When I first heard that journalist and author Suki Kim had written a kiss-and-tell memoir about her six months teaching English at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), the very effort struck me as opportunistic and irresponsible. The founders and staff struggled to walk the tightrope between their educational gamble and what the North Koreans would tolerate. She had effectively made a no disclosure agreement. Would her book undermine PUST’s efforts? But after reading Without You, There is No Us, the problems appeared different: that Kim’s account may reflect her own personal idiosyncracies—and timidity—rather than what is really going on at PUST.
Kim is from a South Korean immigrant family, and like many of her generation she went in search of her Korean roots. A career break accompanying the New York Philharmonic’s trip to Pyongyang opened some doors to a visa to teach at PUST. From the start, she received a long list of the “can’t dos,” including speaking to her students in Korean. However my favorite injunction on the list was “do not make comparisons,” which is more or less equivalent to saying “do not engage in thought.” The reasons for such a prohibition are pretty clear: once you open the door on any comparisons with what is on offer in North Korea—or to quote Deng Xiaoping that we should “seek truth from facts”—it is like pulling on a loose thread. Things can unravel pretty quickly.
The founders and staff—Christian missionaries—recognized from the outset that they would need to completely hide their religion, consigning their practice to what the North Koreans no doubt saw as Sunday ideology sessions. They also had to effectively agree to the long list of no-nos that Kim actually outlines in the book. But invidiously—as Kim acknowledges—these no-nos involved self-censorship as well as constraints from the outside. What struck me about the book was the extent to which Kim herself was complicit in the tedium and shadow play that she describes. The book is laced with descriptions of incidents that inspire panic, fear, anxiety, paranoia, sinking and pounding hearts. But the only thing that really appeared to be at risk was the USB on which she was taking notes—in violation of an implicit contract—and her tenure at the institution. The worst thing that could possibly have happened—her hand-wringing to the contrary—was that she would be sent packing. Well, so what?
The book consists of three interwoven narratives. The first is the stage-managed quality of her interactions with the country: the orchestrated visits to the Daedonggang apple farm, the limits on what can be seen and said. My conversations with others who have been in North Korea—and at PUST in particular—suggest that some of this may have arisen from her own overly-active super-ego. Nonetheless, it is certainly true that minders are pervasive, not only watching the students but effectively intimidating, extorting and in one case effectively harassing the staff. In one example that is emblematic of the country’s relations with the world as a whole, Kim describes how the staff—basically funded by contributions from donors or their own willingness to work for little to nothing—are pressured to make contributions to the feeding (literally) of the people who are lording over them.
The second storyline was the boredom, sense of confinement and loneliness felt by Kim personally, given that she is neither part of the Christian inner circle nor the minders. A largely unsympathetic romantic story of a lover—or ex-lover—in New York compounds the isolation.
And third are the efforts, admittedly hard, to teach the language without simply re-enforcing every single prejudice that these students of the North Korean elite and their ever-present minders bring to the table. Kim portrays the task as virtually impossible: any question that even suggests a comparison with the outside either is shut down or ends up generating defensive blowback. An example of how banal the daily decisions become is provided in a description of her attempt to answer a question about how many TV stations there are in the US. You can imagine how that goes: one more than North Korea, and the students pout and feel their country is being dissed; hold your tongue and what is really learned?
Perhaps the most self-conscious engagement with the contradictions comes in a long discussion of trying to get the students to write essays. How, pray tell, can you write an expository essay on any topic if you are completely cut off from actual empirical information about it?
I am a strong supporter of people-to-people contacts. The risks are relatively low; at worst, nothing sticks. I read Kim’s assessment of the PUST experience as highly limited and limiting. But it is hard to tell whether this is a result of the constraints on the PUST effort or Kim’s own inability to find her way around the rules. Well-written and highly personal, I nonetheless doubt whether this is a definitive account of what PUST manages to do.