Review of Hyejin Kim, Jia, A Novel of North Korea (San Francisco: Midnight Editions, 2007)
During the famine that struck North Korea in the mid-1990s, thousands of hungry refugees poured into northeast China in search of food and work. They often brought with them little more than the clothes on their backs. But they also carried something else that was of great interest to the outside world: their stories. With information about North Korea so scarce, these stories provided a valuable window onto everyday life in a society rapidly descending into chaos and savagery.
South Korean novelist Hyejin Kim met several North Korean refugees when she was studying in China. Their stories moved and captivated her. From the accounts of several refugees, she created the novel Jia about a young North Korean woman of the same name. As a depiction of North Korean society, it is both terrifying and illuminating. For a South Korean to imagine the lives of North Koreans requires not just a leap of imagination but a willingness to pierce through a welter of clichés about life on the other side of the border. At this level, Jia is a success, albeit a depressing one.
Jia is a young girl who has lost both her mother and father – her mother to the travails of childbirth, her father to the tyranny of the North Korean system. She lives with her sister and their grandparents in an area of the country devoted to the “commonly bad,” one of the several social designations that rank North Koreans citizens according to their loyalty to the regime. But Jia is lucky. She is, like her mother, a gifted dancer. She manages, through a series of adventures, to make it to the capital Pyongyang and embark on a career that restores her temporarily to the country’s elite.
But there are no Cinderella stories in North Korea. Hyejin Kim’s novel is about disillusionment. For Jia, the illusion is that art will set her free. Like so many of her compatriots, she can maintain her naiveté largely because of the relatively isolation of her society from the outside world. North Koreans believe that they live in the best of all possible worlds only because they have no access to the books, the movies, and the gossip from other countries. For Jia, the disillusionment comes in stages. First Jia learns that her maternal grandparents refuse to acknowledge her – because contact with someone from the “commonly bad” might jeopardize their own position. She then gradually learns that her friends, her acquaintances, her colleagues, and her government are all willing to betray her.
But Jia’s most tenaciously held illusion is that people are fundamentally good. In one particularly horrifying scene, she travels by train to a border town in order to make the crossing into China. The train is packed. A man tries to climb through a broken window but is pulled back by a railroad policeman. Soldiers on board take his bag and divvy up his valuables. It was only the prelude to several days of misery.
“The train was pandemonium – slow and cold pandemonium. An icy wind came through broken windows, and in the dark before dawn, I saw a black lump drop from the sky and past my window.” Jia wants to know what it was. “A middle aged woman in front of me spoke. ‘It’s a dead person. Someone must have fallen asleep on top of the train and rolled off, or he died of electric shock up there and others pushed him off.’” The woman continues, “’That’s not so bad compared to other things that happen on this train. If you see these scenes as often as we have, you won’t care anymore either.’”
The train, and its complete absence of social solidarity, is a microcosm of North Korea itself, in which adversity has reduced the population to a dog-eat-dog struggle to survive. It also prepares Jia for her new life in China, where the North Korean refugees live like hunted animals. Women are particularly vulnerable to the gangs of abductors who capture North Koreans to serve as prostitutes in the city or captive wives for often-brutal rural Chinese husbands.
Indeed, in a strange irony, the North Korean refugees relive the experience of their revolutionary forebears. Like revolutionary leader Kim Il Sung and his guerrilla cadre fighting against the Japanese during the colonial period, Jia and her fellow refugees are constantly on the run. They peel the bark off trees to eat, just as Kim Il Sung once did. They live in the very same caves that the guerrillas did on Mt. Paekdu. And the women face the potential fate of serving as the equivalent of “comfort women,” or sexual slaves. The chief difference, of course, is that the Japanese have nothing to do with the horrors of Jia’s experiences. She is the victim of Koreans.
The stories of Jia’s rise and fall, and that of the people she meets on the road, are certainly fascinating. They also ring true, for they correspond in outline and detail to the stories of North Korean refugees that have already been published. But does Jia work as a novel? Alas, the very material that makes the narrative so vivid is also what ultimately handcuffs the story.
Jia reads more like a series of refugee interviews than a fully imagined novel. The main character is clearly a composite figure, for at times she is understandably naïve and at other times unexpectedly knowing. Experiences that would seem to be important – such as her interactions with foreigners in her job at a souvenir shop at a hotel – merit barely a mention, as if these details simply didn’t come up in the interviews that shaped the novel. In the end, Jia is saved from the usual fate of North Korean refugees – prostitution, return to North Korea, death – by an angelic figure that intervenes deus ex machina. As if realizing that the resolution of Jia’s own story is not particularly believable, the author concludes with the fate of two other characters who represent the worst possible fate – treachery for one and suicide for the other.
North Korea is an inherently compelling story. Novelists, however, travel that territory at their own risk. The temptation is simply to reflect what is. Jia is certainly an interesting read. But rather than an imaginative retelling of the North Korean reality, it rarely rises up above the level of a transcript.
Korean Quarterly, Fall 2007