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Five Must-Read Memoirs from North Korean Refugees


By Jenna Gibson

Before getting into the list, please keep a few things in mind. First, the term “North Korean defectors” is a controversial one. In Korean, various terms have been used to refer to people who left North Korea, reflecting both politics and the shifting demographics of those fleeing. In 2005, South Korea’s Ministry of Unification announced that the term of choice should shift from “탈북자” (people who fled from North Korea) to “새터민” (people of a new land). However, the public has generally gravitated back toward the former term.

In English, “North Korean defectors” and “North Korean refugees” have been used more or less interchangeably. Some Korea watchers have noted the distinction between those who have left for political reasons (defectors) and those who fled out of poverty or general lack of freedoms (refugees). Others have pushed back on this, saying that because of the DPRK’s unique political situation, all people who flee are political refugees. For the purpose of this article, all those who have left North Korea, regardless of circumstances, will be referred to as North Korean refugees.

Secondly, refugee stories have recently come under fire, particularly after high-profile refugee Shin Dong-hyuk admitted he had exaggerated parts of his popular memoir, “Escape from Camp 14.” While these criticisms should be kept in mind, it is still valuable to read these memoirs to put a human face on the tragedies that millions of North Koreans face on a daily basis.

1. The Hidden People of North Korea, by Kong Dan Oh and Ralph Hassig

This book is not a refugee memoir, but it does provide an important backdrop to the following stories. The authors, who have decades of experience following the situation on the Korean Peninsula, provide detailed information about what daily life is like for North Korean citizens, while simultaneously explaining the ubiquitous role of the state and the Kim family. For those trying to understand North Korea beyond the headlines, this is a great place to start.

2. The Aquariums of Pyongyang, by Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot

One of the first and most well-known of the refugee memoirs, this book follows young Kang Chol-hwan’s journey from Pyongyang elite to concentration camp to refugee. Before this book’s release in 2000, the plight of North Korean refugees was relatively unknown in the West. But thanks to an endorsement from then-President George W. Bush, the book gained popularity, and the story of Kang’s ten years in Yodok prison camp sparked a broader discussion on North Korean human rights. This book provides a unique glimpse at the highs and lows – showing both how elites lived in the 1970s and how the Kim regime punishes those who dare cross it.

3. Dear Leader, by Jang Jin-sung

Until fleeing in 2004, Jang Jin-sung had a perspective on the inner machinations of North Korea that few could claim. Working for the United Front Department in Pyongyang, he was a poet laureate whose propaganda work garnered him the favor of Kim Jong-il himself. As a high-ranking member of the propaganda department, he was privy to North Korean propaganda strategies designed to infiltrate the South Korean psyche, and describes his fascinating work in his memorable book. More so than the other memoirs listed here, this book unveils the machinations of the Kim regime’s inner circle.

4. Under the Same Sky, by Joseph Kim and Sephan Talty

Unlike the previous two authors, Joseph Kim was in no way an elite. He describes scrambling for food as early as he can remember, losing his father to the Great Famine in the 1990s and watching his mother and sister flee to China, never to return. Kim goes on to describe his life as a ggotjebi (꽃제비), a euphemistic term that refers to homeless street children as “flowering swallows.” Simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting, Kim’s story is unique not only because of how far he came from starvation to survival, but because he is one of the few North Korean refugees who have been settled in the United States.

5. In Order to Live, by Park Yeonmi

Park Yeonmi gained fame in South Korea after becoming a regular guest on the TV show “Now on My Way to Meet You,” which tells the story of North Korean life through a panel of beautiful refugee women. Dubbed the “Paris Hilton” of North Korea because of her looks and her relatively elite upbringing in the North, Park Yeonmi dismisses all accusations of frivolity in her gripping memoir. An estimated 70 percent of North Korean defectors are women, many of whom are trafficked out of the DPRK to become wives or prostitutes in male-dominated rural China. Park and her mother were no exception. In her book, Park describes the horrors she and her mother faced after their decision to leave the North, along with the humiliation and frustration that remained even after they managed to make it to South Korea.

Further reading: If you have not yet read the ground-breaking 2014 Commission of Inquiry report from the UN Human Rights Council, it provides a thorough and detailed account of the systematic human rights violations taking place in North Korea. You can read the executive summary and the full report here.

Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from synx508’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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