Everybody talks about North Korea, but nobody knows about that closed country.
When we’re asked whether we are from the South or the North, South Koreans (we) are very shocked by the ignorance – “ isn’t it common knowledge that it is almost impossible for North Koreans to leave their country? – What do they know then? Communism? The Dictator? Nuclear weapons? The Enemy? What else?
How bizarre it is, that even one “Korea” doesn’t know about the other. What makes it possible is not only the prohibition for having interest in North Korea, but also the exclusiveness of the North itself. It has been very distant to us. It feels like it is almost unreal. However, it does exist, no matter how we feel. Yes, of course it is a real country, and this means the people there are real as well – “ they are not just silent, passive chumps, but living human beings. If the dictator’s country is as terrible as many people say, what would the lives in the North be like?
Based on true events, Jia is the first novel about present-day North Korea to be published in English.
All but closed to outside visitors and influence, North Korea is among the most opaque nations on earth. While most readers know only the bleak outlines of its politics and history – “ the repressions of this regime, its nuclear armament, famines, and the personality cult of “Dear Leader” Kim Jon II – “ Hyejin Kim illuminates this troubled country from within. Based on true events, Jia is the first novel about present-day North Korea to be published in English.
As a child in South Korea, Hyejin Kim, author of the book “Jia”, was taught to fear and revile North Korea. “I had never thought of North Korea” as a real country and North Koreans as real human beings,” she writes. Every year, on the anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, she was required to hand in an essay and painting vilifying North Korea. At fourteen, she learned that her father had been falsely imprisoned for five years as a North Korean sympathizer. She had good reasons for regarding North Korea as “both a constant threat and a beguiling Pandora’s box” – “ until a chance encounter on a bus in northeast China led to a friendship with “Jia”, the inspiration for Hyejin Kim’s affecting debut.
Jia, the gentle, fragile daughter of a dancer who died giving birth to her and a father who was “disappeared” for owning foreign books, grew up in the North Korea mountain gulag where her grandparents had been sent as punishment for their son’s supposed treason. When her grandfather managed to smuggle her out of the gulag, Jia’s journey took her first to an orphanage in Pyongyang, and then to a dance school where she performed in the World Festival of Youth and Students in front of foreign dignitaries and the Great Leader himself. As a young woman living in Pyongyang, she fell in love with a soldier and befriended neighbors, co-workers and teachers, all struggling to survive the famine, the silent darkness and the “capricious political winds” of modern North Korea. As life in the capital city worsened and her friends began to disappear, Jia – “ like thousands of her compatriots – “ attempted to illegally cross the North Korean border into China. Along the way, she fell in with beggars, was kidnapped, beaten, enslaved and finally learned to negotiate Chinese culture and balanced her cruel past with the possibilities of kindness and love.
They were all challenged in the world they lived, but completely got defeated. How miserable a human’s life can be? This question follows the readers the entire time. Depicted in first-person narrative, it is an individual’s story, not just a human rights movement report, which lets readers feel the misery more vividly. Each accident is so terrible and unbelievable but clearly true and from a real individual’s experience. Although the sentences are not so refined, and the descriptions of characters are quite platitudinous, they didn’t fail to show disastrous scenes in the hidden country.
On October 2nd 2007, the President of South Korea visited North Korea for a summit. At the same time, Vollertsen, a German doctor was expelled for his movement (human rights movement) in North Korea after he burst into the press conference. He claimed the summit was just a show. Yes, it is true that people are mostly focusing on the political situation between the two Koreas and not on human rights in North Korea but the summit is the first step in solving the ultimate problem. We can’t just attack the North to “save” people, can we? The whole situation is too complicated to think about.
More than 50 years have passed since the Korean War, and the more time that passes, the more difficult it will be to end the problems. Today, we (South Koreans) wander the streets of the unknown as Jia did. We should not forget how people in North Korea are being treated and attempt to stop it. As the author said, “these other Koreans walk the Earth with us”. The book, as the author hoped, is helping people see the reality through a live, human voice.
Youlmae Park is South Korean. She is in the United States studying English and interning at Asiance Magazine.