The Book of the Week is “Without You, There Is No Us” by Suki Kim, published in 2014. This is the personal account of a Korean journalist who, in 2011, went to Pyongyang, North Korea to teach English to male college students.
In both of the Koreas, “… daughters-in-law worked year round, cooking. cleaning and washing, never mind being perpetually pressured to produce a male heir.” North Korean society is extremely group-oriented. People are never alone at their residences, taking meals and playing sports. All men except those in the upper class, are required to serve in the military for about ten years, and women for about seven years, starting at 17. North Koreans never take vacations; there are no holiday getaways.
The North is a military dictatorship in which anyone who utters anything negative about the Great Leader, will face serious consequences, and possible death. “All the students’ skits ended, regardless of plot, with a song of gratitude to either their leader or their party.” There is power in secrecy. The government is obsessed with spying on its own people– eliminating all of their secrets, thereby keeping them powerless.
The government is also obsessed with promoting the idea that North Koreans alone excel at all areas of life– a declaration based on nothing but empty boasting; the same kind of fascistic mentality put forth by Hitler, Mussolini and Mao Tse Tung. The irony is that “…their culture was saturated with messages about killing South Koreans and Americans and references to horrifically gruesome acts… yet they needed to learn English and feed their children with foreign money…”
In 2011, a new North Korean government program had just been initiated, that brought in foreigners to teach lessons in English to the kids of the elite (doctors, scientists and government party hacks), for no pay. Kim taught at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, although science was missing from the curriculum. The school had a buddy system, pairing up students. But they were switched with each term so that no alliances became too loyal for too long. They were forced to perform various “patriotic” acts, such as manual labor, digging and hauling water to plant trees in October, cleaning bathrooms, and “guarding” shrine-like buildings in freezing cold weather (but they weren’t really guarding anything).
Read the book to learn more about the stress experienced by the author with her immersion in North Korean culture, and her shock at how extremely obedient and clueless her students were about everyday life in the rest of the world.