Sometimes I love nothing better than to walk into a book shop and whirl away some time discovering new books and buying fresh new paperbacks. While there are some books that end up gathering dust on my ‘to-read’ pile next to my bed, there is one subject that I am always eager to read more about and these are books to do with North Korean defectors – those who have risked their lives, friends and family and escaped the country. No one knows much about North Korea and its secretive communist regime is shrouded in mystery but one thing we do know, is that its oppressive regime has created citizens that worship dictators like Gods while they suffer horrendous famine.
The first book I stumbled across years ago (and which I recommend to everyone who is interested in learning more about the regime) is Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy. A collection of stories made up from Demick’s interviews with North Korean defectors, it’s brilliantly written and it goes into detail of the desperation that North Koreans experience. For example, their extreme hunger driving them to create watery porridge from tree bark which often made them sick…but it was worth it to satisfy their hunger for a while. Learning of their complete devotion to their ‘God-like’ Kim Jong Il and his son, Kim Jong Un despite their dire situations completely floored me, and that’s when you start using ‘brainwashed’ to describe the North Koreans. Those that choose to escape, risk everything. If they’re caught then they face harsh labour camps, imprisonment, torture or even execution. If they are successful in escaping, their friends and family in North Korea will have their lives turned upside down with the state interrogating them and making their lives even more unbearable. Another thing that surprised me are the feelings of being an outcast when they finally settle in South Korea and how a small number of them regret leaving because assimilating into South Korea where the language has progressed, Americanisms used and technology is so advanced that it can cause extreme loneliness and depression. Since reading this book, it has really ignited my interest in any defector stories.
The latest book is similar to Nothing to Envy, with a picture of a North Korean girl on the cover. The face of Yeonmi Park on the cover of In Order to Live shows the young author wearing the type of trendy make up that I’m so used to seeing on South Koreans girls, not exactly what I expect on the cover of a book that’s about North Korea. So I eagerly turned the pages to learn about her story and the book is EVEN more captivating than Barbara Demick’s book. Mostly because this is the full story of one teenage girl’s harrowing journey from North Korea which takes her through to China, the Gobi Desert, Mongolia and finally to South Korea. It is one of the most awful, sad, thought-provoking and inspiring stories that I’ve ever read and it’s hard to believe that this is a real plight for thousands of people and how desperate North Koreans can be tricked into human trafficking. Especially as the motivation for their dangerous journey is sometimes as simple as the promise of a bowl of rice, which makes me feel awful about the huge, plentiful rice container that we have at home. It’s a book that was hard to put down but when I finished it, I was teary eyed and amazed at what one individual had been through. While it’s a book full of heartbreak and horror, it’s also full of hope and it’s a testament to Park’s strength and courage. I’m in complete awe of Yeonmi Park’s achievements as a human rights activist and who is now a student at Columbia University in New York. I’m not sure if I would have survived her journey that’s for sure.
It’s seriously a book that I’ve already passed on to my sisters to read and I shall be recommending it to absolutely anyone who has an interest in North Korea and the fight for human rights and global justice. These are two books to definitely pick up the next time you’re near a book shop!