Travel Book Review: Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

review-without-you-there-no-us-kimNorth Korea is all over the news lately. Over the holidays, the controversy over the film The Interview put the country back in the spotlight (is it ever far?) and highlighted for the world just how far the North Korean government will go to control information. A week after I watched the film, a close friend recommended Suki Kim’s memoir, Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. The author is Korean-American journalist who taught in North Korea under guise of a missionary worker.

From the moment I picked it up, I was hooked. Kim details a haunting and claustrophobic land that is rarely glimpsed by the outside world. I have known traveling friends who visited North Korea, who witnessed the orchestrated and precise dissemination of information during their stay. The government has absolute control over all visitors, meaning I’ve remained cautiously curious about everyday life for North Koreans.

Kim had rare access to the country during her six months as a missionary teacher at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, which is a bit of a misnomer. Missionary efforts funded the school, but there’s little science and almost no technology—those things are both dangerous ideas in a totalitarian state. Instead, the students learn a basic curriculum, as well as English, and Kim and the students lived on the grounds of the boarding school.

Kim’s memoir details the parts we know about: every conversation is monitored, disseminating unapproved information will get you thrown in jail, and privacy doesn’t exist. It’s the relationship with her students, however, that makes this book fascinating. For six months in 2011, Kim taught English to 19- and 20-year-olds from North Korea’s most elite families. From her position at the school, Kim is given a distant vantage at how the ruling family constructed their complete control: images and quotes from three top leaders adorn nearly every building, bench, and rocks. Songs and television programs all exalt the ruling family; she borrows the title of her book from one of nation’s favorite songs, which extolls the virtues of the diseased former ruler, Kim Jong-il.

Though Kim has access to the internet from her dormitory, the boys at the school have little idea it exists and instead believe that an internal network, an intranet, is the ultimate level of technology in the world right now.  The counterparts and minders restrict her every interaction with the students, but familiarity eventually allows her glimpses into their lives and inner thoughts. Rare moments of childish candor or curiosity break through the students’ brainwashing and uniformity. It was fascinating to watch the progression of knowledge and insight she gained over the six months. The country was a claustrophobic, paranoid experience for her, and that also came through clearly in her writing.

One drawback: the book is uneven. Though I rapidly read most of it, Kim lost me at points in her story through arbitrary details and sameness.

For travelers curious about different people and cultures, this book makes for a fascinating read. There is no culture like that on earth, the decades since separation with South Korea have allowed North Korea to take a sharply different turn. The world has waited and watched for the collapse of the North Korean regime for decades, and Kim’s book gives glimmers of both hope and despair.

If you’re keen to read it, you can find the book on Amazon.

Book Giveaway

I offered a free copy of Without You, There is No Us to newsletter subscribers and readers.

Bonus entry question:

Tell me in the comment: what is one goal you want to accomplish in the next month?

And hey, consider sharing the love. I’ll send you good juju if you share this post/site with one person you think might also love to read it! :)

Read my past travel book reviews, or browse my selection of the best books about countries around the world. And read my reviews policy and disclaimer. Although I occasionally allow a company or author to host a giveaway, I sponsored this month myself.

33 Responses to Travel Book Review: Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

  1. Jan MacGeek April 8, 2015 at 9:12 pm #

    I have traveled through DPRK and it was literally a travel back in time. I was spellbound by the Mass Games and would go back in a heartbeat!!!!

    • Shannon O'Donnell April 9, 2015 at 12:49 am #

      Interesting that you were able to travel there Jan! You are definitely among the few who have explored the country. Hopefully you are able to get back soon. :)

  2. Veena April 8, 2015 at 3:24 am #

    This month’s goal: finish setting up and finally settle into my new house. and book a long-weekend getaway for the first weekend in May :)

    • Shannon O'Donnell April 8, 2015 at 3:56 am #

      Nice! Where are you heading in May?

      • Veena April 8, 2015 at 4:28 am #

        It depends on how many days off I get, but I’m thinking either Nandi Hills or Chikmagalur — I need the hills and some cool weather!

