In the back of a café, I sat down to finish the last of three books I received when my perky waiter asked, “What are you reading?” Tilting my book so he could read the cover, he gushed, “Oh my gosh, North Korea! I’m like obsessed!” Intrigued by his response, I tried to start a conversation with him about North Korea, only to discover his knowledge of the country was less than mine. So why the fascination? What is it about North Korea that intrigues not just this particular waiter, but the media and the rest of the world?
If you’re anything like I was a few months ago, your understanding of North Korea is something along the lines of “the situation there isn’t great and their leader died last year.” So when offered the chance to read not one but three books on North Korea, I jumped on it. And somewhere after finishing Hyejin Kim’s “Jia” and in the middle of Blaine Harden’s “Escape From Camp 14,” I realized that for me the fascination lay not with the country itself but with the people and their almost animalistic means of survival. This almost morbid curiosity continued as I finished my trio of books with “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson. These three glimpses into the lifestyles of North Koreans provide readers with completely different experiences and perspectives: the basic need for survival pervades each story through its various characters.
Years of research and study went into each of these reads but as Harden is quick to point out, “fact-checking is not possible in North Korea.” Therefore we as readers can only accept the information proffered us and form our own conclusions.
As you delve into the lives of main characters Jia, Jun Do, and Shin, you realize there must be some kernel of truth in their stories because no one would ever want to fabricate the difficulties they endure.
It’s sad to see that in each individual’s struggle for survival, there is a distinct sacrifice of emotions.
As a child, character Shin (in Harden’s “Camp 14”) lacks a normal loving relationship with his mother, viewing her only as a competitor for food. This continues throughout his childhood, culminating in him selling out his mother and brother in exchange for the promise of more food and less work. His actions result in both of their executions.
“Orphan Master’s Son” author Johnson illustrates a character with a certain emotional estrangement from his father. While Jun Do is a creation based on Johnson’s research, his fictional relationship with his father doesn’t fall far from the true account of earlier character, Shin’s life. Jun Do is the son of the Orphan Master, but he describes how his father never showed any favoritism toward him over the orphans, going so far as to take away Jun Do’s shoes in the cold of winter.
Perhaps there’s something to be said about a lack of emotion. Maybe it’s the key to survival in many situations. I’ve heard it said that your emotions make you weak, but it had never rung true until reading these stories of North Korea.
“Jia” recounts how a woman decides to cross the river to China in order to give her child a better life. The woman carries her daughter on her back and makes the crossing, at one point feeling a tug on her hair, but, as instructed, she continues without looking back. Upon reaching the other side, she realizes she has unintentionally drowned her daughter, that the pulling of her hair had been her child. Left with nothing, she falls into a deep depression. Her emotions render her weak in a world where “survival of the fittest” means those who can leave behind their emotional baggage.
I can say with certainty that these are not happy bedtime stories, nor are they promises for change in North Korea. They are, however, incredible tales of survival, examples of how humans can find the strength to overcome any obstacle. No matter your knowledge of or interest in North Korea, each of these stories holds something for everyone: adventure, romance, life, loss, and above all, triumph in even the most dire of situations.