I always come to books about the DPRK with a certain amount of reluctance, because there are far too many of them and I wonder what each successive book will have to say that is new.
I approached this one with slightly less reluctance partly because I enjoyed the author’s debut novel, secondly because I know someone who I think used to be her boyfriend, and thirdly because I have a lot of sympathy with her reported view that “books by white male writers on North Korea were better received in some quarters than books like her own.” I was delighted but rather surprised that Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son won the Pulitzer Prize as I found it a mixed blessing which struck lucky with the timeliness of its publication soon after the death of Kim Jong-il.
Suki Kim’s offering is a memoir of her six months during 2011 as an English language teacher at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). The last days of her assignment were during the week that Kim Jong-il’s death was announced.
PUST is an institution funded and staffed by evangelical Christian organisations. Its students are the children of Pyongyang’s elite, drawn among other things by the chance to achieve excellent Englsih language skills. The staff are allowed to hold prayer meetings among themselves, but of course the subject of religion is banned as a topic of conversation with the students.
Other topics of conversation are strictly monitored too, to prevent or slow down the realisation that things outside of North Korea might not be as bad as the regime might like to portray. Students are required to keep tabs on each other – they are not supposed to talk to the teachers one-on-one, and it appeared that they needed to report back to minders (referred to as “the counterparts”), who had to preapprove lesson content and monitor subsequent discussion to ensure the precious students were not subject to injurious influences.
Nevertheless the students are not completely isolated from news of the outside world: teachers are allowed to discuss western news articles, though often the significance of Apple, Facebook and even the Internet seem to be lost on the students. They are aware of the existence of the Harry Potter stories. Interestingly, these stories were thought to be pernicious by the Christian teaching staff, while the counterparts were happy to approve the screening of one of the movies as an end-of-term treat for one of the classes. In exchange for this window into the outside world, the students and counterparts at PUST give us, through the pages of this book, little insights into their own world. For example, we learn of the 12 songun wonders of North Korea – including the apple farm which Kim is allowed to visit early into her stint at PUST.
Despite the context of control, and despite the tendency of the students to tell lies with casual ease, one of the touching things about Suki Kim’s account is the bonds of friendship which could grow between students and teacher, evidenced by the emotional farewells at the end of each term.
Suki Kim joined the teaching staff without any religious affiliation herself and with the intent of writing this book: she backed up her notes onto several USB sticks in case her work was ever discovered. If we consider the work of PUST to be valuable in terms of introducing the children of Pyongyang’s elite to western ideas we must hesitate to condone Kim’s project. After all, the academic world rounded on the journalist John Sweeney for posing as a student and joining a tour group of academics from LSE in a project that resulted in a lightweight BBC documentary that told us nothing new about North Korea. Sweeney’s project was accused of making future academic research projects more difficult and potentially endangering the lives or livelihoods of the North Korean tour guides / minders.
Equally, Suki Kim’s work could be of danger to PUST’s future work – something that she herself acknowledges in an afterword, and she uses the word “betrayal” at various points in the main body of her text. In order to justify that risk, the new information that the betrayal brings to light has to be of commensurate worth, and Barbara Demick’s comment on the back cover that the book “greatly expands the limited bounds of what we know about North Korea’s ruling class” seems to me over-generous. At the end of the day, Without You is a pleasant, interesting read, but not a game changer. What it does do, rather like John Everard’s Only Beautiful Please, is to introduce us to North Koreans as human beings, and for that it is to be welcomed.
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