How I Became a North Korean (Review)

Posted January 8, 2017

Categories: Articles, Book Reviews, Korea

How I Became a North Korean, Krys Lee (Viking, 2016), 246 pages


It has become harder and harder these days to define what it means to be North Korean. During the heyday of Kim Il Sung, it was much easier to conflate individual North Koreans with their leader, their state, and the country’s prevailing ideology. That was, after all, the way North Korean society was supposed to function: as “a large family which is united in one mind,” according to the country’s 1972 constitution.


To whatever extent this ideal relationship existed, it certainly doesn’t today. North Koreans are no longer united in one mind. Kim Il Sung’s grandson, Kim Jong Un, does not have much in the way of charismatic authority. More information about the outside world has leaked into the country. The state no longer commands complete allegiance through an all-encompassing welfare system because those services began to break down in the late 1980s and collapsed during the famine of the 1990s.


As a result, many North Koreans have simply left the country. Today, about 30,000 North Koreans live in South Korea. Tens of thousands, perhaps even more, live secretly in China, many in the northeast region of Yanbian where they can more easily mix with ethnic Koreans there. You can find North Korean defectors in the United States and throughout Europe as well.


In all of these places, North Koreans have effectively created new identities – not only for themselves but collectively. As a result, what today connects a well-off doctor in Pyongyang, a North Korean woman trafficked to Yanbian, a North Korean defector trying to make ends meet as a dishwasher in Seoul, and a young North Korean student in a college in Virginia? The “large family” has dispersed, and it is no longer of one mind.


In her new novel, How I Became a North Korean, Krys Lee brings together three very different young people in an effort to understand this evolving identity.


Yongju is the son of a high-ranking party official who has fallen afoul of the country’s leader. When the Dear Leader kills Yongju’s father, his mother uses her remaining connections to smuggle the family out of the country into China. Yongju suffers a precipitous drop in status as he becomes yet one more North Korean refugee hoping to make it one day to South Korea.


Jangmi is also from North Korea. But she is from the lower classes, her lineage compromised by the existence of South Korean relatives. Moreover, she’s pregnant, with no husband in sight. She is, however, a survivor. She’d managed to live through the famine years by breaking the rules. To save her baby, she breaks the rules again by crossing over to China, to become the wife of an ethnic Korean man in Yanbian. But that safe harbor proves only temporary, and soon she’s on the run again.


Danny is the outlier of the three. The religious son of Christian parents from the Yanbian region, he has spent his formative years in California. One day, he hopes, he’ll attend Harvard and make his parents proud. He harbors a secret, however. He likes boys, not girls. A series of harrowing incidents throws him off his college-bound path. Traumatized and confused, he flees to Yanbian where his mother is doing missionary work among North Korean refugees. When he discovers that his mother too has a secret, one that shocks him to the core, Danny runs away from her as well. Ultimately he finds himself among the outcasts of Yanbian society, including a group of North Korean refugees.


And thus all three characters converge. Stripped of all the trappings of their past lives, they must figure out how to survive in a largely hostile territory and somehow make it to safer ground.


Lee has done the requisite research to embed her characters in a believable context. Danny’s grandfather, for instance, crossed from Yanbian into North Korea to escape “the madness of China’s Cultural Revolution,” a not uncommon story of that era. Jangmi’s survival strategy of breaking the rules during the famine years of the 1990s is one of the more memorable takeaways of Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy. The helplessness of the Pyongyang elite in adverse conditions, which is Yongju’s experience, is common lore among refugees. Lee even cites the popularity of Choco Pies, distributed to workers at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, on the North Korean black market, another authentic detail.


In How I Became a North Korean, Lee sets the stage expertly, shifting from one perspective to another, as her characters make their respective crossings. Her evocation of their life in Yanbian is also well done, particularly the mixed reception the North Koreans receive from their ethnic cousins.


Once the characters end up in a “safe house” run by missionaries, however, the narrative loses some steam. Lee takes an interesting risk by portraying the missionaries as devilishly manipulative as they force their charges to memorize the Bible – among other things – before they can earn their transfer to South Korea. The notion that the “safety” of China is really another from of captivity, presided over by traffickers and brokers and missionaries, is critical to an understanding of the stages that North Koreans go through in order to adopt their new identities abroad.


But having brought her three characters through a series of perils to meet up in China, Lee doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with them. Numerous opportunities to explore the relationship among the three go unexplored. Even the climax seems somewhat forced, and the “freedom” that follows feels like an afterthought.


Still, How I Became a North Korean is an important novel that explores the struggles of North Koreans outside their country and their evolving identities in this diaspora. It captures the harrowing conditions in China where, as one character points out, “Everybody wants something from one another. Everything is an exchange.” It is the ultimate irony for North Koreans: to leave a system once predicated on organic unity and be plunged into a world of transactions where they have so little to trade except their bodies and their souls.


Korean Quarterly, Spring 2017

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