A fugitive from North Korea discovers that everyday life can be surreal on both sides of the 38th Parallel
DESPITE such works as Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy or Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang, it still seems as if the default response to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is one of comedy.
Don’t just think of Team America or The Interview – as a student at Oxford 20 years ago, at a left-leaning college, we were teased by one don with the couplet “Balliol Common Room! Somewhat free-er / Than Russia, China or North Korea!”
At the time said don was no doubt applauding himself for his wit, Hyeonseo Lee was coming to terms with being called Park Min-young rather than Kim Ji-hae. The first of her changes of name was not brought about through expedience, fear of political retribution or self-invention. It was because her mother had never loved her biological father, and when she finally managed to be with the man she loved, his parents demanded a name change to appease certain superstitions. Even in the heyday of the regime, not everyone was convinced that Kim Il-sung’s government represented total rationality. Nevertheless Lee captures the surrealism adroitly. The Great Leader, she says, was their equivalent of Santa Claus.
This is a stirring and brave story, and it is not uncomplicated. It might not seem terribly interesting in terms of style and voice – the only book Lee mentions reading is The Count Of Monte Cristo – but that in itself is interesting. “An author’s work reflects his social upbringing, but what is more important is the author’s world outlook”; “literature should be like a lighthouse that guides humanity to perfection”, “clumsiness does not matter” – not quotes, I should say, from Lee’s fine and inspiring book, but from such works as Duties Of Art And Literature In Our Revolution by Kim Il-sung, an essay I read a long, long time ago. (There was a time, dear readers, when I did not wear tank-tops). Or here’s another – “People read literary works not for killing time, instead of taking a nap, but for acquiring a deeper understanding of life.” In an ironic way, Lee’s book is a perfect exemplar of what the Great Leader thought literature should be: true, committed, unvarnished and honest. I wish he could have read it.
Lee introduces us askance to life in North Korea, through making the surrealism of their everyday lives seem utterly and unquestionably normal. A classless society with a hierarchy of “songbun”, dividing people into loyal, wavering and hostile. A didactically materialist world where children are demanded to paint pictures of the miraculous birth of Kim Jong-il. A place where even Primary School involves “life purification time” (training to accuse and confess) – and yet where one of your uncles gives you opium as a cold remedy, your mother is trading crystal meth against the state’s laws and your brief adventure over a river into China before your 18th birthday means never seeing your mother in your twenties.
Lee was positively Stakhanovite during her illegal employment in China, and Machiavellian in her self-preservation. Many others fare less well. When she does manage to get to Seoul, where citizens of North Korea are automatically given citizenship as defectors, she is stuck in a situation usually described (wrongly: that’s a different review) as Kafkaesque. Having had to pretend she was not from North Korea in China – and learning the skills to do so – she now has to convince them she actually is from North Korea, and not a Chinese dissident trying to escape. She does so, but when she has to try to get her mother and brother out, the whole cycle of duplicity, intimidation and disappointment begins again.
Since, unsurprisingly, Seoul is not actually Paradise, some of the most interesting pieces in this testimony are about how North Koreans who defect are treated with suspicion, contempt and a simmering resentment. That her mother – a capable, clever and crafty woman by all accounts – is reduced to cleaning rooms in a place where they are hired by the hour brought out all my barely suppressed Calvinist fury. Freedom is a noble thing – but what do you do with it when you’ve never had it before? Lee raises very sharp points about how any future reunification is now compromised by antagonisms from South Korea as well as by the paralysed North. They may not have “songbun” but they can tell the difference between a genuine Hermes bag and a knock-off, while producing them at the same time.
The most endearing part of this book is the guilt that Lee feels from fleeing. That cannot be easy to bear, even when one moves all under heaven and earth to accomplish the task. There is an elegiac quality in that, after heroic endeavours (Communist fantasy realism again), it succumbs to sentimentality. It’s not wrong to want a Disney ending – after all, Lee had never seen the films those running dogs of capitalism produce – but it’s a diminishing moment when personal happiness trumps political anger.
What this book reveals is that North Korea is not the “opposite” of supposedly functional states under either capitalism or communism or any other political reality. It’s the dark jester, showing that all sides of the debate fail to recognise their own absurdities. By being bold enough to make the absurdity, the heroism, the weirdness and the oddly everyday evident, Lee has made her own life the keyhole to the present, inside and outside of North Korea.
Hyeonseo Lee appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival today at 7.15pm