'How I Became a North Korean' Is Not Just About Borders and Identity

by Christopher John Stephens

14 September 2017

Author Krys Lee's novel about three characters escaping North Korea resonates with pain, longing, and possibilities.
 
cover art

How I Became a North Korean

Krys Lee

(Viking)
US: Aug 2016

“I was starting to measure space by the number of people it could hide.”

There’s nothing easy about North Korea. No art that comes from an experience in that country is simple, concrete, or clear-cut. Suki Kim’s 2014 memoir, Without You There is No Us provided an interesting glimpse into the life of this author who had gone undercover to teach English to the country’s young elite. Though that book was haunting and extremely powerful at points, the Korean-American author received some criticism regarding how she treated her subjects. Was it exploitation? How could (or would) this country that bans religion support a Christian-based missionary school? Focusing on creating a gripping narrative at times can come at the expense of relationships and a clear grasp of the truth. All along, the image of North Korea’s “dear leader” Kim Jong-un and father Kim Jong-il drifts in the atmosphere like the haze in Pyongyang.

It’s within this context that Krys Lee’s novel, How I Became a North Korean, joins the landscape of narratives about North Korea. Lee’s take on it is that while North Korea plays a huge role in her character’s lives, she focuses on what happens when they leave the environment. If escape is simply a matter of eluding checkpoints and paying dearly to be transported through a dark maze of tunnels, over mountains, lakes, and through forests, where is the drama? In the worlds of North Korean student Yongju, Christian immigrant in the United States (and closeted gay teen) Danny, and a hard-edged pregnant North Korean named Jangmi, Lee tells the story of becoming North Korean. It isn’t easy and it isn’t simple, especially since the muted triumph of leaving North Korea is complicated by the fact that the Christian missionary leaders that house this trio seeking a better life prove equally adept as their North Korean counterparts at psychological and physical abuse.

Part I, “Crossing”, starts the process of alternating narratives. Yongju, the elite North Korean student, starts the ball rolling. Danny follows. And it’s his world that seems most relatable. He’s a closeted gay teen living with his father in the United States while his missionary mother is spreading the “Good Word” in China. Danny believes that “The routine that gave my life its most definite shape was being a Christian.” Lee’s style here makes us immediately understand that this intelligent young man is looking for direction in his life. He’s no different than any other teen, but Danny’s life is particularly complicated:

“That was me, a nutty brown-skinned, elephant-eared guy with God and a collection of finger puppets as companions. A guy more at ease with objects than people.”

Jangmi’s chapter follows, and her sections are deeper, more desperate. She is pregnant with the child of a powerful North Korean man. She sells herself into marriage to an elderly Joseonjok (a Korean in China), mainly because he’s willing to pay the traffickers who will arrange her escape to China. Once there, she sees the state of the world she’s now entered:

“All at once the great, terrible China seemed to declare, I’m a building you’re unable to leave, and you, and you belong to me.”

The narrative perspectives can be a little confusing, and gravitating to Danny will be only natural for the American reader. He had grown up in northeast China for the first nine years of his life and could pass for North Korean. His family is ethnic Korean, they had lived alongside the Han Chinese in northeast China. This is the complexity of the narrative that needs to be understood by the uninformed reader. It’s not just about borders and identity. Danny leaves the United States after a particularly humiliating incident with an object of his affection and lands in China, where he’d spent nearly the first half of his life. “The airport’s fluorescent yellow and blue plastic chairs, the glass-walled façade, the tidal wave of concrete wasn’t the China of my memory. I felt, suddenly, American, though my only passport was Chinese.” That he finds a man who is not his father now living with his mother complicates the narrative even more. Danny had hoped to regain his life in China, but things were not going to be that easy.

In Part II, “The Border”, our three characters end up meeting by chance in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Joseonjok territory, a thin stretch of land on the Chinese side of the border. Danny had run away from his family with the goal of regaining from China what he probably could never get in North Korea. Yongju joined a gang of boys and young men holed up in a distant mountain cave. He would survive anything so long as it meant he could drift down to South Korea and find relatives. As he notes in this transition, “I was starting to measure space by the number of people it could hide.” They had drifted from the wide expansive freedom of the United States, the endless territory of China, and the locked mysteries of North Korea—only to find themselves literally marking this dark, musty, undefined small room space by how much air they can inhale and the inches needed to reasonably make room for another.

Things get difficult for everybody, especially Yongju, and Lee’s imagery is very precise here, very effective: “Each morning I woke up in the hollow full of orphans who had crossed out of hunger, to the music of misery in their arrhythmic breathing, the grinding of their rotten teeth.” The title of Part III, “Safe”, might be a little deceptive. It’s a “safe” house, our three characters are secured there for the time being with several other characters, but it’s at a cost. Yongju reflects on the simple possibilities inherent within his view:

“I tried to think of the sun as a promise, a daily present that broke through the trees. I dreaded the rising moon, when all the people I had lost returned to me.”

Missionaries Lee and Kwan are the main characters here, the malevolent caregivers, and their evil is ladled out systematically. “Kwon was the actual God that filled our days,” Yongju tells us. He pulls rotten teeth, cleans dirty fingernails, and it all comes at a cost. There’s sexual abuse, and there’s the cult of personality that comes with so many religious enclaves. Of Missionary Kwan, Danny notes: “There was a charisma about his quiet confidence, which was the way I imagined Jesus addressing his fishers of men, and I found my voice dropping to the decibel of moving grass.”

It’s this mixture of quiet grace and hard-edged indoctrination in this middle section that speaks most clearly to the reader. The trio is told how pitiful it is to be North Korean. Their lives are summarized, compartmentalized, and relegated to the type of “noble sufferer” status that many in their situation are compelled to take as a way to survive. We will help you, their saviors/captors seem to be saying, but only if you understand how much we’re sacrificing for your salvation. Memorize these Bible passages if you expect a scrap of bread for your evening meal. “The thought of so many risking their lives for other people moved me,” Danny notes. “I wanted to be like them… conquer my own desires and live for something greater than the self.”

Fortunately for both Danny and the reader, this initial admiration for the safe house captors does not overwhelm his need for survival and his overall intelligence. “Of course I understood the psychology of machines, which was actually only the psychology of their makers.” In other words, the villains are clear here and the trio of characters are dramatically rendered. Lee’s job is difficult because she needs to develop a logical progression for her characters. Danny knew there was goodness in the hearts of the Missionaries, buried deep under their systematic procedures, and he was determined to uncover it.

There is no pat, convenient, happy ending in How I Became a North Korean, and Lee is wise to understand that full recovery for her characters will take time. In a dramatic moment from Yongju, in Part III (“Safe”), he is still in the safe house. He’s asking a visitor for help. Missionary Lee had called him “A White man! A journalist!” but the man called himself a diplomat. No matter his title and the power contained, Yongju sees an opportunity for a concrete salvation that doesn’t require Old Testament biblical demands:

“We didn’t risk our lives just to end up in this jail. There’s no one in this room who crossed without thinking they could die. You must be able to help us—you know people.”

The fate of those who make the perilous journey outside of North Korea into a different world remains to be written. Whatever form that takes; memoirs, novels, films, plays, Lee has provided a sensitive and emotionally potent variation on this story. The reader uninformed about ethnic identity and cultural differences between the Koreas and China might become frustrated, but Lee’s How I Became a North Korean will reward all those willing to take the journey.

How I Became a North Korean

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