The shadow of neocolonialism: how a book with “righteous” purposes can backlash and hurt the journalism subjects and the potential trust between countries
–book review of Without You, There Is No Us
Under the pandemic when reading has turned into one of my biggest comforts and books continue to act as my sanctuary, I find it surprisingly difficult to truly appreciate a book. I grew frustrated by the implicit biases permeated in a book and became skeptical of my own sensitivity; I was tired of reading cheerful and upbeat coming-of-age novels; what agitated me the most, however, are books like this one where cultural bridges, misunderstanding, and even conflicts continue to unveil. The more I read, the more defects I see, and I began to wonder if my mood and stage played a role in affecting how I perceive the books. It is during a strange time like this when I came across the so-called investigative journalism “masterpiece” Without You, There is No Us, a book with “noble purposes”. The book is written by a Korean American journalist who acted as a disguised missionary to teach English at PUST (Pyongyang University of Science and Technology) in North Korea in 2011. While the book itself holds undeniable merits because of its rare exposure of North Korea’s education system for the elite, many aspects of the book are controversial and problematic: the shady purpose and even basic ethics of writing the piece, the unnecessary commentary and connections that Kim makes, the neo-colonialist attitude that Kim unconsciously exposes, and the underlying consequences of the book’s publication put the book on the opposite spectrum of valuable. As a sensitive and even vulnerable reader, the book’s problems were magnified in my eyes.
To say that the book is completely worthless would be an overstatement. The book has its values, and many book critics can see that and make their own acclamations. The fact that I convinced myself to read the book is the testimony that the book is attractive to audiences, especially those with limited knowledge of North Korea, a mysterious and wounded country. The book closes the gap of ignorance and curiosity and brings to light images of the unknown side of a country. As Suki Kim, the author, writes in an acknowledgement, “there are so few unfiltered portraits of life inside North Korea, and our understanding of this brutal nation remains dismal.” She is absolutely correct—little is known about North Korea, and her book can at least satisfy a reader’s curiosity by filling out the blank spot of consciousness. The genre of the book also makes it appealing: investigative journalism (nonfiction). A hardly known side of the world and nonfiction—who doesn’t want to know the truth of something close to us (both in time and geography) yet so far away?
The author’s very own identity, anecdotes related to being Korean, and the personal accounts on the her understanding of the division of North and South Korea are also applaudable aspects of the book. As a product of the Korean conflicts, the author has lived through turmoil and has experienced family separation, loss, division, love, hate, and propaganda herself. The intersection between these anecdotes, memories, and her narrative of teaching at PUST has given the event significance in meanings and purposes—her journey in North Korea has become part of her identity-searching and even history-tracing process of understanding her family history in the broken lands. The detailed descriptions of visiting historical sites and the memoir that links history closely to her present identity work well together and give readers insights into the aftermath of the Korean War. From being the “hermit kingdom, with its spiritual basis in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shamanism” to being “annexed by Japan and colonized for thirty-five years thereafter, followed by the Korean War in 1950”, Korea was “born and raised under these brutal colonizers.” Kim uses her unique sarcastic tone and writes about the past and present that has made the trip to North Korea both adventurous and emotional. Kim even discusses the effects of language: “For even now, decades after I first adopted it, English does not pierce my heart the same way that my mother tongue does. The word division weighs less than bundan, and war is easier to say than junjeng.”
From the many anecdotes, including the constant repetition and reference to her disappeared uncle who was brought to North Korea during the war and never came back, Kim paints a powerful image of the devastating aftermath of the extended Cold War conflicts that had torn a country apart. Although loosely related to the central theme of exposing North Korea, the sentimental personal narratives and historical remarks were able to connect to the identity of the author and expand the meaning of the title to “without North Korea, there is no Korea as a whole”, which seems to be part of a healing process that Kim tries to reveal.
Despite the parts where I came to appreciate the insightful messages from the author with special identities, the book had been problematic to me. From the futile justification of writing the book, the unethical act that failed many people, to the inevitable superior attitude and even the fatal effects on the tension between the United States and North Korea, the book exemplifies the struggle between potentially two opposing systems and the ignorance and hypocrisy of the Western side of the struggle.
On the back of the book, one of the reviews is “chilling”. Simply from reading the introduction of the book, audiences can get a sense of where the “chills” come from—the author lied to Christian commissionaires, PUST officials, and even her “beloved” students with an unclean purpose of exposing the “truth” to the general public. If not a crime, the book challenges trust, authority, and people’s impression on the boundaries of investigative journalism. Kim justifies her undercover by saying that “there is a long tradition of ‘undercover’ journalism—pretending to be something one is not in order to be accepted by a community and uncover truths that would otherwise remain hidden.” The debate on whether the “moral obligation” to tell the truth overweighs betraying one’s trust continues, but despite the ethics of writing the book, Kim’s intentions were never pure. Even before signing up for the project, she was determined to write the book, no matter how much she would deceive people to achieve the goal.
