisted that her work be marketed as a memoir, due to the literary nature of her journalism and for sales reasons. “By casting my book as personal rather than professional—by marketing me as a woman on a journey of self-discovery, rather than a reporter on a groundbreaking assignment—I was effectively being stripped of my expertise on the subject I knew best. It was a subtle shift, but one familiar to professional women from all walks of life. I was being moved from a position of authority—What do you know?—to the realm of emotion: How did you feel?”, Kim writes. When the book came out there was controversy about her methods, accusing her of betraying her employers for money, and the actual substance of her findings was disregarded. Despite being the first undercover journalist in North Korea and protecting the identities of everyone involved. Despite the fact that going undercover “is generally viewed as a badge of honor, not a mark of shame.”
Though the accusations of deception and fraud endured, Kim won one battle: her book was no longer marketed as a memoir but as an undercover report. I really liked the style: she added personal insights but kept them separate from her narration and description of the events she witnessed. She is very careful to not make accusations and makes an effort to be as objective as possible. Literary journalism has been doing what she did for decades and there was never a problem. Did the backlash happen because of ignorance, because she was a woman, because she was Asian or all of the above? Hard to know.
To wrap it up, informative, unique an well-written. Worth your time.