Blaine Harden, a former reporter for The Washington Post, is the author, most recently, of “The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot.”
By Joseph Kim with Stephan Talty
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 273 pp. $28
By Hyeonseo Lee with David John
William Collins. 304 pp. $26.99
By Eunsun Kim with Sébastien Falletti
Translated from Korean by David Tian
St. Martin’s. 228 pp. $24.99
Joseph Kim was 11 when his father starved to death. The boy watched as the former special forces soldier in the North Korean army became “a wretched, writhing, foul-smelling body so bone-thin it pained me to touch him.” Yet the finality of what the boy had witnessed did not sink in until two officials from the Korean Workers’ Party showed up at the funeral and confiscated his father’s party membership card. “It was only at that moment that my father really ceased to be alive for me,” Kim writes in his memoir, “Under the Same Sky.” “Nature was variable; it changed its mind all the time. But the Party? Never. I knew then my father was not coming back.”
For those who grow up inside North Korea, the state dictates reality. It annuls history and undermines common sense. It poisons the soul. Accounts of this poisoning, of course, do not appear in print inside the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (as North Korea officially calls itself). “I have never heard of a book as we would think of it — examining life, searching for truth and so on — being produced in the DPRK,” said Adam Johnson, a Stanford professor whose revelatory novel about North Korea, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” won a Pulitzer Prize.
Outside the country, however, home-grown North Korean literature is suddenly taking wing, as defectors such as Kim launch a potent new genre. They are writing memoirs that detail the toxic texture of everyday life in North Korea. Three have been published so far this year, with two more coming in the fall.
Besides painting intimate family portraits of Orwellian torment, these books explain why so many North Koreans despise Americans. The memoirs also raise vexing questions about factual reliability. What kind of truth can a young writer tell about a dictatorship that has raised him on a diet of fear, privation and lies?
This new wave of memoirs will, in all likelihood, change nothing inside North Korea. The world’s longest-lasting totalitarian state will denounce them as imperialist-sponsored lies from “human scum,” as defectors are often called. Possessing the books will be a crime. Short of regime change, the North’s literary winter will continue.
The current leader, Kim Jong Un, will surely see to it. He is energetically tightening the screws on the family dictatorship, leading an ongoing purge that has claimed the lives of an estimated 70 apparatchiks deemed insufficiently loyal. This Kim, who succeeded his father in 2011, killed his own uncle. He reportedly ordered the execution-cum-shredding of his defense minister with antiaircraft guns after the elderly general fell asleep in the presence of his leader. As part of his crackdown, Kim has substantially tightened North Korea’s border with China. That border had loosened up in the mid-1990s, becoming a semi-permeable membrane that allowed information and consumer goods in — and tens of thousands of defectors out. The North Koreans now writing books are part of that exodus.
Their memoirs should be of particular interest in the United States. For they show, in visceral human terms, how hatred of America is bred in the bone of every North Korean child.
After Joseph Kim, at 15, managed to flee North Korea and find shelter in China, a missionary asked him if he wanted to move to America. His revulsion was instinctive. “I’d always been taught that [America] was the enemy, full of big-nosed, big-eyed, vicious people who’d killed my countrymen,” writes Kim (who has overcome his disgust and lives now in Brooklyn).
In her memoir, “A Thousand Miles to Freedom,” Eunsun Kim writes that when she was a child collecting mushrooms in the mountains, she saw North Korean artillery hidden everywhere, as soldiers prepared for an imminent attack. “We lived in perpetual fear of an invasion from the United States and their ally, South Korea,” she writes. Kim lives now in South Korea.
At school in North Korea, teachers preached anti-American paranoia, Hyeonseo Lee writes in “The Girl With Seven Names.” She was taught, among other things, that all Americans “smelled bad.”
“ ‘If you meet a Yankee bastard on the street and he offers you candy, do not take it!’ one teacher warned us, wagging a finger in the air. ‘Be on your guard if he asks you anything, even the most innocent questions.’ ”
Lee had never seen an American, “but for some reason the threat of the unseen made this warning all the more chilling.” She has since married an American and delivered a TED talk that has attracted more than 4.2 million views.
For the Kim regime, scaring schoolkids about smelly Americans is part of a survival strategy that has been extraordinarily successful. It dates back to the early 1950s and America’s scorched-earth strategy in waging the Korean War. The U.S. Air Force responded to the North Korean attack that started the war with three relentless years of carpet-bombing and napalm. The air campaign razed much of the country and killed large numbers of civilians. While Americans have never paid much attention to this airborne savagery, North Koreans still associate dead grandparents with Yankee bastards.
