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from the May 2013 issue


Two days ago, I stood at the DMZ with one of the authors in this issue, Jang Jin-sung. We looked across toward North Korea together from a guardpost on the South Korean side. Only a barbed wire fence below separated him from home. A flock of birds flew over us in an arrow formation, pointing north; but neither he, nor those he loves on the other side, can cross that border.

North Korea is enclosed by borders. In material terms, North Korea is a large holding camp, as most Koreans living inside the DPRK have no freedom of movement. At the end of the Korean War, many Koreans living in Japan emigrated to North Korea and found themselves trapped as soon as they entered the country. Others, like my grandparents on both sides, fled south during the chaos of the Korean War. After the war, they found themselves unable to return to their homes and families in the north. In this way, although the notion of “reunification” on the Korean peninsula may seem like a political rallying point to outsiders and to some younger Koreans, many older Koreans—and North Korean refugees—see the partition of Korea as something deeply painful which must come to an end.

Families separated by the North Korean border have more than a barbed wire fence standing between them. They cannot even make contact with each other, because of the communications blockade enforced by the North Korean regime. The consequence of this information barrier is the psychological border that divides North Korea from the rest of the world and gives rise to this question: can we on the outside understand “them,” and North Koreans “us”? Perhaps the pieces in this issue will go some small way toward fostering that understanding.

The extract from Kim Yeon-seul’s memoir tells a story both personal and universal: substance abuse leading to the demise of the family. Such problems never happen in isolation; and in this piece, too, we see how the regime’s draconian policies have directly contributed to the destruction of two families. It may be a general truth that individual lives are affected by political circumstances, and their freedoms constrained by socio-political realities. Yet there is something more profoundly inescapable in North Korea: not only is there no way to voice dissent or affect change, but there is also no way to record the truth of what is happening.

Harsh facts drive the only fiction in this issue, Lee Ji-myung’s depiction of drug smugglers’ lives on the Sino-North Korean border in “After the Gunshot." Drug smuggling (and addiction) have become pandemic, and it is notoriously difficult to express the effect that these problems have through academic studies and other kinds of nonfiction, not least because defector testimonies are generally considered unreliable; yet when a North Korean defector is in control of the narrative—and not merely acting as witnesses for writers who do not share an experience of their reality—the truth of what is happening in North Korea may be voiced in a more authoritative way. North Korean exiles are the voice of North Korea: the protagonist in the story, despite his ability to sneak back and forth across the physical border, is trapped within “North Korea” as much as anyone who cannot make the same crossing.

In “The Arduous March” by Ji Hyun-ah, we confront the hardships encountered by the author during the famine that devastated North Korea in the mid 1990s. Scavenging in the wild for food is difficult enough for a young girl, but the author’s psychological pain begins only after her father introduces his daughter to the idea of “defection.” Until that moment, there is no reflection—only action. The notion of dissatisfaction could not be conceived of or imagined by one so focused on survival. North Korean refugees say again and again that the absence of politically subversive ideas inside the country is not because there is a lack of oppression, but as a result of the oppressive ideology of hunger, which is an effective tool that prevents subversive ideas and action.

For Park Gui-ok in “I Want to Call Her Mother Again,” too, politics is not to blame. Rather, it is her mother’s abandonment of her and her brother that is the starting point for all that is wrong with life for her in North Korea. It is only when the author leaves the country and recognizes the pattern of her own life in other defectors’ testimonies that she realizes how the North Korean system has driven countless families to ruin. At this moment of recognition, the intimate relationship between mother and child triumphs over the political institution of North Korea, which dictates that the real Mother is the Party, and states that birth mothers are inadequate and inferior surrogates. The distinction arrived at by the author—between the individual sphere and domain of the state—is what breaks the hold of North Korea’s totalitarian mind-control.

In this way, North Korean refugees use literature to record reality as they see it, instead of the “reality” that the regime wants them to record: that their dictator is the most benign leader in the world. But the essential glue used by the North Korean regime to bind the mind of the North Korean people to its version of reality is, in fact, also a form of literature. Socialist realism is considered to be the essence of North Korean state literature, and Stalin once described the genre as such: “An artist has to depict our life truthfully. And if he depicts it truthfully, he cannot help but reveal the facts that lead our life to socialism.” Gwak Moon-an’s reflections on state literature, in which he traces the literary career of renowned North Korean state poet Kim Chul’s works from “realism” to “socialist realism”—from how a poet sees the world to how the Party wants all of its poets to see the world—may be read in response to Stalin’s comment.

If Kim Chul’s later poetry removed the individual voice from literature and replaced it with the voice of the Party—fusing (and confusing) the personal and political spheres as one and the same—exiled North Korean poet Kim Sung-min attempts to separate the regime’s voice from that of the poet. Rice is a gift from Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung who is the “Sun,” according to the voice of the North Korean regime; but according to the poet, it is a “thousand year old promise” of nature. Coming from the totalitarian uniformity of North Korea, expression of such an anomalous belief is the greatest rebellion.

In Jang Jin-sung’s “Pillow,” it is in not only the poet’s vision of the world, but also the language in which he expresses it, that the individual triumphs over the Party. The mere use of everyday language is a subversive act in the North Korean literary context, as is the recording of human reality in a way that differs from how the Party records socialist “reality.” Ironically, this former court poet of Kim Jong-il was favored by the dictator for his strange, colloquial diction; but one who speaks in this way could not think as the regime dictated. Jang was too curious, and had to flee from the dictator when he was caught distributing outside literature.

In a context so oppressive, it feels wrong to label the literature of North Korean exiles as “political”; each of these authors is, above anything else, struggling to formulate individual visions of reality. Their writing is a pluralistic effort to voice things as they are—not as they have been written.  

© 2013 Shirley Lee. All rights reserved.

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