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Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint
of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC,
a Penguin Random House Company, New York.
CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of
Random House LLC.
Librar y of Congress Cataloging- in- Publication Data
Kim, Suki, 1970–
Without you, there is no us : my time with the sons
of North Korea’s elite / Suki Kim.—First edition.
1. Kim, Suki, 1970– 2. English teachers—Korea (North)—
Biography. 3. Korea (North)—Politics and government—
2011– 4. Korea (North)—Social conditions—21st centur y.
5. Elite (Social sciences)—Korea (North) 6. Education—
Government policy—Korea (North) I. Title.
ISBN 978- 0- 307- 72065- 8
eBook ISBN 978- 0- 307- 72067- 2
Printed in the United States of America
Map by Mapping Specialists
Jacket design by Na Kim
Photo on page 3: Sunchon Airport, Pyongyang, 2002. The airport
greeter holds a “Sun of the 21st Centur y” sign to commemorate
Kim Jong-il’s sixtieth birthday.
Photo on page 155: Students at PUST taking their final exam in
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Kim_9780307720658_3p_all_r3.j.indd 4 7/30/14 10:22 AM
AS IT HAPPENED, THE FIRST DAY OF CLASS— THE DAY WHEN A
group of mostly American teachers took on the education of
270 North Korean young men— fell on July Fourth, but no one
seemed to notice the irony. There was no red, white, and blue
here. No barbecues and ﬁreworks. Never having taught English
as a second language before, I felt nervous as well as excited.
Remembering the dress code, I put on a light blue button- down
shirt, a calf- length gray skirt, and a pair of low heels. I had
been warned that women generally did not wear pants in North
Korea, and I could not remember ever having seen them on
previous trips to Pyongyang.
At 7:15 a.m., I stood outside my dormitory facing the ﬁve-
story structure where classes were held, known as the IT (In-
formation Technology) building. To its left was the monument I
had seen when we ﬁrst drove in. Students called it the Forever
Tower because the words OUR GREAT LEADER IS FOREVER WITH US
were carved into one side, top to bottom. It resembled Juche
Tower, which dominated Pyongyang, and I wondered how many
such towers there were around this country. As I approached
Kim_9780307720658_3p_all_r1.j.indd 28 7/17/14 10:15 AM
Without You, There Is No Us 29
the IT building, I could hear music booming from a speaker
in the foyer. I would soon get used to the blasting intrusion of
recorded music, but on that ﬁrst day, it struck me as ominous,
and intensiﬁed the feeling of being watched. I could hear the
lyric, “I want to walk endlessly, my beloved Pyongyang night.
Please don’t advance, beautiful Pyongyang night.” It was one of
their most popular songs, a student would tell me later— an ode
As I entered the main door, a female guard nodded from a
booth. The walls along the staircase displayed the portraits of
Kim Il- sung and Kim Jong- il, along with such exhortations as
“Keep your feet ﬁrmly on the ground of your motherland and
keep your eyes on the world!” and “Let’s think in our way and
create in our way!” The narrow hallway on the second ﬂoor
was lined with teachers’ ofﬁces, ending in an area decorated
with three scrolls reading: LEADER LUCK, GENERAL LUCK, CAPTAIN
LUCK. In Korea, if you are born from good parents, it is said that
you have “parent luck.” If you marry well, you have “husband
luck.” So according to the scrolls, this nation was lucky in three
things, Kim Jong- il, the General; his dead father, the Leader;
and his young son, the Captain. This was the ﬁrst mention of
the heir apparent, Kim Jong- un, I had come across in all my
visits to Pyongyang.
At the end of the hall were four freshman classrooms, which
served as homerooms. There were one hundred freshmen, one
hundred sophomores, and about seventy graduate students.
Because the school had been open for less than a year, there
was not yet a junior or senior class— all the undergraduates had
transferred from other universities and started anew as fresh-
men. According to a memo from President Kim’s ofﬁce, there
were seventy- ﬁve foreign teachers and staff. However, I counted
only thirty or so teachers, about half of them Caucasian and the
Kim_9780307720658_3p_all_r1.j.indd 29 7/17/14 10:15 AM
30 Suki Kim
other half of Korean origin, from countries around the world.
