Considering North Korea

“What do you think about Korean reunification?”

The question came out of the blue. I was taping a Radio Free Asia interview about my just-released 2006 book, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea. I had no idea what the correct response was. Having been told that the broadcast could be heard in the DPRK, I mumbled something generic about Koreans all being one people.

Despite having lived within two hundred or fewer miles of the dividing border for much of my childhood, I only thought of the northern half of the Korean peninsula on occasion . My earliest associations were of spooky, dramatic names like “No Man’s Land” and the “Bridge of No Return,” from our family’s visit to the DMZ soon after our 1960 arrival in Seoul. Several years later, living in Daegu where my father worked in the mission hospital, I scared my 10-year-old self by imagining that my parents were wearing masks, underneath which they were actually North Korean spies. The residents of the other half of a divided Korea were my childhood version of the boogeyman.

Like most South Koreans, we foreigners got used to the bellicose threats and posturing of the DPRK. I was in high school at Seoul Foreign School the day in 1968 when thirty-one North Korean commandos came across the DMZ on a mission to assassinate President Park Chung-Hee. They got within half a mile of the Blue House before they were apprehended. The whole city was on alert and there was a charged atmosphere at school, knowing that the infiltrators had been moving through the city within three miles of us. Afterwards, we shared rumors with that excited sense of having been on the edge of the action. One story claimed that when the soldiers came over the mountain range they were disoriented by the brilliant lights of Seoul; they’d been told South Korea had no electricity.

During the 1973-74 school year I spent as a foreign exchange student at Ewha University, I took classes at Yonsei University’s Korean Language Institute, where Australian Adrian Buzo was a fellow student. The following year, Adrian was posted to North Korea as a diplomat during the six months that Australia ran an embassy in Pyongyang, from which he sent several blue aerograms detailing his impressions of the DPRK. I particularly remember the contrast he drew between the gray, expressionless rigidity of the North Koreans (he marveled that Koreans could have their sense of humor bred out of them) and the bustling, lively, expressive Chinese he encountered on diplomatic trips. It was the first account I’d ever heard by an observer from inside North Korea.

The news of the 1976 ax murders of two U.S. Army officers by North Korean soldiers, heard on AFKN radio from what felt like the relative safety of Geoje Island, was disturbing but seemed remote. Other than news reports of famines and political provocations, nothing else brought the DPRK to my attention for thirty years.

Then an interviewer asked a question, and within the year I got an image which grew into an idea for a novel about a Korean American adoptee visiting North Korea with her American family. Now I think about the country and its people nearly every day.

In the fall of 2007 I was chosen as one of the recipients of the Global Korea Award (for The Legend of Hong Kil Dong) from the Council on Korean Studies of Michigan State University, and flown to Lansing for the award ceremony. One member of the Korean community I met there was a pastor who had traveled to the DPRK earlier that year, entering from the Chinese border and traveling to Pyongyang by train. He had video of the North Korean countryside which he had secretly filmed from the train with a camera held beneath his shirt!

That evening, during a gathering at his home to celebrate the awardees, I knelt on the carpet in front of his television for an hour and a half, mesmerized. As the images unfolded, I realized for the first time: I can write this book. Rural North Korea in 2007 – wide plains filled with rice fields, farmers planting in flooded paddies, people pushing carts and riding bicycles, pink and blue concrete apartment buildings – looked exactly like the South Korean countryside I knew from the early 1960s.

Three years later, with a draft of the manuscript in revision, I was invited by a Korean friend to travel to northern Virginia for an introduction that turned out to be one of the most extraordinary encounters of my life. I met Professor Kim Hyun-shik, formerly one of North Korea’s foremost educators, and the personal Russian tutor for a teenaged Kim Jong-il. (Read Professor Kim’s account of that relationship in a fascinating article, “The Secret History of Kim Jong Il,” excerpted from his 2007 memoir.)

In 1991, while working in Moscow, Professor Kim was approached by a South Korean agent with the astonishing news that his sister, whom he hadn’t seen since the Korean War and had long thought dead, was alive and waiting to meet him. A double-agent reported the meeting to the DPRK, and Kim was forced to make the excruciating decision between returning home to face certain death, or defecting, knowing his entire family would be killed. He spent a number of years in South Korea before moving to the U.S., where he served as a research professor at George Mason University.

Throughout the hours of our conversation, Professor Kim, a gentle, soft-spoken man impaired by a severe stroke but still deeply engaging, was often in tears recalling the suffering of his former countrymen. When I shared my book idea with him, he encouraged me to pursue my project. What would he hope that the impact of such a book might be? “To create empathy for the North Korean people.”