The Kim family is in the business of keeping these associations fresh and alarming. Like all dictatorships, it needs a population that lives in fear of foreign devils. The regime’s endless struggle against the United States, hyped daily in state media, excuses everything from repression to hunger to lack of electricity. It also justifies “military first” expenditures on nuclear weapons, long-range missiles and a huge army.
Books from defectors also shine an intense and damning light on China, North Korea’s indispensable patron and neighbor. Chinese police, as these books explain, hunt down and forcibly repatriate defectors to North Korea, where they face prison, torture, forced abortions and execution. China does this in flagrant violation of an international refugee convention it signed in 1951.
Chinese police came for Eunsun Kim’s family after she, her sister and her mother had settled on a Chinese farm. Her mother had married a farmer and given birth to his son. “Someone was banging loudly on the front door,” Kim writes. “I understood right away what was happening. I rose as quickly as I could and dashed toward the back window to try to escape. It was too late. . . . The officers instructed the three of us to get in the car. I was so scared that, for a moment, I completely forgot about my little brother.”
The three were jailed, hauled to the border and turned over to North Korean guards. They were then stripped, probed vaginally by the fingers of male guards, interrogated and, finally, “reeducated” in a labor camp. Then they fled again. “We had no money, and we were, under the eyes of the law, considered criminals, fugitives even. We didn’t hesitate about our destination. . . . The only thing we had in mind: flee, once more, to China, despite all the risks.”
Perhaps the greatest value of these new memoirs is to show the nuttiness of life under a family dictatorship that survives by spying upon, terrorizing and imprisoning its 24.9 million people, many of whom are chronically malnourished. After his father’s death, Joseph Kim recorded the mourning rituals of his homeland. Relatives and neighbors, he noticed, “go to the funeral of a man who starved to death and expect to be fed.”
As she explains in her memoir, Hyeonseo Lee grew up as a beneficiary of the regime’s neo-feudal caste system, which distributes food, housing and other favors to North Koreans based on their perceived loyalty. But the family’s status was threatened when her ailing stepfather committed suicide by taking an overdose of Valium. The Kim regime views suicide as a kind of jailbreak; it responds by punishing a dead citizen’s children. They can be reclassified as “hostile,” which denies them access to universities and limits job prospects.
The suicide jolted Lee’s mother into a family-saving frenzy of payoffs. “She had to get the hospital documentation changed very quickly, and this was a delicate and difficult task, but our futures depended on it,” Lee writes. “It cost her nearly all her hard-currency savings, but she did it. She bribed the hospital authorities. They agreed to change the cause of my father’s death to ‘heart attack.’ ” The family’s honor was saved. Lee’s mother was free to resume her career of peddling methamphetamine and smuggling goods from China.
If there’s one truth to be gleaned from these memoirs, it is about the centrality of lying. Along with bribery and privation, snitching and fear, lies are a coin of the Kim realm. North Koreans lie to survive; they lie to escape. This, of course, raises a question: Do they tell the truth in their memoirs?
For me, as the author of two books about North Korean defectors, it is a haunting issue. Shin Dong-hyuk, the subject of my 2012 book, “Escape From Camp 14,” misled me for seven years about some details of his life in North Korea’s gulag. When I asked him why he had done it, he said the complete truth was simply too painful. He chose to tell me (and human rights groups and U.N. investigators) an expurgated story, which he wore as body armor for life in the free world. It protected him from trauma he was unwilling to relive. It hid behavior he was ashamed to disclose. He had no idea, he said, that the precise details of his life would ever be considered important.
Shin’s experience in North Korea was particularly gruesome. His body is covered with scars from repeated torture. He’s stunted from malnutrition. As a young teen, he betrayed his mother and brother, causing their execution. Psychologists agree that victims of such severe trauma almost always tell stories that are fragmented, self-protective and intermittently untrue. But Shin’s relationship to the truth is not completely foreign to other defectors now writing memoirs.
“The storytelling culture in which Shin and I were born was highly propagandistic and sensationalist,” Lucia Jang, the North Korean-born author of the forthcoming memoir “Stars Between the Sun and Moon,” wrote in the Daily Beast this year. “. . . Our actual experiences mattered little, even to ourselves. Rather than facts and dates, which drive Western style storytelling, the details that are emphasized in our culture are descriptions of the experience and its emotional impact.”
Some skepticism, then, is probably in order for readers coming fresh to memoirs about North Korea. But for what it’s worth, I believe these books. They are consistent with a recent U.N. investigation that found overwhelming evidence that crimes against humanity are being committed in North Korea. For a journalist who has spent hundreds of hours interviewing defectors, these memoirs ring true about North Korea’s culture of cruelty and lies.