A captivating read and a poignant tale of a rare insight into the lives of North Korea’s elite: through the eyes of Suki Kim, we get to witness a firsthand account of the gap between the social classes of North Korea. We become immersed in contrasting worlds: it’s 2011, whilst ‘all’ universities are shut down for the year and students sent to construction fields instead, 270 students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology continue their studies. The privileged students of the North Korean elite. It’s almost ritualistic, the marching, the praises were sung of Kim Jong-Il and North Korea. From a Western perspective, we may see this cult-like behaviour as chilling, but for North Koreans it’s merely the norm: they have never known anything else. Yet, even Suki, a journalist, who takes the post of teaching English at Pyongyang University ends up caught inside and enraptured by this repetitive hum of routine. How do you teach – can you teach – under the glaring, prying eyes of this regime?
It’s lonely. It’s claustrophobic. It’s a game of hide and seek. Suki has to hide all her notes for the book she is writing and photographs from everyone as whilst her fellow teachers are evangelical Christian missionaries, she is actually a journalist, hiding behind the facade of sharing their faith. When a piece of her journalist background briefly enters the new world that she is slowly becoming assimilated into, it is with shock and concealed fear that she navigates and fakes ignorance of their acquaintance in the face of watchful eyes. However, bonds form over time with these children of the elite: ultimately they are still boys, eager to please, sincere of their feelings which they reveal to her in letters and an unquelled curiosity about the wider world that peeks out every now and then. It’s a gradual exchange of ideas that develops as she hints to them that a world beyond their own exists, while at the same time the students begin to offer her their own surprisingly ordinary issues that we can relate to – how to impress girls, soccer games in conjunction with their veiled frustration over censorship.
Just as everything seems to be on the verge of possible change, the death of Kim Jong-il warps the situation, and the wall between Suki’s world and the boy’s returns, heavier and more solid than ever – even amidst heartfelt farewells. Can it ever be bridged? In the end, these are the so-called ‘privileged’ young men but also, as Suki describes them, ‘soldiers and slaves.’
It’s mesmerising: you are drawn into a world like you have never known and end up gripped by the routine lives of these young men and the world they live in. ‘Soldiers’ aside, you see their sides as ‘slaves’ too: you witness their vulnerability, their weakness, their ‘despicable’ perhaps endearing ‘humanness’ in spite of the regime. The melancholy tone is constantly tinged with happiness and excitement: it’s a difficult read to put down – all finished in one sitting.