Throughout the process of writing this book, I’ve been reading everything I can find, especially anything that gives me a sense of the daily lives of North Korean people. Contrary to the popular image of a country shrouded in mystery about which we know almost nothing, I’ve found that despite the secrecy that surrounds the regime, there is an amazing amount of information available if you go looking for it. One rich record has been created by tourists who’ve traveled to Pyongyang, including many on the Arirang Mass Game tours that the DPRK first opened to foreigners a decade ago. Every third one of them seems to have created a blog about the experience, with photographs of Pyongyang’s glittering hotel lobbies and gargantuan Soviet-style monuments, as well as people on the streets. Here’s an account of a 2005 trip. Enter “Arirang Mass Games” in YouTube for hundreds of videos of the astonishing spectacle created by 80,000 synchronized performers; a recent search produced 13,500 results.

real-livesnk-cropppedAnother source, offering a marked contrast to the sanitized images from government-controlled tours, is the testimony of those who’ve defected from the authoritarian country. Author Barbara Demick spent seven years interviewing refugees who’d made their way to South Korea for the acclaimed and highly-readable book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, a finalist for both the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle. Demick tells the stories of her chosen subjects – a pair of young lovers, a devout regime supporter who ends up selling cookies on the black market, an orphan who survived a labor camp, a female doctor – with vivid and compelling details, painting a rare picture of daily life in northeastern North Korea and the impact of the 1990s famine.

camp14Netflix offers the film, “Camp 14: Total Control Zone,” which sounds like a Grade B movie, but is actually the official title of a North Korean prison camp. It’s a searing documentary relating the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, the only person known to have been born in a North Korean prison camp and escaped (at age 23) to tell the tale. Much of the film records Shin’s silence during interviews as his mind attempts to navigate the incomprehensible dissonance between the facts of his early life and what he has learned about the rest of the world since escaping. As a boy in the prison camp, he knew there were places outside, but he thought that everyone else lived in similar conditions. The viewer watches the emotions play across his face as he struggles to discern what to remember, what to leave hidden below consciousness, and what to make of the terrible truth that all his suffering – constant hunger, lack of human connection and empathy, frequent beatings, the spectacle of executions and murders, and torture that has maimed his body – was needlessly imposed by his own government. Yet when asked at the end of the film if there’s anything that he misses about his young life, he responds, “I miss my innocent heart.”

orphanmastersonAspects of life in North Korea can also be glimpsed through contemporary fiction. There are the suspenseful “Inspector O” novels by James Church, a 4-volume series about a police detective in Pyongyang. The 2013 Pulitzer Prize was awarded to the North Korean novel, The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (how did this white American writer, with no prior connection to the peninsula, get his Korean details so pitch perfect?), which has taken many Americans on a journey through the country and its recent history via magical realism. But there is still no American literature for young people with contemporary North Korean content.

Six years since the question of reunification was posed to me, I continue to learn everything I can about the DPRK and its citizens. One of the most exciting moments of my research was the discovery that I could plot my characters’ journey through the country using Google Earth. It was an eerie feeling to be examining North Korean cities, towns and rural landscapes from above, at a close enough distance that I could pick out individual trees.

nk-bradtArmed with detailed maps of Pyongyang and Sinuiju, from the Bradt Travel Guide, North Korea, I could construct an actual route, down to particular structures (where might they buy snacks? where might they hide?) that was plausible, even if my premise – two American kids on the run, trying to escape over the border into China! – wasn’t.

My story began with the thriller plot, not with the intention to educate young Americans about North Korea.This project probably would have resulted in a didactic book. But I’ve wrestled with the question of whether telling the story from the perspective of a Korean American protagonist is exploitive, with North Koreans simply as supporting actors in the drama. My conclusion so far is that the realities of life in the DPRK are so surreal, so foreign to our experience, and sometimes so grim, that the first challenge is simply getting people to want to pick up the book. It also seems important to start with a character with whom young American readers can identify and with whom they’re willing to go along for the ride. My hope is that they will also make a connection with the North Korean characters and situations they meet in the course of the journey.

I’m on the tenth draft of my novel, committed to crafting this book until it fulfills its emerging purpose: to create empathy for the North Korean people.

highresannie-squareAnne Sibley O’Brien is a children’s book writer and illustrator who was raised in South Korea from the age of seven. She has published 31 books, including the graphic novel, The Legend of Hong Kil Dong: The Robin Hood of Korea, which won the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, the Global Korea Award, and the Aesop Award. Her as-yet-unpublished novel is entitled In the Shadow of the Sun. More at AnneSibleyOBrien.com