Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.
Suki Kim’s long interest in and personal connection to North Korea make this memoir of the time she spent there teaching English to college students especially poignant and riveting. She writes with the skill of an investigative journalist and the heart of someone recounting a heartbreaking story about relatives. Though she moved to America as a child, Kim was born in South Korea and both her mother and father lost close family members to the North when Korea was partitioned, people they were never able to see or even hear from again.
The North Korean government places rigid controls on the internal travels of its few foreign visitors--even the movements of its own citizens are highly restricted--so Kim spent most of her time on campus, jogging between buildings when she wanted some exercise. There were occasional arranged outings when she did sometimes catch glimpses of roadside workers so emaciated and malnourished it horrified her, but the subjugation of her elite and privileged college students was in its own way just as shocking because it showed that no one is exempt from government control.
These young men weren’t allowed to call, email, or visit their families, though most of them lived just a short distance from the school, and the students never knew when they might be whisked away from their studies to spend weeks or months working at a construction site or laboring on a government run farm. Even when allowed to stay at school there were chores like all night guard duty to perform, and constant surveillance meant the students had to always guard their speech and curtail their activities to avoid punishment.
As far as Kim could tell her students took great pride in their country and believed what they had been told--that North Korea is superior to and the envy of all nations and that their leaders are virtually infallible--but the students would get quiet and thoughtful when she gave them illicit sneak glimpses of the outside world and its relative freedoms by casually pulling out her Kindle or laptop, or mentioning her use of the internet or her global travel experiences.
All of Kim’s fellow teachers felt the strain of constantly censoring their speech and being careful about their actions, but for Kim this was especially difficult and if you have an interest in the range and potency of human worldviews you’ll find this book doubly thought-provoking because Kim had to navigate her way between two powerful belief systems both with moral teachings, behavioral dictates, and a divine or as if divine leader since her co-workers were all Christian missionaries and she had to hide from them that she didn’t share their faith.
The missionaries Kim taught with weren’t allowed to mention anything about their religion, but they hoped their presence and charitable actions would eventually win converts among the North Koreans. Kim had different reasons and personal goals for working at the school. Along with wanting some connection to the country where even now she might have living relatives, she hoped that by giving her students small peeks into life outside North Korea that she’d plant seeds of doubt in her their minds, so that as future leaders they might be able to help change things and open up their society. Her worry was that her words would just confuse and upset them or possibly lead them to actions that would bring on severe punishments. It’s a fascinating, heartbreaking, eye-opening story.
I read an eBook Advanced Review Copy of this book provided at no cost to me by the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine.