The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains one of the most secluded nations on earth. To some, it is the best example of the society George Orwell described in his masterpiece, 1984. Documentaries, photographs and videos taken in North Korea have given the rest of the world glimpses into a nation ruled by an iron fist, where individuality and personal expression are as forbidden as foreign literature and films. Every living moment of North Korean life is in service to the State under the tutelage and patronage of the “Dear Leader”. The ideology of the North Korean Republic known as “Juche” was made famous by the late Kim il Sung (1912-1994) and has been carried forward by his son Kim Jong il (1941-2011) and currently his grandson, Kim Jong Un. Portraits of the leaders can be found on the walls of nearly ever building in the country, reinforcing the demand for subservience by the government of its citizens. The threat of American Invasion and moral corruption of young Koreans by foreigner influence are used by the State as justification for its seclusion from most of the world. But for some citizens, the smoke and mirrors become clear as nothing more than propaganda used to keep society in line. and curiosity of the outside world creeps steadily in. Their awakening results in a mix of emotions, one of which is defection to South Korea typically by way of China.
Barbara Demick is the former Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times and spent five years in Seoul interviewing defectors from North Korea. This book tells the story of several individuals who made the difficult decision to leave the only place they have called home. I think it is fair to say that anyone outside of North Korea is aware of the totalitarian regime imposed upon the people of that nation. Journalists have lifted the carefully guarded veil constructed by Pyongyang. But what is contained in the pages of this book might surprise even the most knowledgeable readers. In fact, descriptions of their daily lives will stun some but in order to understand their desire to learn about the outside world, escape a suppressive regime and find peace and happiness, we must learn their stories and the challenging lives they were born into. Their names are Kim Hyuck, Mi-Ran, Jun-Sang, Oak Hee, her mother Song Hee Suk and Dr. Kim Ji-eun. Their stories are different but they are all united in the defection to South Korea, leaving behind family members and friends. But what they witnessed will remain with them for the rest of their days. Those events which we learn about in this book are more than any of us would want to endure. I guarantee that for American readers, after you have finished this book, you will have a greater appreciation for the privilege of living in the country that is perhaps the most powerful nation on earth.
For those readers new to literature about North Korea and/or its defectors, the author provides a good history about the Japanese occupation of North Korea and its liberation following World War II. Kim il-Sung would rise as the leader of the new Soviet backed North Korea while Syngman Rhee (1875-1965) established him as the leader of the U.S. backed South Korea. The establishment of the 38th Parallel also known as the DMZ, as the dividing line between the two countries, remains firmly in place as the line that separates two very different countries and different worlds. Sung’s goal to create a new version of Communism, resulted in a regime that ranks among the most brutal anywhere in the world and seemingly stuck several decades behind the rest of the modern world. And as the nation endured periods of famine and near economic collapse, increasing numbers of North Koreans, including those in this book, made their way south by any means necessary.
When we first meet our characters, their lives are typical of North Korea, far removed from any knowledge of or influence by the western world. Allegiance to the “Dear Leader” is mandatory and all seem to stay in line willingly. But over time the facade wears away and the death of Kim il-Sung on July 8, 1994, would provide the catalyst for many to open their eyes to the truth about life in North Korea. Radio programs and even television from South Korea began to infiltrate the nation as growing numbers of citizens began to question all that they had been taught from a young age. For figures in the story at hand, the moment of revelation of a life outside of North Korea proved to be too seductive to ignore and once the decision was made, the next step was to act which they did under the most intuitive of ways. And in stark contrast to the idea of communist citizens all falling in line without thought, each of the characters prove to be as sharp and clever as anyone determined to seek asylum in the hope of a better life. Their successful defections to the South are not without complications and their adjustment to life in Seoul, also shows the complicated efforts that exist to undo many years of indoctrination and seclusion.
Throughout the book, a constant theme is the possible collapse of North Korea and even the author remarks that it has been predicted for many years. In spite of conditions that should cause the downfall of any government, North Korea continues to maintain its position as the rogue nation that issues threats to neighboring countries while preparing for a believed conflict with the United States. The government operates on a system of dysfunction and in some cases hypocrisy. While those at the top enjoy American cars, films and imported goods, millions of North Korea endure malnutrition and destitution. Time will tell if the regime will collapse but what we do know, not just from news reports but also from the stories in this book, is that outside of Pyongyang, life for millions of North Koreans is marked by famine, poverty and fear of the State. Defectors have survived the roughest of ordeals and no longer live in the fear that grips North Korea. However, their hearts are still with those left behind and they do believe in the dream that one day Korea may once again be unified. Until then, the number of defectors may continue to rise and people seek to move away from scavenging for food and praising the Dear Leader to having a full meal, talking freely and being able to watch any show they prefer on television. Their stories may give others inspiration that there is a life outside of North Korea and for some, it is worth dying for. But it is hoped that they are able to escape and enjoy the many privileges that so many of us take for granted.
This book has caused me to really think about the concept of freedom and how precious is truly is. I have seen and accomplished things that most North Koreans either have no knowledge of or ability to do. I am grateful for the life that I have and the author is correct when she says that life in North Korea is nothing to envy.
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.