Without You, There Is No Us

IMG_0331I was reading an article from Slate that caught my attention–the writer had recently completed a trip to North Korea where she was teaching English as a Second Language to young men. The class demographic consisted of the wealthiest families in the country. I highly recommend reading the article. In it, she commented on how the men struggled with the idea of writing an essay and having to give support for their claim. Most of them wrote about their Dear Leader. It reminded me of an assignment I had given my own students here in the U.S. where they had to write about someone they admired as a leader. Each of my Chinese students wrote about Chairman Mao in a manner that appeared well-rehearsed.

The article was excepted from her new memoir, and I was desperate to read it. Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim is her account of teaching in North Korea from the summer of 2011 until that winter. Kim was born in South Korea and moved to the United States when she was young, but she had traveled to North Korea for earlier trips as a journalist. In this memoir, Kim goes to North Korea to teach as Pyongyang University of Science and Technology with a group of Christian missionaries. While she is there, she has to be self-conscious of what she says in class, send her lesson plans to the counterparts to be approved to use, and pretend to be a practicing Christian (the Christian missionaries weren’t allowed to convert the North Koreans, but they tried to share their faith in subversive ways).

I loved reading this memoir and getting to understand the classroom atmosphere in a North Korean university. Kim’s classes were all males, dressed in their uniforms, always punctual and polite. There are many moments where I grew to like the students, but it was also hard to see how little the young men knew about life outside of their country. They are raised to all believe the same thing, follow the Juche methodology (ideology of self-reliance) created by their first leader, Kim Il-Sung, and hopefully obtain high-ranking positions under the administration of the country when ready. But not all of the students will achieve that and some will disappear. Kim admits that her own lens of the world she lived in for half a year was so limited, and there was very little that the teachers were allowed to do outside of the compound. For me, this memoir provided another small window into a country that has hidden itself under a heavy curtain.