STARRED REVIEW
October 2014

Inside a North Korean classroom

By Suki Kim
Review by
Suki Kim, author of the highly regarded novel The Interpreter, went to North Korea to teach English under doubly false pretenses. Her fellow instructors at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) were evangelical Christians pretending to be nonreligious teachers. (“North Korea was the evangelical Christian Holy Grail, the hardest place to crack in the whole world,” she writes.) To be accepted into the program, Kim pretended to be an evangelical pretending to be a nonreligious teacher. She feared exposure on all sides.
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Suki Kim, author of the highly regarded novel The Interpreter, went to North Korea to teach English under doubly false pretenses. Her fellow instructors at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) were evangelical Christians pretending to be nonreligious teachers. (“North Korea was the evangelical Christian Holy Grail, the hardest place to crack in the whole world,” she writes.) To be accepted into the program, Kim pretended to be an evangelical pretending to be a nonreligious teacher. She feared exposure on all sides.

Maybe that fear explains the sharpness of her observations in Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Her nuanced account is loosely chronological, covering the two semesters she taught at PUST between July and December 2011, based on secret journals she kept with great care, and informed by the heartrending stories of her family members split asunder by the Korean War. Readers will find her experiences and reactions surprising in many ways.

Kim’s 19- and 20-year-old students, all male, came from the elite families of North Korea, one of the most opaque societies on earth. Sharing three meals a day, classes and endless, if sometimes awkward, conversations with her students, Kim developed a strong affection for them, and they for her. At the same time, she was “struck by their astounding lack of general knowledge about the world.” Her subtle attempts to expand their awareness often backfired, her students withdrawing into a rote formulation of their nation’s superiority. Kim’s book illuminates “the inherent contradiction of a country backed into a corner, not wanting to open up, but needing to move toward engagement to survive.”

 

This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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