I confess my fascination with North Korea. It is another world that is so repressed, by all modern standards, that we who reside in the "western" world cannot even begin to comprehend what daily life is like for the millions who live under their totalitarian regime. Most reports that come out of this dark corner of the globe are from dissidents, escapees or news stories that reveal how strange and bizarre is the total control of North Korea's people.
What author, Suki Kim, brings to the conversation is a rare opportunity to live, teach and build relationships with the sons of North Korea's elite. The term "elite" should be used lightly because by U.S. or European standards, these young men are far behind in their educational opportunities, technological skills and even choices regarding their future.
It took several weeks of building trust, but as Kim built rapport with her students, mild comments that revealed their awareness of their true circumstances began to be expressed by these men whose lives, vastly different to the families in concentration camps or the enslaved peasants in rural villages, are comparatively well-off. Critical, analytical and logical thinking are not skills that are encouraged, sought after or promoted by a regime that desires to have absolute control over her people. Any expression of dissent is forbidden. For these young men to have even a tiny ounce of awareness of the restrictions imposed upon them is a crack in the facade that their "Great Leader" would find a way to stomp out quickly.
Kim's anecdotes about how she endured isolation, paranoia about false steps, and the oppression living as a free person in this environment, are told compassionately by a woman whose South Korean roots compel her to see her homeland one day reunited. Ultimately, both South and North Korea desire the same thing...reunification. The South desires to see her people free and the North longs to dominate the entire land of its ancestry.
When I have watched documentaries about North Korea, I have been amazed at the absolute devotion this people have for their dictator. I've asked the question of whether it is legitimate or faked for the cameras. What I've come to realize, partly through Kim's well-written account, is that such unswerving allegiance to a dominating force cannot be fake when that is all you know, and to simply ask an opposing question results in you and your family being incarcerated in prison camps. This is brain-washing on a national scale.
One day, this country will open up. I truly feel pity for the North Koreans when it does. To have everything you've ever known and been told to be proven false will inevitably leave devastation in it's wake...as we've seen in a less drastic example for Eastern Europeans. As westerners continue to build relationships with North Koreans, we can hope that when the fall does occur, there are opportunities to come along beside this resilient people to usher them into the freedom and hope they deserve.
You should read Suki Kim's book. It is engaging, lovely and informative. Her honest emotional struggle to enlighten the elite sons of North Korea will leave you thankful for people who serve in hostile environments such as this. It will also speak to your heart of how one person can make a difference by only being able to plant the tiniest seeds of freedom.