On more than one occasion during my trips abroad, I came to the realization that I had been blessed to have been born in Brooklyn, New York in the United States of America. And while my country has its share of issues that plague the nation, I do enjoy a level of freedom many people around the world would die to have. Because I was born here, it is far to easy to take for granted the rights and privileges that I enjoy as an American citizen both here at home and when I travel outside the country. I’ve always been fond of personal stories of triumph for they remind me that outside of the borders of the place I call home, many people do not have the luxuries or lifestyle that I do. In fact, in many nations in this world, there is next to nothing for millions of men, women and children.
North Korea, for many years, has been viewed by Americans as a nation cut off from the western world and run by a brutal family dictatorship that has stretched over several generations. Famine, despair and oppression have caused thousand of citizens, soldiers and high-level officials to defect to South Korea in search of a better life. The path to defection is highly dangerous and for those that are caught, it is almost certainly, a painful and slow death. Each survivor that does make it to South Korea has their own story of defection, some so extreme that it will bring tears to the eyes of the listener. This story by Jang Jin-Sung, a former poet of the United Front Department, is an inside look into the life of a young man working in a high position in the government who along with a friend, makes the ultimate decision to defect, leaving his friends and family behind in North Korea. Even before setting out on their journey, the two realize that their decision will have long-lasting ramifications. In fact, Sung, to this day, is considered an enemy of the State in North Korea. But what they would experience was beyond anything they could have imagined and makes Sung’s survival and story, all the more surreal.
Determined to seek asylum in South Korea, the duo makes their frantic escape from Pyongyang, but as the reader soon learns, not every face encountered can be trusted and even those who speak the same language, may be of no help at all. Harsh climates, blizzards, freezing temperatures and extreme hunger, nearly push the two over the edge as they struggle to maintain their sanity and physical well-being. Stuck in a foreign land in China, unable to speak the native language, they must seek out fellow defectors and immigrants from their homeland if they wish to survive. And as we learn, some of these people had hearts of gold, whether they knew it or not, and every move made was a matter of life and death for the two defectors. The native Chinese citizens also play a part in their story and through them, we are able to see the stark contrast between the two nation and their governments. And as we see through Sung’s eyes, a cloak of deception exists in North Korea, forcing everyone to buy into the myth of the Dear Leader.
While his story is one of success and triumph, it is not without tragedy and some of the parts of his story are nothing short of heartbreaking. And it will be unimaginable for those used to living in a western culture, for anyone to live in the manner in which they did in North Korea. But Sung’s story is a reminder that those of us who were blessed to have been born in other nations that we should never take our liberties and freedom for granted for there are many others out their that are envious and risking death to have the same. Sung’s memoir is one more attempt to lift the veil off the destructive, brutal and murderous facade of the Dear Leader.