Reviewed by Stacia Wesolowski
Johnson & Wales University, Providence Campus
Students, Soldiers, Slaves. This is how author Suki Kim describes the undergraduate males she teaches English to at North Korea’s Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST). A journalist under the guise of a Christian missionary, Kim tracks her daily interactions on several hidden USB devices just in case one is discovered. Kim’s entire time at PUST has her in a reported state of paranoia as saying the wrong thing to the wrong person could lead to her deportation or imprisonment.
The students at PUST are portrayed as inquisitive and childlike. So much so that I pictured Kim teaching twelve-year-olds instead of nineteen and twenty-year-olds. It was fascinating to hear a first-hand account of how blindly the students followed and idolized the North Korean regime.
Kim reports that the students would lie all the time about insignificant things. Some of this is what they had been taught, such as how every country in the world speaks Korean. Other times it was easier for them to lie than to explain or acknowledge the truth. This was reminiscent of some personal interactions with students from China, a North Korean ally, and their “lies” to save themselves and presumably their families from embarrassment.
One of Kim’s main teaching tasks was to have the students write essays. Something that could be seen as easy to undergraduate students from Western culture was reportedly difficult to these North Korean students. Having to come up with their own thoughts in an organized manner instead of the recitation that was required in the rest of their classes was literally a foreign concept to them.
Relationships were thought-provoking throughout the book. The students reported a respect for Kim and at times informed her she was considered one of them. She often referred to them as her children. However, Kim narrates that she was constantly aware that any one of the students could report her for saying the slightest thing that could be construed as anti-regime. It was somewhat exhausting to read. I can only imagine how draining it was to live through it, for both the teacher and the students.
Kim was looking to expose North Korea and report on how their elite were treated. Understandably, she had many biases towards North Korea and its citizens. As advisors, we are sometimes put into conversations with students that question our moral and ethical beliefs. Since we can be seen as authority figures and in order to keep a welcoming environment, we should attempt to limit our personal beliefs as much as possible in our advising appointments. We can do this by being aware of our biases, acknowledging them, and trying to prevent these biases from implanting themselves in our advising appointments. We need to determine when it is best to express another viewpoint to our students and try not to portray it as a personal one. Ultimately, we as advisors should respect the views that students have, even if we are not in agreement with it.
BkRev #1704. Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. (2014). Suki Kim. New York: Broadway Books. 285 pp. Price $15.00. ISBN 978-0-307-72066-5, and www.broadwaybooks.com