(None were South Korean, mainly because of visa issues.) Of
the thirty teachers, about half spoke at least some Korean, but
the rest did not.
The freshmen were divided into four groups according to
their proﬁciency in English, Class 1 being the strongest and
Class 4 the weakest. I was assigned to teach Reading and Writ-
ing to Classes 2 and 4 (another set of teachers handled Speaking
and Listening) for an hour and a half each in the morning. The
afternoons were reserved for ofﬁce hours and group activities.
Our textbook, New Horizon College English 1, had been used
in China at YUST and was approved by the “counterparts.”
These so- called counterparts were the North Korean teaching
staff who oversaw our lessons. Everything, from books to lesson
plans, had to be approved by them before we could share it with
students. If any extra material was to be used in class, we were
required to submit it a few days before the lesson for approval.
All through that summer, I was never quite sure who the coun-
terparts were or where they were, and even after I returned in
the fall and taught English to a few of them, the mention of the
word counterpart never failed to make me nervous.
Beth, a thirtysomething British woman who served as the
dean of the English department and signed her group emails
“In Him,” assigned me a teaching assistant. Katie, my TA, was
a recent Cornell graduate who had just spent a year at YUST
teaching the children of the teachers. Her help in preparing les-
sons would prove valuable, especially since I was often secretly
occupied taking notes for my book. We were given a rough
schedule of the textbook chapters we were expected to cover
each week and a list of afternoon activities designed by a group
of teachers, including Beth.
But there was an even more important set of expectations
Kim_9780307720658_3p_all_r1.j.indd 30 7/17/14 10:15 AM
Without You, There Is No Us 31
that had been communicated haphazardly, in group emails and
staff meetings, during Skype sessions with Joan, and in the
hotel lounge in Beijing.
Though we never had the promised orientation, at least not
a formal one, I had somehow accumulated a long list of scrib-
bled notes warning me about what I could and couldn’t do, or
could and couldn’t say.
• Boil water before drinking, just to be safe, but in order to
boil something in your room, you will need to buy a gas
tank and have it installed. Or bring a water puriﬁer. Re-
cently there was a paratyphoid problem in the Rang Rang
district, where the school is located, due to its poor water
• Dress for class as if you were going to a work meeting: a
skirt and jacket for women, slacks and a jacket for men.
Nothing too fancy. Avoid a lot of ornamentation on cloth-
ing, e.g., jackets that have sequins. Around the campus,
dress respectably. No shorts or T- shirts with ﬂip- ﬂops; those
are acceptable only in the dorm. Jeans are forbidden. Kim
Jong- il does not like blue jeans because he associates them
• When you step outside the campus— which won’t happen
except for occasional shopping or sightseeing trips— be
careful about the way you look and what you say. Do not
approach or start a conversation with anybody. If you must,
there should be a good reason. A minder and a driver will
always accompany you. Any pictures or video footage must
be reviewed by your minder. If you take a picture of the
outside, it could be a problem.
Kim_9780307720658_3p_all_r1.j.indd 31 7/17/14 10:15 AM
32 Suki Kim
• All trips require permission beforehand. If you visit any
monuments on trips or eat at foreigners- only restaurants,
you will have to pay for the minder and the driver. You will
need to pay for the gas. Euros, Chinese renminbi, and U.S.
dollars will be accepted, but the North Korean won is used
only at Potonggang Department Store or at Tongil Market.
Soon those trips will be curtailed, since the school is setting
up a little shop on campus.
• There is a health clinic on campus, as well as the Friendship
Hospital for foreigners in downtown Pyongyang, which is
used by the diplomatic community, but bring any medica-
tion you might need.
• You are responsible for bringing a laptop for your own use.
For music, bring an iPod rather than CDs, which are feared
since they could be passed to people. If you leave your lap-
top in your ofﬁce over the weekend, they might inspect it,
so do not leave things unattended.
• Bring more than one ﬂashlight and plenty of batteries be-
cause the campus is not lit at night and electricity is spotty.
• Bring cash; you will not be able to use ATMs or credit cards.