Kim was determined to “sell the North Korean regime’s propaganda” as a “publicist” from the very start, and her actions as a teacher and her writings reveal her ambition relentlessly. Because of Kim’s previous knowledge of North Korea and her strong will to act as a savior of the “slaves and soldiers”, she acts and writes with a sense of superiority, just like how colonists treat the poor uncivilized people by “saving” them. When describing the elite students of North Korea, Kim repeatedly uses the adjective “pathetic” and characterize the passionate students as results of the propagandist regime. While she claims in an interview that she wanted to “help outsiders see North Koreans as real people, as people we can relate to, so that we can begin to care about what happens to them”, the sad reality is that such humanization has turned into condescending sympathy and a resolution to save them from the problematic regime. Kim, although originally born in South Korea, acts and writes like a privileged Korean American from the capitalist world who can not help but show off her Kindle, Ipad, Ipod, and other technology to North Koreans. Her intentional act to “awaken” North Koreans, which came from her knowledge of the government, appears to be immature and even ridiculous in the book. She acknowledges that she “grew up seeing too many movies with heroic Americans saving poor Asian children”, but her own narrative has contributed to one of the many examples of “kind” Americans saving the Third World from suffering. Coming from a Korean background, Kim still can not avoid the influence of capitalism and the free world as she constantly complains about losing freedom and being trapped in PUST without freely communicating with her lover, and always adding a sense of pride when talking about the advanced technology in the United States.
In a memoir, Kim includes an excessive amount of editorialization and unnecessary commentary that fixates her personal biases on the general issue of understanding a group of mysterious people. From simple things, she draws dead-ended conclusions that often address the issue of the entire country. For example, from the students’ inability to write essays, she concludes that nothing in North Korea is backed up by evidence. Language that compares students to slaves and prisoners can be found in every chapter, describing students as victims of a regime. Even during simple moments like seeing a student in nylon sweats “most likely imported from China”, Kim editorializes and narrates that “I wished I could scoop him up and take him shopping at a gigantic American mall…I hated seeing him wearing those pathetic sweats, clinging to a can of powdered milk.” Kim not only pities her students, talks like a privileged person who can enjoy fruit smoothie and egg Benedict, but also adds too many personal thoughts, desires, and grand wishes in simple narratives. The supposedly colorful descriptions and narrations are nothing but unnecessary whines that show off her superiority.
Another weakness of the book is that Kim writes in such a straightforward way that any allusion and understanding of the audiences are made impossible. For example, Kim talks about students visiting zoos and implicitly implies that PUST is like the ZOO, a place where students are being watched and confined. However, Kim directly explains this allusion the end of the chapter and includes her comments on the topics of a loss of freedom (again), which has made the reading experience less enjoyable because she took away the spaces of audiences to form their own understanding of the narratives.
Finally, while all of the downsides of the book described above were limited to one’s understanding of the book, the next pitfall realistically impacts the world: the book can potentially perpetuate the tension between the free world and the Third World. Even though in a response to the criticism of the morality of writing the book, Kim writes that “a journalist has a duty to protect anybody who could be compromised by her reporting, and I did my best to protect my students” and that she changed the names of her subjects, it is undeniable that her simple action of deceiving all those around her under the justification to complete the book is unforgivable. The excuse to expose and even “save” North Korea is not enough to deceive Christian organizations, PUST organizers, and her students, and Kim’s book fall under the category of journalists betraying their subjects, like descried in The Journalist and the Murderer. In reality, the goal of dehumanizing North Koreans backlashed and destructed the trust between North Koreans and the West. In a New York Times article, Gladstone writes that “The book…has added another irritant to the troubled relations between North Korea and the United States” because after the publication of the book, “two of the three Americans who were incarcerated in North Korea… had been accused of hostile acts by seeking to spread the Christian faith. And the North’s state media has reacted with outrage over the past few weeks to an American-backed resolution at the United Nations urging that North Korean leaders face prosecution at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.”
Kim relentlessly writes the book to expose North Korea and never anticipated the deadly consequences it has on the vulnerable trust between two “enemies”. Her good intention to cover a mysterious corner of the world backlashed and brought stern criticism to her purposes of writing, methods of coverage, and the essential ethnicity of writing something like this. Kim played with fire but did not play well—in the end, simple objective yet powerful storytelling can win the hearts of more sensitive and aesthetically exhausted audiences (like me) than overly-decorated and editorialized languages.