        • Shannon O'Donnell April 8, 2015 at 12:41 pm #

          Oh I forget about the heat; the hills will be a nice respite, I’ll have to check your blog for pics after! :)

  3. Natalie April 7, 2015 at 6:47 pm #

    Goal this month: continue hot yoga practice 5 times per week in mental and physical preparation for trekking everest base camp in November….

    • Shannon O'Donnell April 8, 2015 at 2:16 am #

      Wow Natalie, what a goal! Nepal is one of my favorite countries, and Everest Basecamp is ambitious, I wish you lots of luck this month. :)

  4. Bob R April 6, 2015 at 11:39 pm #

    Goal for this month? To read this book. :) And to finish writing an ebook on Quito. Not necessarily in that order. :)

    • Shannon O'Donnell April 7, 2015 at 1:44 am #

      Nice! Quito is on my short list of places to visit, I can scarcely believe I still haven’t made it to South America yet. Good luck with finishing it! :)

  5. Shannon O'Donnell April 5, 2015 at 12:07 pm #

    That sounds perfect Jen! I have met a couple of travel nurses on the road and the flexibility they get with they jobs was why I met them in Central America, Asia, and elsewhere. It’s a needed resource and what a great niche you have. Let me know when you get it up and I’ll link to it and the nursing site from my resources page. :)

    • Jen April 6, 2015 at 9:48 am #

      Sounds perfect. I definitely will! Thanks so much :)

  6. Audrey Friesen April 2, 2015 at 7:04 pm #

    This sounds like a fascinating and informative book. As for goals? I won’t accomplish it this month but in summer i am planning to attend a family reunion in another province. I haven’t seen most of my relatives in years so it will be fun to catch up with all!

    • Shannon O'Donnell April 3, 2015 at 2:55 pm #

      Oh I love big family reunions, it’s been about 15 years since we gathered all the family together for one. I hope your summer reunion is full of joy! :)

  7. Anja D'Anjou April 2, 2015 at 6:29 pm #

    This next month I wish to be healthy and strong. I want to have ONE MONTH of wellness. Having an incurable, not treatable immune deficiency disorder is a real bitch!

    • Shannon O'Donnell April 3, 2015 at 2:56 pm #

      I will send you all the good juju and positive thoughts I can; I have had close friends live with untreatable pain and illness as well, and I know it takes a huge mental toll along with effecting your life hugely. I hope this month brings you all kinds of health. :)

      • Anja D'Anjou April 3, 2015 at 11:16 pm #

        Thank you so much for your warm wishes, kind thoughts and generosity. I appreciate the good juju and positive thoughts!

        Yes, health problems are exhausting. I don’t need doctors telling me, “You are going to die this time! I mean it! You keep dodging the bullet. Write your will, write your DNR, write your advanced directive, get your documents in order, blah, blah, blah.” It wears on your. I call doctors “Dream Crushers” because that seems to be their job, crushing dreams of wellness and recovery. This most recent death prediction was for July 2016. I managed to recover from kidney failure with the use of herbs. It only seemed to anger the doctors instead of cheer them up. They don’t care to be proved wrong. Yes, I understand the virus will get me and kill me. I get it! You don’t have to tell me 200 times! The first one hundred times was plenty. No, I am not ignoring you. I simply don’t want to have you send me into a depression every single time I encounter you is all. It is not necessary to make me cry when you see me. OK? Just back up!

        BTW – I picked up a water-borne enterovirus viral infection from my parents giving me unfiltered, unclean well water on the family farm. I now have an immune system deficiency. Make sure you drink only clean, filtered, purified water as you travel. You don’t want to end up sick, in kidney failure and trying to stay alive. It is expected the virus will kill my kidneys, my heart and my liver. I will go into organ failure. I don’t qualify for an organ transplant. Organs go to people with a high survival rate, so no organ for me! The kidney foundation explained, your virus will just kill the new kidney, you will be on immune suppressant drugs, the virus will come back worse and you will die. You don’t qualify for a transplant. So, that is that. Not everyone who needs an organ is qualified to receive one.

