North Korea is one of the most enigmatic nations in the world, with very few people able to leave the country alive. Here are three memoir books from those who escaped.
The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea is one of the most closed countries in the world. There are very few things known about North Korea, many of them shared by those able to escape from the country alive. These escapees are known as defectors, meaning they abandoned their obligations to the North Korean regime.
North Korea is not only known for its strict regime, but also for its participation in the Cold War as one of the nations with the most nuclear weapons. It is also known for its tense conflict with its sister nation of South Korea, one that seems to be more a difference of political ideals than anything else.
As a communist society, North Korea uses its isolation to disrespect international deals and human rights. Thanks to memoirs from different defectors of North Korea, we can now learn about the North Korean totalitarian state and its rigid control system.
It is understandable that many North Koreans choose to run from the regime. North Korean defectors often escape due to the poverty and inhumane conditions as well as their own survival. However, escaping North Korea is not easy, which makes these memoirs of successful defectors so valuable.
The strength in these books is palpable, which is why we will cover them in the Memoir series this week. Here are three memoirs from North Korean defectors, brave people who decided to share their stories of survival on long, tense journeys for freedom and peace.
1. Every Falling Star by Sungju Lee
Sungju Lee’s memoir, Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea, was published in 2016 in collaboration with translator Susan McClelland. The book shares Lee’s struggle to stay alive in North Korea amidst poverty and hunger before ultimately escaping the country.
Lee describes in his memoir how common orphanhood is in North Korea. Many children steal food in order to survive, even though the fear of being arrested and facing cruel and unusual punishment was a harsh reality. Lee tells the story that many North Korean children share of having to give up their childhood and innocence for survival.
Lee’s journey is a difficult one, especially when it comes time to escape North Korea, but he ultimately comes out of the country alive, able to survive and make it to South Korea. This memoir is an excellent example of how someone can overcome the most troublesome situations and become strong from them.
A Thousand Miles to Freedom by Eunsun Kim
Eunsun Kim’s memoir, A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea, was published in 2015 in collaboration with Sébastien Falletti and translated by David Tian. In her memoir, Kim shares the reality of being a young girl in an oppressive dictatorship.
Kim shares how she grew up thinking that public executions and nationwide food shortages were a normal occurrence. Her memoir tells of how things changed when the famine broke out. After her father and grandparents died, her mother fled with her and her sister to China, even though China was similar to North Korea because it was also a hostile place for both young girls and defectors.
Chinese society rejected Kim and her family for being defectors, leaving them to live on the streets to survive. Kim’s memoir shows the struggle she and her family went through, being treated as less and excluded because they left North Korea. This book perfectly portrays the struggles of being an immigrant.
In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park
Human rights activist Yeonmi Park’s memoir, In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, is one of the most popular memoirs from a North Korean defector. Published in 2015 in collaboration with Maryanne Vollers, this memoir shows how many North Korean defectors are less concerned with total freedom as they are with satiating their hunger.
Park shares the indoctrination of being raised in North Korea, where she did not have any rights, but instead had duties to the state and to the leaders. She tells of the education they receive from a young age, telling them that the outside world wants to steal from the nation. They also must gain government approval for anything they do, wear, or buy, and a single mistake can be punished with the most inhumane of penalties.
Park tells the story of how her family lost everything after the government punished her father for becoming wealthy. After serving time in a labor camp as their punishment, the family made the decision to leave the country, giving themselves over to human traffickers as the only way to escape successfully.
Park and her mother convert to Christianity to receive protection and help on their journey to South Korea. She portrays the struggle that comes with handing yourself over to others and losing all control in order to be free. She also shares the struggle of unlearning what she had been taught through years of indoctrination, learning she had more rights than she was given and struggling with going against the North Korean ideals.
The most shocking part in reading memoirs by North Korean defectors is the reality that millions of people are suffering under inhuman conditions without basic human rights, with the only way of surviving being escape from the country.
These memoirs can teach new generations the valuable lesson that there is still so much work to do in the world. North Korea is a perfect example of what can happen if we get trapped by our own decisions when choosing our government officials. These books are a call to action as well, as they show that we must be more empathetic toward North Korean defectors and their struggles.
In reading these three memoirs, you will likely have a new viewpoint on life and what is going on around you. These three memoirs have taught me that we rely heavily on those who govern us, just as the people of North Korea do. Much like North Korea, if we give power to the wrong people, we may lose our choices and our freedoms.