A whole series of defector testimony has dropped this summer, and we start with Eunsun Kim’s A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea (written with Figaro reporter Sebastien Falletti and translated by David Tian). Kim was about ten years old when the famine broke, and her account focuses primarily on her youth in North Korea and her travails in China, which rival those in North Korea. Perhaps because of her youth and the period of her life the memoir covers, the book has an affecting innocence and optimism. But underneath that exterior is the much darker story of how a mere child is forced by circumstances to survive a myriad of public and private abuses.
The impact of such memoirs is largely emotional. But we are also interested in what they say about North Korea and the travails of the refugees. Much conforms with an accumulating portrait of the mid-1990s: the deprivation of the famine, her father’s death from it, her mother’s desperate efforts to survive and the ultimate effort to escape. Kim’s mother fails twice to get her two daughters across the Tumen and ends up in Rajin gathering wood, seaweed and discarded fish before finally turning to petty theft. But as with the testimony of so many other survivors, there is also the conflict between this arduous march and the pleasant memories of a rural childhood and the deeper melancholy of a lost homeland. These memories include a visit to Pyongyang and memories of Kim Il Sung’s birthdays as the equivalent of Christmas, replete with presents; Kim makes a telling parallel about the regime in noting that Kim Il Sung was viewed like an omniscient Santa Claus.
Yet even in these memories of a more pleasant period are interesting reminders of the hierarchy of the system. These include ranks and corresponding insignia assigned to primary students that appeared to reflect the political status of their parents.
Much of the memoir centers on China, and again conforms with what we know, starting with trafficking. Kim describes how the transaction that sold her mother required nothing except guile and connections on the part of the trafficker, a woman who lures Kim’s mother into a transaction in which she pockets the entire return on her sale to a Chinese farmer. In some ways the nadir of the memoir is not Kim’s near-starvation in the North but the abuse suffered at the hands of the rural household where she lands, made possible by the ever-present risk of arrest and the complete absence of legal protections. Expecting her mother to produce a son, Kim’s family is tormented and tries to escape before her mother becomes pregnant.
Nothing more clearly encapsulates the random, chance quality of the life of refugees than what subsequently transpires within the family itself. Kim ultimately escapes, getting her mother out to South Korea as well. Her tough sister thrives by working, moving to Shanghai, marrying a Chinese soldier, and shuttling back and forth to South Korea. Her brother—conceived with her farmer step-father—grows up as a spoiled single child who even tests Kim’s patience.
Kim walks through the extended security interrogation and Hanawon experience before reflecting on her experience in South Korea, to which she adapts with alacrity. An interesting detail: a fellowship through Sogang University—apparently supported by South Koreans interested in the fate of North Koreans—provided her a ticket to higher education, time in the US and ultimately the international lecture circuit.
In previous posts, I have cited Jiyoung Song’s warning about refugee narratives, posted on ANU Crawford School’s Policy Forum. A longer version is posted on Song’s blog. She dissects the well-known Shin Dong-hyuk case in particular and urges caution. But the more of these accounts I read, the more they accrete into a common story: a state-induced famine; gross human rights abuses, including public executions; survival strategies that defy belief; and physical and psychological breaking points. And as in most memoirs, the narrative focuses as much on insecurity in China and the shameful practice of repatriating refugees to circumstances that are far worse than Chinese authorities would currently permit in their own penal system. Indeed, we expect the worst of the North Koreans; the long account of life in China in A Thousand Miles to Freedom is arguably even more reprehensible.