Quaker Universalist Conversations

Thoughts on North Korea

Reflections on Suki Kim’s Without You, There is No Us

Rick Brown, AICP, CBSP, has been an urban planner for nearly 30 years, primarily serving communities in the State of Michigan. He was convinced in early 2016, and he is very proud to be a liberal Quaker who strongly supports the universalist belief that the human family can find strength and unity through its diverse spiritual traditions. We published Friend Rick’s post, “Applying my Quaker principles to urban planning,” on 3/1/2017.

I recently read the book, Without You, There is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, by Suki Kim (2015). This eloquent read details her time as an English language teacher in a school near Pyongyang, where she taught the sons of North Korean elite.

"Without You, There Is No Us Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite," By Suki Kim (2015)
Beautifully written, it becomes apparent early on that the average North Korean loves their nation just as much as any patriotic resident of any other nation does. It also becomes obvious that young men in North Korea have many of the same interests, hopes, goals, and dreams as those elsewhere.

The primary difference is a lack of access to a greater understanding of the world (and opportunities) beyond their borders. Unfortunately, those currently in power make such access nearly impossible.

The book clearly demonstrated that despite the differences between our governments, basic human interaction and kindness is universal—it’s a matter of moving beyond the egos, politics, and attitudes of those in charge.

For these and other reasons, I think it is wrong for politicians and pundits to imply that all North Koreans are malicious. The leaders…yes. The general populace, no way. They are victims of oppression. It would be like the rest of the planet calling the United States an enemy nation just because Trump is in office, when most Americans never voted for him and many oppose him vehemently.

 "Kim Jong-Un Photorealistic-Sketch," by User P388388 on Wikimedia Commons (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons Another thought that came to mind while relishing Ms. Kim’s book was related to the role of religion. Many times I found myself surprised by how similar the beliefs and comments of these students were to strident members of mainline religions.

North Korea may be a totalitarian socialist state, but the affection and adoration expressed for their Dear Leader sound eerily similar to what you hear from Evangelicals in this country—something akin to, “my way is the one and only true way.”

Such a belief system only makes it harder for those on the outside to successfully expand the thought horizons of those held within such an ideology.

Likewise, totalitarian states and stricter theological adherents employ the same tactic for maintaining order and power—fear. Fear of hell on Earth in the form of torture, the Gulag, or reprisals from the totalitarian state. And fear of eternal purgatory or damnation in the afterlife from ultra-conservative religious factions.

Lastly, as a liberal Quaker, I found myself endeared to these young students as many of their thoughts and questions were so innocent and thoughtful. To me, it was a clear sign that the inner light of God exists within them, even if they have yet to discover/realize it.

Students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology doing morning exercises. PUST, 2011
As Quakers, we are taught and practice peaceful coexistence in our daily lives largely because we believe this inner light exists in all human beings…though admittedly it can be a lot harder to find in some folks than others. If that’s the case, then the North Korean people really are not our enemies. They are simply friends who are being misdirected by nefarious forces.

Whether the light of God can be lit within those forces to alter their ways remains to be seen, but as a peace activist, I certainly can strive to do my small part in an attempt to make it so. The same can be said for addressing those here in the states who prefer taking military action or using brute force to achieve regime change.

Perhaps, if more of of us chose the peaceful path alternative over saber-rattling, posturing, and name-calling, far more positive results would be achieved and far fewer innocents would become the unintended victims of blind arrogance and rage.

May the young men populating Ms. Kim’s book, their loved ones, and all those subjected to totalitarianism in North Korea find a peaceful way for their homeland to join the brotherhood and sisterhood of nations here on Earth.


*Notes & Image Sources”

For further reading see:

Image: “Kim Jong-Un Photorealistic-Sketch,” by User P388388 on Wikimedia Commons (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Image: Image: “Students at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology doing morning exercises. PUST, 2011,” from the North Korea Photo Album on Suki Kim’s website.