• When you talk to students, be very careful about the topic
of conversation. Steer away from political issues, things that
are too personal, or anything about the outside world. Do
not try to be clever about initiating certain topics of discus-
sion, and do not be overenthusiastic in talking about your
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Without You, There Is No Us 33
• Do not bow your head or fold your hands or close your
eyes to pray at meals. Pray with your eyes open. Do not say
anything about religion and do not use religious titles to
address each other. If a student comes to you and asks for a
Bible, you should be very polite and say that you cannot do
that. There is always a chance that these requests are made
in order to test you. One faculty member was tricked by a
minder and then asked to leave.
• Never hint that there is something wrong with their country.
• You will be able to use the Internet in your room, and the
telephone and fax machine in President Kim’s ofﬁce if there
is an emergency, but communication will be monitored. Be
careful which sites you visit on the Internet, and when you
write home, speak positively about what is going on and do
not discuss politics.
• No foreign magazines or books will be allowed into Pyong-
yang except those declared and preapproved; physical books
are more of a problem than e- books since they could be
• Be careful with your terminology: Great Leader, Dear
Leader, Precious Leader. Those names have to be carefully
used, or better yet, just stay away from discussing them at
all. Be careful about how to handle images too. For ex-
ample, Air Koryo offers in- ﬂight magazines. You take one
to your ofﬁce and it has a picture of Kim Jong- il, and let’s
say you end up sitting on it by mistake. Then you are in big
trouble, because the photo is like the person. It is the same
Kim_9780307720658_3p_all_r1.j.indd 33 7/17/14 10:15 AM
34 Suki Kim
with the portrait of Kim Il- sung on the pins every North
Korean wears. These men are regarded as deities, at least
ofﬁcially. Make sure you do not throw away, fold, tear, or
damage any visual representation of them. Do not point at
such images either. It would be considered an act of disre-
spect and you would be punished.
• If someone comes up and asks about politics, just answer “I
don’t know,” or say, “Oh, is that so?” End of conversation.
• Reuniﬁcation is a sensitive topic. Just stay away from it.
• Do not say Bukhan (North Korea) or Namhan (South Korea).
Chosun (the name for the last Korean kingdom) is what
North Korea calls itself.
• Do not speak Korean and always use English. Remember,
many people around you will know English and understand
what you are saying, so be careful what you say.
• Do not get into long conversations with the guards or minders.
• Do not make comparisons. For example, do not say their
food is different from yours because that could be con-
strued as critical.
• Eating with locals on outings is prohibited.
• Be careful with gifts. You must not give one thing to one
person; you have to give it to everyone. Otherwise, it could
be considered a bribe.
Kim_9780307720658_3p_all_r1.j.indd 34 7/17/14 10:15 AM
Without You, There Is No Us 35
• Living in Pyongyang is like living in a ﬁshbowl. Everything
you say and do will be watched. Even your dorm room
might not be secure. They could go through your things. If
you keep a journal and if you say something in it that is not
complimentary, please do not leave it in your room. Even
in your room, whatever you say could be recorded. Just get
in a habit of not saying everything that is on your mind, not
criticizing the government and things of that sort, so you
• When you come out of Pyongyang, avoid all interviews
with press. Make sure you know whom you share things
with afterward. Do not give press any information about
It was astonishing how quickly I would adapt to these rules,
which seemed so absurd when I ﬁrst wrote them down. Now, at
8 a.m., as I entered the classroom, I hoped I would remember
to avoid all the forbidden topics. I took a deep breath and found
myself standing in front of twenty- six young men, all of them
neatly dressed and sitting up very straight.
Even now, writing in Manhattan, my heart beats faster
recalling that initial meeting. Oddly enough, the ﬁrst word
that came to my mind was beauty. Something about that ﬁrst
moment in the classroom felt so clean and serene, and it was
as though everything went silent, and there I was stepping
onto a ﬁeld of white, untrodden snow. They were young, and
I remember them as beautiful, although on this point I cannot
be certain as I soon began to delight in looking at them like
they were my children, and can no longer recall a time when I
Kim_9780307720658_3p_all_r1.j.indd 35 7/17/14 10:15 AM