My bookshelf is groaning with a host of interesting new books on North Korea that I didn’t get to review over the summer, from Jang Jin-Sung’s remarkable Dear Leader, to Suki Kim's tell-all of her time at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, to memoirs by Leon Panetta, Don Gregg and Chris Hill. I begin, however, with an affecting memoir by Lucia Jang and Susan McClelland called Stars Between the Sun and Moon. Although Marc Noland and I drew on structured interviews with refugees for Witness to Transformation, there is nothing quite like hearing about North Korea from the mouths of those who managed to escape. Following is the short afterward I wrote to the book, which also provides insight into Jang’s remarkable story.
The appeal of this affecting memoir stems in large part from its simple humanity. Some of the memories that the protagonist recounts are those that any adult might remember of childhood. The joy of play, family and young love; grumpy and demanding grandparents, lost brothers, playground slights. And we are struck, too, by familiar stories of early adulthood: courting, the uncertainties of early marriage, the challenges of entering the workforce, the demands of becoming a parent. Given the charged nature of the geopolitics of the Korean peninsula, it is important to keep this common humanity in mind; it undergirds our hopes that North Koreans will someday enjoy the basic human rights they have been denied for so long.
Layered on top of this very human story are insights into a common Korean culture as well. We see the continuing power of Confucian ideals of familial fealty: patriarchy—but with powerful and enduring women—respect for elders, and despite the Communist setting, worship of ancestors. We see tensions that emerge in all such traditional settings, and have been themes in post-war South Korean literature as well. Family provides protection and support, but also demands sacrifices and places particular demands on young women seeking independence, equality and dignity.
Yet the power of the account rests not on these insights but on the oppressive constraints of the Kim family regime, a silent but all-pervasive protagonist in the drama. The dynastic government that rules North Korea manages to be simultaneously omnipresent and distant, pervasively watchful and intrusive but at the same time fatally unresponsive to the basic needs of its subjects. Were Sunhwa’s account idiosyncratic, we would find it unimaginable, fantastic. But through refugee testimony, surveys and outside research on North Korean history and political economy, we have a larger picture that gives credence to every crucial element in Sunhwa’s horrific tale.
To start with the most basic of needs, a pervasive theme in the book is continual insecurity with respect to food. What is striking is that this deprivation does not only emerge during the great famine of the mid-1990s—described in Part II of the book--during which 600,000 to million people died, three to five percent of the population. Rather it is a feature of Sunhwa’s very earliest memories, dating to the supposedly more prosperous 1970s. Nonetheless, the images and description of a society experiencing mass hunger and starvation are searing, underlining not only the physical deprivation of the Arduous March but the moral and social decay as well.
The “lean season” of late spring is a feature of many peasant societies. It is important to remember that despite the gleaming monuments of Pyongyang, North Korea was and remains a desperately poor country, and particularly in the rural areas. But in North Korea, the sources of food deficits are political as much as natural. Our protagonist makes continual reference to the failure of work units and the Public Distribution System to deliver rations to her and her family, and the resulting struggle on the part of households to forage, barter and trade to make ends meet.
The deprivation is not equally distributed, and Sunhwa talks of the heretical rumors that those in Pyongyang were living well at the expense of the those in the countryside. Repeatedly, we see evidence of unequal access to food on the basis of connections to the party. But Sunhwa’s family—through her mother’s side--suffers further indignities because of the infamous songbun system of social classification. Each family in North Korea has a file that contains information deemed pertinent to their political loyalty. The paramount sins are to have relatives who were collaborators with the Japanese, capitalists or landlords, or perhaps worse still, who defected to the South during or immediately following the Korean War. These associations—passed from generation to generation—influence not only party membership (a continual theme in the book) but job placement, education, marriage prospects and ultimately access to food itself. In effect, North Korea is a caste society with life chances dictated by assignment to the so-called core, wavering and hostile classes.
In my work with Marcus Noland on the famine and food economy, we also show a feature of the North Korean economy that comes through clearly in this memoir: how the survival strategies of families give rise to an underground economy. The economy is purportedly state socialist. We see the effects of state direction throughout the book as Sunhwa, her family and acquaintances are moved around from work unit to work unit as the authorities demand. Yet we also the nascent market economy that flourishes during the lean season and particularly during the famine.
