Fugi­tive re­counts atroc­i­ties in her na­tive North Korea

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Har­riet Zaid­man

NORTH Korea makes the news when it con­ducts nu­clear tests, rat­tles its sabres at South Korea and ar­rests er­rant Americans it ac­cuses of spy­ing. A 2014 United Na­tions Com­mis­sion of In­quiry ac­cused the gov­ern­ment in Py­ongyang of “sys­tem­atic, wide­spread” crimes against hu­man­ity, in­clud­ing “mur­der, en­slave­ment, tor­ture, rape, forced abor­tions and other sex­ual vi­o­lence, en­forced dis­ap­pear­ances, know­ingly caus­ing pro­longed star­va­tion” and more. Writ­ten un­der the name Lu­cia Jang and co-writ­ten with free­lance jour­nal­ist and au­thor Susan McClel­land, Stars Be­tween the Sun and Moon records Jang’s life from her child­hood through years she spent in prison for smug­gling food from China, un­til she es­caped to South Korea. Pre­cise years and the names of peo­ple and ci­ties have been changed to pro­tect Jang’s rel­a­tives in North Korea. Her story seems to have be­gun in the late 1970s, but the lack of de­tails, ex­cept for the death of Kim Il Sung (1994) and a few other specifics, may dis­ap­point those in­ter­ested in the area’s his­tory and pol­i­tics. Ac­cord­ing to Jang, the years ran to­gether as famine stalked the coun­try, leav­ing most peo­ple un­able to think beyond mo­men­tary sur­vival. Jang re­lates how pol­i­tics per­me­ated their fam­ily life. Her mother’s rel­a­tives had helped Americans dur­ing the Korean War, leav­ing her mother (and there­fore fu­ture gen­er­a­tions) un­qual­i­fied to marry mem­bers of the Korean Work­ers’ Party or ad­vance their ca­reers beyond a cer­tain level. Jang’s mother mar­ried some­one who would fi­nally ac­cept her and con­se­quently the cou­ple had a dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ship. Still, Jang says she be­lieved ev­ery­thing she was taught — that em­bar­goes im­posed by the U.S. solely caused her coun­try’s hard­ships after the Korean War in 1953. She says she tried to demon­strate her pa­tri­o­tism with a “full heart,” even though se­vere ra­tioning fre­quently left her un­able to con­cen­trate in school and with­out proper cloth­ing. As a child she wit­nessed fam­i­lies dis­ap­pear, the adults de­nounced for sup­posed crimes, they and their chil­dren ru­moured to have been ex­iled to con­cen­tra­tion camps. Ba­sic sur­vival be­came harder in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union and Kim Il-Sung’s death. Cit­i­zens were ex­horted to “master our nerve, put aside our wor­ries and dig in deep,” declar­ing it the pe­riod of the Ar­du­ous March “be­cause the cap­i­tal­ists want Cho­sun (North Korea) to fall.” Peo­ple were re­duced to eat­ing grass and weeds. Thou­sands died. Jang’s trou­bles in­creased when she fled her abu­sive hus­band, tak­ing her young son. Peo­ple were so des­per­ate they turned against each other; her own mother col­luded with Jang’s es­tranged hus­band, sell­ing the lit­tle boy to a fam­ily with more sta­tus and money. To keep her ag­ing par­ents alive, Jang smug­gled food from China and was traf­ficked into an il­le­gal mar­riage there. She was deported back to North Korea and im­pris­oned sev­eral times, do­ing pun­ish­ing labour and wit­ness­ing gross vi­o­la­tions of hu­man rights. She de­ter­mined to es­cape when she be­came preg­nant again and was told her child would be killed. She re­counts the dan­ger she faced cross­ing rivers and dodg­ing bor­der pa­trols with the tiny baby, even­tu­ally mak­ing it to South Korea. The mean­ing of the many Korean words used can be de­duced from the nar­ra­tive. Jang doesn’t pro­vide an anal­y­sis of the po­lit­i­cal forces within North Korea or the pres­sures waged against it, but raises ques­tions, such as why Party of­fi­cials had “round, rosy cheeks,” while the skin of or­di­nary work­ers turned black from mal­nu­tri­tion. Jang’s story (which was fea­tured on CBC’s The Fifth Es­tate) as well as the UN Com­mis­sion’s find­ings cast light on a re­al­life dystopia — pow­er­ful state­ments about the in­hu­man­ity that power can en­gen­der. Har­riet Zaid­man is a teacher-li­brar­ian

in Win­nipeg.

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