The novel “Without You There Is No Us” is a well-written and eerily enticing look into the mystery that is North Korea. It is an exemplar of investigative journalism, providing detailed and gripping commentary on what is was like for the author, Suki Kim, to travel to North Korea to be an English teacher. It is her account of her interactions with students who were lucky enough to be born into elite families, closely aligned with Kim Jong-un’s party, who were able to avoid being forced to work at construction sites. They were the few who were still able to attend school when all of North Korea’s other schools were shut down in 2011.
The story itself is fascinating, especially to someone looking at North Korea from a western perspective, (which really translates to no perspective at all as accounts from North Korea are so strange and difficult to verify because of its isolationism). At times, the story is blissful: the students are enamored with Suki; they ask her to not return to America, and they are bashful: playing games and simply acting like boys in high school. At other times, it has the feel of a thriller, when it elucidates Suki’s anxiety at being watched intensively at all times, scrutinized by both missionaries and people who work for the regime, to ensure that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is not being questioned. It is startling when the boys know nothing of the internet or the outside world, and automatically start spewing falsehoods about the regime whenever a conversation pops up that frightens them by being contradictory to what they were programmed to know.
The best part of the novel is the voice in which it is told. Suki captures the humanity of her students, and tells the story in a voice that is relatable – not sterile or academic or cold. She discusses how her own background affects the way that she sees the regime, as both an American and a South Korean. The contradictions and complexities of the situation are artfully displayed. Suki brings the reader along for all the ups and downs, and doesn’t present the situation in North Korea as black and white, good versus evil, The West vs. The Far East. The journey is a complex array of fear and anxiety, of love and hope, of sadness and heartbreak. It does exactly what good investigative journalism should do: presents a perspective that readers have not seen before, with details, facts and analysis to put the story in context, and presented with an eye for the heartbeat of the situation – the human aspect that will draw readers in and broaden their minds by tugging at their heartstrings.