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Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea's Elite

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Janet Song

8 Hours 35 Minutes

Random House (Audio)

October 2014

Audio Book Summary

A haunting account of teaching English to the sons of North Korea's ruling class during the last six months of Kim Jong-il's reign
Every day, three times a day, the students march in two straight lines, singing praises to Kim Jong-il and North Korea: Without you, there is no motherland. Without you, there is no us. It is a chilling scene, but gradually Suki Kim, too, learns the tune and, without noticing, begins to hum it. It is 2011, and all universities in North Korea have been shut down for an entire year, the students sent to construction fields—except for the 270 students at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), a walled compound where portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il look on impassively from the walls of every room, and where Suki has gone undercover as a missionary and a teacher. Over the next six months, she will eat three meals a day with her young charges and struggle to teach them English, all under the watchful eye of the regime.

Life at PUST is lonely and claustrophobic, especially for Suki, whose letters are read by censors and who must hide her notes and photographs not only from her minders but from her colleagues—evangelical Christian missionaries who don't know or choose to ignore that Suki doesn't share their faith. As the weeks pass, she is mystified by how easily her students lie, unnerved by their obedience to the regime. At the same time, they offer Suki tantalizing glimpses of their private selves—their boyish enthusiasm, their eagerness to please, the flashes of curiosity that have not yet been extinguished. She in turn begins to hint at the existence of a world beyond their own—at such exotic activities as surfing the Internet or traveling freely and, more dangerously, at electoral democracy and other ideas forbidden in a country where defectors risk torture and execution. But when Kim Jong-il dies, and the boys she has come to love appear devastated, she wonders whether the gulf between her world and theirs can ever be bridged.

Without You, There Is No Us offers a moving and incalculably rare glimpse of life in the world's most unknowable country, and at the privileged young men she calls 'soldiers and slaves.'

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  • Anonymous

    I believe the book had a interesting thriller factor to it with many scenes making you clench your teeth hoping the worse doesn’t come to pass. The entirely separated world of the people of North Korea takes them away from reality, they are not “beings in the process of becoming” as Paulo Freire would say, they are not aware nor are they historical all as a result of the Regime they are under. But one question I find myself asking, “would you really forget your Flash drive?” Idk but this part of the novel is ironic after being so meticulous with your words when conversing with people and your lesions and always double checking your information isn’t tracked how could you forget your flash drive this scene doesn’t add up to me but none the less adds that thriller aspect of entertainment to the novel. All and all the novel is interesting and engaging and one I enjoyed listening to, I have to commend Suki Kim on her difficult journey through the land of North Korea

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  • Fiona M

    The topic is fascinating but it is a pity that the author didn’t learn as much about Christianity to help her deal with her colleagues as she did about North Korea. Her comments about her missionary colleagues left a sour taste. However her description of her students was delightful and attempting to provide a picture of their life was written with compassion and warmth, which contrasted with her view of her colleagues whose only failing was blindly assuming she was “one of them”. The history of North Korea was interesting.

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  • Deja Pearson

    An eye opening book, easy to listen to but not a total "page turner" so to speak...

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