        Water is something we only think about once we pick up a nasty infection we can not clear. Otherwise? We don’t give water another thought. I never truly understood the importance of clean, drinking water until it impacted my health and put my life at risk. So far, I have outlived every prediction of my death. I am quite proud of this fact, but my luck won’t hold forever. One day…my luck will run out and that will that. I am learning to be happy where I find myself and not be unhappy with my circumstances. My tolerance for BS is low. My tolerance for pettiness is low. I am only interested in the positive in life. I was not born with any guarantee or warranty. No one made me any promises, so I can’t really complain. Besides, there is no complaint department to complain to when you feel you got a raw deal. There is no customer service for life. LOL. Can you imagine if a customer service department for “Life” did exist? I would hate to work there!

        • Shannon O'Donnell April 3, 2015 at 11:47 pm #

          Agreed on the Customer Service desk for life! That would be soul-crushing job to see all the comparisons of bad that people have for their own situations. I am so sorry to hear that you have all that negativity around you—there are so many examples of positivity and alternative therapies helping people elongate and at least enjoy their life that they have left. It sounds like you are embracing the time you have and you have all my love and warm thoughts coming your way.

  8. Jen April 2, 2015 at 5:35 am #

    In the next month, I hope to have a downloadable .pdf ready for my website :)

    • Shannon O'Donnell April 2, 2015 at 1:57 pm #

      That’s a great goal! And so achievable. What’s the topic?

      • Jen April 5, 2015 at 12:52 am #

        I recently started a Travel Nursing blog @ http://www.wanderlustnurse.com and will have questions that nurses can ask to managers during the interview.

  9. Kate Voss April 2, 2015 at 5:07 am #

    I’d love to read more about North Korea!

    My goal for April: Make a plan for getting home after more than a year of travel, and how to be happy staying in one place for more than a week.

    • Shannon O'Donnell April 2, 2015 at 2:06 pm #

      The transition can be so tricky; I found that cooking foods I had found on the road, and jumping right away into some classes (I took some Spanish lessons) helped me keep busy and enjoy the home base. Good luck! :)

      • Kate Voss April 4, 2015 at 10:38 pm #

        That’s a great idea! I definitely want to keep meeting people from all over the world, maybe I’ll go to a language exchange too. Thanks!

  10. Liz April 1, 2015 at 7:44 pm #

    It looks like a fascinating window into a place I will most likely never go.

    Here’s my one goal. Booking a ticket for a long overdue trip to South America.

    • Shannon O'Donnell April 1, 2015 at 7:47 pm #

      Good call! I’d love to get there soon as well; I hope you find a good deal on tickets there :)

  11. One Lung Traveler April 1, 2015 at 5:40 pm #

    Looks like a great read!

  12. Pearly April 1, 2015 at 12:25 pm #

    Sounds like a fascinating book! My dad spent several years in (South) Korea as a member of the U.S. Military, so I grew up learning about the political situation on both sides.

    On a semi-related note, my goal for the next month is to finally purchase plane tickets for my forthcoming RTW trip. (With South Korea as a tentative destination!)

    • Shannon O'Donnell April 1, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

      Booking your tickets! That is a huge step and I am so happy for you. Three questions: Are you booking a RTW ticket or as you go? When is the projected start of your trip, and what’s the first spot?! :)

      • Pearly April 1, 2015 at 6:00 pm #

        Thank you! I’m still debating the merits between RTW or as you go, but leaning RTW. (Sadly my time isn’t unlimited. I’ve got just around three months.) Start is early June and first spot will be East Asia: Seoul or Hong Kong! :)

        • Shannon O'Donnell April 1, 2015 at 6:44 pm #

          With that time-frame it totally makes sense that you are leaning toward the RTW ticket — likely will end up saving you a lot and giving you a firm structure to visit all the places you want. Keep me posted on the journey, East Asia sounds like the perfect starting point! :)

    • Shannon O'Donnell April 9, 2015 at 5:37 pm #

      You won the book! I will shoot you an email now to arrange getting you a copy. :)

      • Pearly April 10, 2015 at 10:17 am #

        Lovely! Thank you. :)

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