Book Review: “North Korean Defector Tales,” Sorrow, Courage, Resilience and Hope

Interviews with North Korean Defectors: From Kim Shin-jo to Thae Yong-ho
By Lim Il and Adam Zulawnik. Routledge, 2022. 296 pp.

Cover of “Interviews with North Korean Defectors: From Kim Shin-jo to Thae Yong-ho,” by Lim Il and Adam Zulawnik.

North Korea has long been considered, by the governments of South Korea, Japan and America, as well as other Western allies, as the hardest of hard targets in regard to the areas of intelligence, national security and policymaking. Few outsiders have traveled extensively within or lived in North Korea. As such, any insights into what life in the country is like, and about the workings of its society have relied heavily upon the accounts of defectors. However, the number of defectors has significantly decreased in recent years due to North Korea’s complete lockdown during the COVID pandemic. Since the founding and creation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in 1948, where fleeing the county remains a capital offense, approximately 30,000 North Korean citizens have fled to other countries—with the majority of them residing in South Korea. Previous defector biographies, such as those by Kang Chol-hwan and Jihyun Park, as well as the works of foreign residents, such as Andrei Lankov and Felix Abt, and senior foreign diplomats residing in Pyongyang for several years, have offered a portrait of a hermetically sealed, opaque, tightly controlled and secretive country, with an odd mix of patriotism, pride, cruelty, and, yes, even humanity.[1]

This newest book, Interviews with North Korean Defectors: From Kim Shin-jo to Thae Yong-ho, by Lim Il and Adam Zulawnik, a compilation of 34 interviews with North Korean defectors, is a welcome addition to the aforementioned accounts. What comes through in each page, in a moving and emotional way, are the defectors’ narratives of sorrow, fear, courage, longing and resilience. While hailing from different parts of North Korea and different walks of life, the defectors tell a very human story—one that is as old as time. The book is more of an oral history—both a strength and a weakness—and offers less of an analytic perspective regarding defectors’ interviews. Tales of migration from North Korea have a universal appeal that serves to capture the imagination, and this particular book definitely captured my own imagination.

The narratives shared in this book span several decades, with the most intense experiences happening during and after what became known as the “Arduous March,” which was the famine in the 90s, where an estimated one to three million North Koreans perished. The defectors recounted tales of starvation, malnutrition, torture and imprisonment, and of bearing witness to unspeakable forms of death and cruelty. The motivations for defection vary, where some spoke of a lack of opportunity in a controlled system in which no freedom of movement, career choice, economic possibility or aspiration exists. Others left for their children, not wanting them to grow up amidst the horrors and cruelty of North Korea, especially if they had been exposed to life outside of the country. Still, others left due to starvation; having a life-threatening medical condition in need of treatment; or because they had done something considered criminal under North Korean law and could not bear the risks and consequences of imprisonment, or worse. Many used the term: “frogs in a well” (16) to describe their fellow North Korean citizens, meaning they only see the immediate sky above them and have no broader perspective on life and society.

Lim and Zulawnik’s book has some limitations. While the interviews are fascinating, they often have an overly factual quality, with less probing into the biases and motivations of defectors. Also, the wide use of older defectors in the sample, and the lack of interviews with younger defectors, including women, limits the book’s utility from a social science viewpoint. A more critical perspective, or summary thereof, might have been useful. The authors rather focused upon and highlighted the challenges faced by translating the defectors’ narratives from Korean into English.

In this book, the defectors are all men. They hail from many professions, including teachers, factory and agricultural workers, enlisted soldiers, military officers, cadres, intelligence officers, musicians, artists, politicians and diplomats. They tended to come from good—and in some cases, exemplary—backgrounds, with impressive songbun.[2] This fact, plus all of them being men, are both strengths and weaknesses of the book, as it reads as an incomplete perspective told only from the male perspective. It would have been interesting to include women in the defector accounts, especially those who participated in the economic changes under Chairmen Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un involving the creation and establishment of jangmadang (unofficial markets). Nevertheless, these defectors’ tales about life in South Korea speak volumes about their endurance, resilience, sense of community, emotional connection with other North Korean defectors, and, in several cases, deep and abiding religious faith. Their humanity, courage and dignity shine through on every page.

What Motivates North Korean Defectors?

Studies of refugees and defectors tend to highlight a variety of political, economic and social motivations for migration, which are hardly unique to North Korean defectors. However, there is always more that exists beneath the surface. One must look to their inner life to understand their uniqueness, individuality and dignity. In the case of political, military, diplomatic and intelligence defectors, including recruited spies or agents, the CIA has often highlighted the late Dr. Jerrold Post’s classic formulation of “MICE: money, ideology, compromise and ego” that he covers in his article “The Anatomy of Treason.” However, this conceptualization is all too often overly simplistic as it misses the nuances underlying the motivations of spies and defectors. To more deeply comprehend their motives, especially for the North Korean defectors described in this book, a closer look is warranted.

Regardless of whether their emigration was forced or necessary due to war, political instability, economic deprivation, natural disaster, torture, imprisonment or hopelessness, many defectors may experience a nagging sense of ambivalence. Psychoanalysts have long written of how migrants and refugees relive their most primitive dreams, hopes and fears of separation anxiety, grief, attachment and loss when they depart their homeland. The North Korean defectors in this book also articulate many of their own dreams of financial security, freedom, life’s joys and sorrows, and the sweetest, albeit often unspoken, dream of all—that of reunion and return. The latter is a dream familiar to every immigrant because it is laden with emotional resonance. It is also about the memory of their forefathers, family members, friends and others left behind. Nearly every defector account in Lim and Zulawnik’s book speaks of their desire to work towards reunification with their relatives in the North. This is why the symbolism of Chairman Kim and President Moon Jae-in’s 2018 summit meetings in which they held hands as they walked across the demilitarized zone (DMZ), and climbed Mt. Paektu together, raised so many now-forlorn hopes.

While the narratives lacked the literary quality of some well-known defector memoirs, Lim and Zulawnik’s book is a most welcome addition to the growing literature regarding North Korean defectors. Information coming from a country where any data about life therein has real value. And for me, as the child of war refugees, I enjoyed this book, as it was oddly personal, and such tales deeply resonate with me. As a practicing psychiatrist who has treated numerous refugees, I understand that for the North Korean defectors described in this book, their motivations, desires, dreams and wishes are connected to their fundamental human needs. This book gives their remembrances a universal, human and lasting quality.

Like the defectors in this excellent book, I, too, dream of reunification and of a day when such scholarly books will be a mere footnote or a historical anomaly.

  1. [1]

    Kang Chol-hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in The North Korean Gulag (New York: Basic Books, 2001); Jihyun Park and Seh-lynn Chai, The Hard Road Out: One Woman’s Escape From North Korea (Manchester: HarperNorth, 2023); Andrei Lankov, North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2007); and Felix Abt, A Capitalist in North Korea: My Seven Years in The Hermit Kingdom (Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 2014).

  2. [2]

    Songbun is a system of status used in North Korea, based upon the political, economic, and social background of one’s ancestors, incorporating three castes: core, wavering and hostile.

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