My Rating: 5/5 stars
“The school year started in September, with a long vacation in the winter, not the summer, due to the difficulty of keeping the schools warm in North Korea’s harsh winters. My kindergarten had a large wood-burning stove in the middle of the classroom and walls painted with colourful scenes of children performing gymnastics, children in uniform, and of a North Korean soldier simultaneously impaling a Yankee, a Japanese and a South Korean soldier with his rifle bayonet.
Ideological indoctrination began on the first day.”
To form my thoughts into a coherent review seems like an impossible task, but I’m going to do my best, because it is the least I can do after reading Hyeonseo’s story. Feel free at any point to stop reading this and go and pick up the book instead, as it is only Hyeonseo who can tell her story best. All I can do is present you with what I learned and urge you to read it. (Really stop reading at any time; this is going to be a long one.)
Most Americans, myself included, take so much for granted. These days it’s especially easy to do so given our current political situation. But we must remind ourselves how good we have it–remind ourselves of what we do have, not what we’re missing, and that we do still have the chance to change things; we’re not that far gone. We also can’t turn a blind eye to other countries that are not as well off, because what if the situation was reversed? You would change your tune pretty quickly, I imagine.
I also, hopefully along with most Americans, love to be informed. I’m constantly trying to make myself aware of topics I am uneducated on and then trying to learn whatever I can until I no longer feel ignorant. And although everybody “knows” that it’s “bad” in North Korea, I realized how little I actually knew; I knew nothing about its history–its culture.
To remedy this, I researched books about North Korea and found this one. I downloaded a sample on my kindle, and Hyeonseo’s voice grabbed me right away. Without finishing the sample, I immediately purchased it, deeply invested.
“The people would realize that full human rights are exercised and enjoyed by one person only – the ruling Kim. He is the only figure in North Korea who exercises freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of movement, his right not to be tortured, imprisoned, or executed without trial, and his right to proper healthcare and food.”
The most shocking revelation, for me, was how much Hyeonseo’s life in North Korea read like a disturbing dystopian novel. I mean, it simply sounds impossible for this to be someone’s reality. And yet it is.
So first, a little background on how North Korea operates:
If you didn’t already notice from the opening quote of this review, North Koreans are indoctrinated with the beliefs that their country is the most civilized, most prosperous, and most powerful in the world as young as possible. They are fed lies that the children in South Korea and China, walk the streets in rags, barefoot, starving and begging for money. Or even that the barbaric American soldiers are using them for target practice. They are taught that their ruler–the Great Leader–and his family are heroes that have created and so generously given their country everything.
They refer to their dictators as Great Leader or Dear Leader, and go to unimaginable lengths to worship and celebrate him. For example, every household must have portraits of the Great Leader Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il–later to be Dear Leader–and if anything should happen to either of them–letting one perish in a house fire or natural disaster, or even such a small thing as letting them collect too much dust–you would be in monumental trouble. Because in North Korea, the Dear Leader comes before your friends, before your family, and especially before you. Better you die in a fire than escape it without Dear Leader’s portrait.
“In North Korea the only laws that truly matter, and for which extreme penalties are imposed if they are broken, touch on loyalty to the Kim dynasty.”
The first big shocker for me was songbun–the North Korean caste system. Implemented shortly after NK was founded, each family was classified either as loyal, wavering, or hostile, all depending on which side of the Korean War the father’s family supported, and what type of occupation they had (peasants/workers=good, officials=bad). The shocker was that 40% of the population is classified as hostile, and that although it is almost impossible to raise your songbun rank–even through marriage–it is incredibly easy to fall. How can almost half of a country’s people be considered hostile with the rest also being highly likely to join that percentage?
And how could NK possibly keep track of all of them–what they say and do? Well, that’s where the bowibu come in. The bowibu, or the secret police, through a complex system of surveillance relies on its citizens–the heads of neighborhoods known as banjang, neighbors, co-workers, and even children–to inform on others.
“Kindness toward strangers is rare in North Korea. There is risk in helping others. The irony was that by forcing us to be good citizens, the state made accusers and informers of us all.”
Luckily, Hyeonseo’s family was better off than most, since both of her parents had good songbun, and her mother was an expert businesswoman when it came to smuggling and trading. Smuggling, although heavily frowned upon in Hyeonseo’s early childhood, soon became a necessity with all of the shortages NK began to face. In particular, the fertilizer shortage; after all, you can’t grow food without fertilizer. If you were too afraid of being caught smuggling, you’d starve. If you were discovered, you could attempt to bribe the person off, as bribery also became a norm. It’s understandable why Hyeonseo’s mother chose to go for it; it was a matter of survival.