Also striking in this account is the ambivalence of the authorities to this market economy. The state recognizes that it is necessary for human survival that citizens be able to trade and barter. Yet at the same time, the it fears the movement of citizens, and is continually subjecting them to leaky controls. At the lowest level, the police harass street vendors, extract bribes, and exploit their power in the most brutal ways, particularly toward the women who are the dominant players in the markets.
Yet another important theme that emerges in the book is the significant role played by China in propping up the North Korean regime. I was particularly interested to see that Chinese traders had made inroads into North Korea early in the narrative—in the 1970s--but gained even larger footholds by the time of the famine as the cross-border trade took off. We see Sunhwa drawn into a common scheme during the period euphemistically known as The Arduous March: to take easily-gathered North Korean products like fish and dogs to China to get rice and other staples.
However, it is during her forays into China that Sunhwa experiences some of the most degrading experiences in her difficult life. The core dynamic is in part the disdain the Chinese have for North Korean refugees, who are shocked to see how much better life is on the outside; people from Chosun are clearly second-class non-citizens.
The central factor driving the mistreatment of refugees, however, is the failure of the Chinese government to recognize them as such. Refugees are citizens leaving our outside their country of origin who fear persecution on their return as a result of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. It has been my position, and those of other analysts, that North Koreans leaving the country are almost by definition refugees. Since the regime criminalizes exit—in violation of widely accepted human rights norms and conventions—all North Koreans who leave live in fear of return and incarceration. The scandalous treatment that North Korean women experience—being trafficked and sold into slavery, separated from their children, abused by citizens and authorities—can all be traced to the failure of the Chinese government to abide by its commitments under the refugee convention. The Sunhwas of the world deserve the opportunity to apply for—and be granted—refugee status that will permit their humane treatment and resettlement, if not in China then in third countries, including but not limited to South Korea.
Sadly, the story that Sunhwa relates in Part III of the infamous penal system of North Korea is all-to-common in refugee testimony; relatively rare are those who describe a clean getaway from North Korea without detention in China or return to North Korea and in Sunhwa’s case she is incarcerated more than once. Particularly ironic is the fact that as Sunhwa and other prisoners are placed in holding facilities for the crime of leaving their country, they are simultaneously being fed the ten commandments of a totalizing regime requiring absolute obedience.
The ideological commitments of the regime provide the foundation for the utterly dehumanizing treatment of the “traitors” in the prison system, including pervasive sexual abuse and the forced abortion of children conceived with Chinese husbands. In our surveys of refugees, we were surprised to find that the treatment in the lower-level “labor training” camps to which Sunhwa was moved were only marginally better than the larger political concentration camps that lay in store for the returnees from China who revealed more political motives for departing. More than any other feature of the North Korean political system, the abuses of its prison system—including the grisly executions described in the book--rise most easily to the status of crimes against humanity, as the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea has also recently concluded in its defining report on the topic.
The indignities of the North Korean political system are not only revealed in the extremes of the prison camp scenes of the book. A careful reading shows that the effort of the regime to turn citizens against one another and to sew a climate of fear and suspicion is a pervasive instrument of control throughout the memoir. The infamous Booweebu secret police are everywhere; it is impossible to know who can be trusted, who might be seeking advantage by revealing damning information to the authorities. The ability of civil society to resist is continually and self-consciously broken not only through surveillance but by turning family against family, and even family member against family member.
Having read numerous refugee accounts, what never fails to amaze me is the strong theme of hope that runs through these remarkably courageous accounts. As the title of the book suggests, those who escape are in some ways dreamers, capable of imagining a different life for themselves and their children. Reading these stories of loss and deliverance should inspire all of us to work on behalf not only of the refugees—the tip of a much larger iceberg—but for those who are trapped behind as well. Just as they survive in their lives in part through acts of compassion and kindness, so the international community must continually bear witness to the indignities of the North Korean system. This memoir and others like it poses one of the central moral issues of our day: how to bring freedom to North Korea.