When I was a senior in college, a friend introduced me to South Korean pop music and media, and I became so interested in the language and pop culture that I eventually applied to teach English as a foreign language there, since I didn’t make it into Teach for America and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with myself after graduation.1 I’d never studied abroad, and the only foreign countries I’d ever visited were Canada (which is not that dissimilar to the U.S.) and Italy (which has a slightly different culture but is still a western country).
So, as I prepared to apply to EPIK, I did a lot of research on South Korean history, politics, and culture. Naturally, this raised a lot of questions about North Korea, since everyone I told about my intentions to teach abroad responded with, “But what about North Korea?!” We’ve all seen the news footage—jack-booted soldiers duck-stepping down the streets of Pyongyang, Kim Jong Il’s incredibly outdated haircut2, threats of nuclear war. I’m a basket case at the best of times, and the North Korean government’s obsession with toppling the reign of us Yankee capitalist bastards3 did not do much for my nerves in this post-9/11 world.
I turned to documentaries about the state of North Korea, and the many defectors who have managed to escape the Hermit Kingdom: National Geographic’s Inside North Korea, Crossing the Line4, and the BBC’s Escaping North Korea. I don’t think it had quite occurred to me how desperate things were in that country until I watched those documentaries. I knew it was bad, but I couldn’t imagine how the rest of the world could stand by and allow it to happen. To paraphrase something Park Yeonmi said in this conversation5 with Savannah Guthrie and Hannah Song from Liberty in North Korea6, when we allow these kinds of things to happen to North Koreans, it diminishes all of us and our humanity.
I felt the same way while reading In Order to Live. Park Yeonmi was born in Hyesan, a city near the Chinese–North Korean border, in 1993. She and her mother made the decision to leave North Korea in 2007, after Yeonmi’s older sister, Eunmi, escaped across the border to China just a few days earlier. The book is split into three volumes—North Korea, China, and South Korea—and details her experience as a victim of human trafficking and her struggle to reunite with her family in South Korea. At the time of Yeonmi’s escape, 70 percent of women who escaped over the Chinese border were victims of human trafficking, and were forced by their captors to lure other unsuspecting refugees into slavery as well.
This is not a book for the faint of heart; in its first pages, we read about how Yeonmi’s mother was raped right in front of her by a trafficker who had his eyes on Yeonmi. Yeonmi is constantly fighting off her new masters, even to the point of threatening suicide if they try to touch her. She writes a lot about being ready to die at a moment’s notice; when her group crossed the border into Mongolia in the dead of night, they all brought knives with them to cut their own throats in case the border guards decided to repatriate them to North Korea.7
Getting back to the start of this post—I did, eventually, end up spending a year teaching in South Korea, where North Korea is sort of a joke. I lived in the city of Daegu8 from August 2012–August 2013, and during that time relations between Seoul and Pyongyang were steadily cooling. North Korea tested some nuclear weapons and closed down the Joint Industrial Area9 in Kaesong, North Korea, for about three months. All of my fellow expat teachers’ parents and family were freaking out because Western media loves to sensationalize North Korea’s actions, but all of the Koreans I knew were like, “Been there, done that, whatever.” There is a lot of compassion for North Korean people who are starving and struggling to survive or escape the country, but no one really takes Kim Jong Un seriously.10
I was saddened to read about how Yeonmi experienced discrimination in South Korea due to her refugee status, however. Her schoolmates made fun of her accent11 and treated her as though she were a North Korean spy.12 It was easy to understand why Yeonmi sometimes wished she had never left North Korea—to feel like she wasn’t thriving in South Korea after all the trauma she’d endured must have been horrible. But it was really satisfying to read about her triumph over her fear of the Kim dynasty and her involvement in organizations that aim to stop the human rights violations in North Korea.
I think this book is an important addition to the current literature on North Korea, and is an interesting look into what daily life is like. There is a tendency among privileged westerners to victimize people in countries that are typically seen as “worse off” (see: the western world’s attitude toward literally everyone in sub-Saharan Africa), when not every day is horror and drudgery. Yeonmi’s family tried to make the best of a bad situation, and it’s important to note that leaving a bad situation isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Yeonmi and her family had a hard time surviving in North Korea, but she and her mother endured so much worse as defectors eking out a living in China. More than anything, this book highlights the importance of putting pressure on China to stop deporting North Korean refugees. If China changes its foreign policy regarding this matter, refugees’ safety won’t be a matter of life and death, and human traffickers will have no leverage against them. Maybe then, the power of the Kim dynasty over its subjects will begin to wane, too.
- I was an English major and I thought I might want to go into teaching, since I’d always loved my English teachers in school. Teaching in the U.S. is really tough, though—I worked as an in-class tutor for two years, and it’s not an easy environment to be successful in.
- I’m being flip here as a coping mechanism because this book made me so goddamn angry at the Kim regime. Obviously there is a lot more wrong with KJI than just his hair.
- Their words, not mine—Park gives a crude example in the book of a math problem North Korean children might see in a textbook: “If you kill one American bastard and your friend kills two American bastards, how many dead American bastards do you have?” You kind of have to laugh at the absurdity of it all.
- Weirdly, this is about an American who defected to North Korea
- Yeonmi is so sweet. I can’t believe she lived through all that horror after leaving North Korea. She just makes me want to cry forever.
- Also known as LiNK, Liberty in North Korea is an activist group that helps to resettle North Korean refugees. They do fantastic work—check out their most recent Impact Report.
- China has a disgusting policy of repatriating North Korean refugees, because although they signed the U.N. convention relating to the status of refugees in 1982, they view North Korean refugees as “economic migrants” and they will send these desperate people back over the border to be killed or imprisoned. No one leaves North Korea without express permission, and I’d imagine it’s better to take your own life than be tortured or worked to death in a North Korean prison camp.
- Fourth largest city in South Korea, hottest part of the country, best jjimdak in the universe. I miss it so much! You can read about my year there at my expat blog.
- Sort of a barometer of goodwill between the two countries; when it closed, I’ll admit I got a little nervous!
- I mean, really. How many times have they threatened horrible things against the U.S. and South Korea now? And what’s happened?? NOTHING. Not that I’m saying they should work on their follow-through or anything, but their threats are completely empty 99.9% of the time. They rely on China and South Korea for economic assistance, and when China says “sit the fuck down,” you sit the fuck down.
- The North Korean and South Korean dialects are rather different. South Korean is a little gentler and has far more English cognates (lovingly referred to as “Konglish”), while North Korean can sound harsh and old-fashioned by comparison. Loosely translated, the term 촌스롭다 (chon-seu-rop-da) in Korean means “seeming like a country bumpkin”—this is probably how North Korean dialect would be described.
- I think most South Koreans’ experience with North Korean dialect comes from the Kim dynasty’s propaganda speeches, and South Korean TV dramas and films, in which most North Korean characters are spies.