Speaking of the fertilizer shortage, guess how North Korea chose to fix it. Here comes my next shocking read. I mean, can you imagine?:
“Food was not the only thing in short supply. There was no fertilizer for crops. In the villages children had to bring a quota of their own excrement to school for use as fertilizer. Families locked their outhouses in case thieves stole what little they had. There was no fuel. The steel and lumber mills fell idle. Factory chimneys stopped puffing smoke, and the city streets fell silent and empty during the day.”
Despite all of this insanity, Hyeonseo had a mostly peaceful and ignorant childhood with her loving family and the magical stories her many aunts and uncles filled her head with. It was only when she started school that Hyeonseo first realized life was not as perfect as those stories. At school it was mandatory she participate in “life purification time,” which consisted of each child reciting one of their leaders’ commandments and accusing a classmate–or even themselves–of having violated it, easily instilling in them the behavior to inform on their neighbors and friends. Sometimes these accusations proved deadly.
At the young age of seven, Hyeonseo witnessed her first horrific public hanging. This was to be the first of many. Like all other elementary school students, she was required to attend public executions; they would be given the day off in order to go. As she got older, she also had to learn how to hold and shoot a rifle–military training.
Although she was constantly being taught and trained to be a perfect citizen, through smuggled products, such as DVDs and CDs, she soon began to question all she had been told. After all, how could people be living in such luxury in the South Korean dramas she watched? How could they be better off than most of the families she knew combined? Why were these indulgences not allowed by the government?
At the young age of seventeen, Hyeonseo accidentally–yes, accidentally–defected from North Korea. At the time her family was living near the Yalu River which served as a border between NK and China. Her intention was to cross into China and stay with her relatives only for a few days, and to ease her doubts before her eighteenth birthday, at which point in time she feared she would never have the opportunity to do so.
“My curiosity had always been far greater than my fear–not a good trait to have in North Korea, where fear keeps your senses sharp and helps you stay alive. Part of me knew very well that crossing into China was highly risky. It could have serious consequences, and not just for me.
But I was still seventeen. And in a few months, I would be starting college. After that, there would not be another chance.
Now was the perfect time.”
But of course, Hyeonseo’s plans go awry. She locates her father’s cousin and his wife–and they, although understandably shocked, quickly accept her into their home. They also confirm the suspicions that Hyeonseo has recently been harboring–North Korea is, in fact, a deeply oppressive country, not at all better off than the rest of their world; and their Dear Leader is also, in fact, not the hero they believe him to be.
Despite all this, she still plans to head back, because as oppressive as North Korea may be, it’s where her family is–her family that she never even said goodbye to, since she snuck out after her mother forbade her to leave.
But after her mother somehow manages to make a distressed phone call to her, telling her that her disappearance did not go unnoticed and she must never come back, Hyeonseo is stuck in China. Fortunately, her kind relatives agree to take her in, and even make preparations for her to get an ID and not have to worry about being sent back to NK.
But these preparations involve Hyeonseo marrying.
Unable to go through with their wishes, Hyeonseo once again takes off. With no money, no ID, no friends or family, and little knowledge of the Chinese language, she must make her own way through life.
From here on, it is only Hyeonseo’s innate survival skills that allow her to escape the dangerous situations she finds herself in; such as finding herself trapped in a brothel, being outed as North Korean and interrogated by the police, being conned again and again, threatened for money she doesn’t have–her constant struggle to just keep her head above water.
It is in China that she experiences her first love with a South Korean businessman, through whom she realizes that if she could just make it to South Korea, she could be declared a legitimate citizen and not have to live in fear anymore. And that is exactly what she plans to do.
If you want to learn about North Korea, but don’t want a book that reads like a textbook, with a withdrawn voice, devoid of emotion, here it is. Hyeonseo’s strong voice recounting her long journey to freedom keeps you invested while allowing you to learn about the trials that North Koreans face in not only North Korea, but China and South Korea as well.
- Hyeonseo’s TedTalk
- Hyeonseo’s website
- Again, my review was pretty messy, and will never do Hyeonseo’s story justice, so I strongly encourage you to read the book for yourself. Pick it up at your local library or buy it here: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks