How I Became a North Korean
By Krys Lee
Penguin Books, 2017
256 pages, $16.00
Despite often being in the news for its nuclear weapon program and leader Kim Jong-Un’s war of words with our so-called president, North Korea remains a mystery in many regards. Several books on the “Hermit Nation,” both fiction and nonfiction, have been published in recent years, so interest in life in North Korea is high.
One novel that caught my eye upon its publication was Krys Lee’s How I Became a North Korean. The title alone was intriguing enough to make me want to read it. But the fact that Lee was an award-winning writer of short stories who teaches at Yonsei University in South Korea sealed the deal; surely she would know the situation on the ground and write a thoughtful book that avoided sensationalism or polemics.
And yet, somehow, two years passed before I finally got around to reading it. That’s a shame. Because How I Became a North Korean is a beautifully written novel about three young people struggling to attain freedom and to find their true selves by living a life that isn’t controlled by the North Korean state.
Two of the three main characters have fled the country into Northeast China and one is an American who finds himself in the Chinese border town.
Yongju is the son of a high-level NK government official and legendary actress who leads a life of privilege that includes attending a prestigious university. When his father is murdered, the family flees to the border, hoping to escape death or life in a work camp.
Jangmi is a young woman barely surviving by smuggling goods across the river when she finds herself pregnant by a local businessman. Deciding she must flee and find someone to help care for her and her unborn baby, she agrees to be sold to an older Chinese man in search of a bride.
Finally, there is Danny, a brilliant but awkward Chinese-American high school student in California. His parents have divorced, and his mother has returned to China. His life becomes intolerable when his sexuality results in him being ostracized at school. Without telling his father, he buys an airline ticket to China, intending to live with his mother, who has no idea he is coming.
Things go awry for all three characters, and they end up in the Chinese border town, homeless and, in the case of the two North Koreans, stateless and on the run. Danny “becomes a North Korean” because he is presumed to be a refugee and is treated as such; what else would he be doing there in his condition? For readers, he serves as a witness — a privileged American who speaks Chinese and knows about the world of outside of North Korea. In that sense, he allows readers to step into his shoes and imagine being another kind of refugee.
Lee expertly moves between the three first-person narratives, increasing the tension chapter by chapter. Each character’s motives are thoroughly examined, as are their different approaches to surviving their new life as an outcast. The plot brings their paths together in a plausible manner involving a morally complex Korean missionary who provides refugees safety and the promise of an eventual life in South Korea.
We learn about life in North Korea only through limited flashbacks; the bulk of the story takes place in the Chinese border town. Living in this stateless limbo between their past in North Korea and a hoped-for future in South Korea, the three protagonists try to make peace with their unfortunate circumstances and each other. The novel’s two great strengths are Lee’s sensitive portrayal of the characters’ emotional lives and her spare, elegant prose. There was not a single clunky sentence in the book’s 250 pages.
The tension resides in observing how Yongju, Jangmi, and Danny cope with the many conflicts they confront, from fellow refugees, hostile Chinese, religious zealots, and the challenge of getting to South Korea. If/when they do make it to freedom, then what? Will they succeed in adapting to a completely foreign world, one where North Koreans are at best tolerated and at worst despised? Will Danny find his mother and return to China or decide to go home to California?
Krys Lee has written an absorbing story of a small group of utterly powerless refugees forming a makeshift family and facing a series of seemingly insurmountable barriers to freedom. In that sense, How I Became a North Korean is a universal tale of remarkable persistence and small victories.