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North Korean Book Recs!

Updated: Apr 9

It's 2022! We live in a globalized world with the Internet, a 24-hour news cycle and the ability to jet around the world at a moment's notice.

So how does a harsh dictator (and his family) maintain control so well?

After decades of oppression and brainwashing, how have the citizens of North Korea survived multiple famines, fear of torture, work camps and a global pandemic?

What's the international community's responsibility to act on these human rights violations?

Explore the answers in our TWO book recommendations this week. From North Korea’s elite university students to an impoverished child living on the border with China, these memoirs shine a light on the plight of the oppressed citizens of one of the most secretive, unknowable countries.

book jackets of "without you, there is no us" and "the girl with seven names"

A South Korean reporter masquerading as a missionary travels to the capital of North Korea to educate the sons of the ruling class elite. Suki Kim’s haunting memoir of her time at the all-male Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST) is a startling account of university life where the obedient students easily lie and defectors risk torture and death. In December 2011, Kim Jong-il dies leaving the students devastated, and leading Suki to question whether the gulf between her world and theirs can ever be bridged. Without You, There is No Us is a rare glimpse into one of the most unknowable, oppressed populations in the world, even among the privileged elite.

The reader can see the curiosity of the students who yearn to learn more about Harry Potter or Avatar, yet have little personal, creative experiences of their own. Dive into Suki’s memoir and let me know your thoughts!

As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee’s home on the Chinese border exposed her to a world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom. When the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to question the teachings of her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet?” At 17, she decided to escape North Korea, but more than twelve years go by before she is reunited with her family.

Hyeonseo’s struggle to avoid capture, survive in a foreign land and guide her family to freedom is an extraordinary tale and provides a glimpse into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships. It's perhaps a stark reminder of the deadly consequences to global inaction of human rights violations. What do you think?

Discussion Questions

Without You, There Is No Us by Suki Kim

The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee

Before reading Without You, There Is No Us, what were your impressions about life in North Korea? What changed by the end of the book?

Discuss the significance of the book’s title on the author's identity. How are Hyeonseo’s struggles with identity connected with her feelings of patriotism?

Suki refers to the university as a “prison disguised as a campus.” How does PUST’s isolation affect its culture?

How does the North Korean government use human rights violations to keep the Kim dictatorship in power?

Though Suki’s students are smart and hardworking, they struggle to write simple essays. Why do they find this task so difficult?

Propaganda is rampant. How does propaganda impact Hyeonseo’s life views? How does propaganda impact our country today?

What do you think about the boys’ ability to easily lie about simple life events, like a weekend away at the beach? How could the restrictions on their education impact their creativity and communication skills?

What were some of Hyeonseo’s hardest obstacles to overcome? In her native country? As an illegal immigrant in China?

Does it surprise you that North Korea considers the U.S. its “number one enemy?”

How does she manage to increase her position in society, despite her disadvantages?

This book was written based on Suki’s time in Pyongyang in 2011. Is current ruler Kim Jong-un’s leadership changing the tide of oppression? Do you think the lives of its citizens, even the upper elite males at PUST, have gotten better or worse?

How has your impression of North Korea changed since reading Hyeonseo’s personal story?

What responsibility does the international community have to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people?

What responsibility does the international community have to alleviate the suffering of the North Korean people?

If you’re an educator, these books are great tools for discussions on democracy, freedom of speech and cultural oppression. Both expose our American students to drastically different ways of life through relatable stories, while providing key insights into controlled populations and a secretive dictatorship.

If you liked this book, you should check out Nothing to Envy next.

Leave a comment about your own thoughts RE North Korea. Have you read any other accounts of the country?

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