Crossing the Tumen in Both Directions

[imText1]Recent years have seen a dramatic rise in the volume of what can be broadly termed “defector literature.” Most of this consists of autobiographies and eyewitness accounts of life inside North Korea, the most recent and famous example being Shin Dong Hyuk’s popular “Escape from Camp 14.” However, there has also been a notable rise in creative literature by defector-authors. From Lim Il, the author of “Novel Kim Jong Il,” to Kim Yu Kyung, the first published female defector novelist, there is now a solid body of authentic literature written by North Koreans about North Korea.

Now another novel can be placed on the bookshelves of those hoping to gain insight into North Korea in this way. Jang Hae Seong, the chairman of the Korean branch of the International P.E.N. Center, an international association for writers, recently released a novel titled “Dumangang,” loosely based on his own life. “Dumangang,” or Tumen River, refers to the river that forms the China-North Korea border, that which Jang himself escaped across into China in 1996. Set during the “Arduous March” period of the mid-1990s, the novel has garnered praise in South Korea for its lucid descriptions of the hardships faced by ordinary North Koreans, the human rights abuses inflicted on those caught on the wrong side of the regime, and the difficult conditions for defectors in China.

The novel focuses on the lives of Jun Seok, once a doctor in Pyongyang, and his two daughters, Eun Young and Hae Young. Jun Seok is arrested after he is accused of being part of a plot to stir up sentiment against the regime. Interrogated and tortured by National Security Agency (NSA) agents for weeks, he is eventually shipped off to the infamous No.15 Yodeok Political Prison Camp, but escapes his handlers after a train collision. Meanwhile, his daughters are rounded up by the NSA and banished to a remote area of Jagang Province, where they promptly escape and try to find their father. The novel shifts between Jun Seok and his daughters as they escape arrest and narrowly avoid starvation until they are reunited in China. It is into this generally fast-paced, dramatic storyline that author Jang weaves his own experience of living and escaping North Korea.

▲ The China Connection

Jang was born in Jilin Province, China, and made his way to North Korea in 1962 – a unique personal history that shines throughout the novel. Through Jun Seok, the author illustrates why some Chinese-Koreans were motivated to move back to North Korea in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This period coincided with the Mao regime’s attempt to purge “rightists” through the “Hundred Flowers Campaign.” The campaign began in 1956 under the guise of allowing dissenting opinions to be voiced, but was ultimately used to identify and round up those unwilling to toe the party line. Nationalist movements in Tibet and Mongolia were targeted for suppression, and Chinese authorities clashed with Korean nationalists in Northeast China who argued, as many still do today, that Korea’s original borders stretched up into Manchuria.

It is against this backdrop that Jun Seok witnesses his history teacher being arrested for lecturing that Korea’s March 1st Movement against Japanese imperialism in 1919 inspired China’s May 4th Movement of the same year. On hearing this, he feels great pride at being Korean, and dreams of a new life in his native land. He soon becomes part of group of like-minded individuals who cross the Tumen River into North Korea.

This initial crossing is later described in ironic terms as Jun Seok makes his way back across to China. Throughout the novel, Jun Seok reunites with people who also crossed the river back so many years ago, and who uniformly recollect the dreams and hopes they took with them. Perhaps reflecting the author’s own sense of betrayal, every character expresses intense hatred for the North Korean regime that spread the lies and distortions that led them to first return.

▲ Lies and Distortions

In fact, revealing the North Korean regime’s lies and distortions is a key attribute of the novel. It is sprinkled with sections “revealing” how the regime distorted its history in order for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il to preserve power. These include now very commonly-known (at least outside of North Korea) facts, such as that Kim Jong Il’s name was Yura and he was born in the USSR; and that Kim Il Sung silenced those who disagreed with him during purges in 1956 and 1958.

Much of this information is not new, of course, particularly to readers versed in North Korean history. Nonetheless, the author can be commended for trying to spread the information as far and wide as possible, particularly within the defector community. Jang stated this aim in a recent interview, saying that even recent defectors are sometimes unaware that the regime is based on lies. Many North Koreans, and even defectors, still view Kim Il Sung through a wholly different, more positive prism than Kim Jong Il, so it is important that Jang’s work makes it abundantly clear that North Korea’s problems were not the result of Kim Jong Il’s policies or actions alone; rather, they began long before.

▲ South Korea: “Heaven on Earth”

At its most basic level, Jang’s novel was written to portray an escape from North Korea, and it does that in dramatic detail, reflecting the author’s background as a TV drama writer (before defecting he wrote the popular North Korean dramas “Cheonboki and Mangil”). A significant part of the novel is devoted to showing the difficulties faced by defectors in China. Jun Seok, for example, leads a precarious life as an illegal worker narrowly avoiding arrest by the Chinese police, and Hye Young suffers at the hands of human traffickers who sell her to a Chinese man.

However, the novel dwells little on the family’s ultimate destination, South Korea (in fairness, it ends not in South Korea but is “open-ended,” with the characters straddling the border between China and Vietnam). After hearing that South Korea is a “heaven on earth,” Jun Seok and his family decide to head there. Unfortunately, the novel lacks any exploration of the characters’ perceptions about their new home. This absence is particularly problematic because the characters all hail from Pyongyang, which means they are members of the elite and would ostensibly have more complicated perceptions toward South Korea than North Koreans of lower status.

Regardless of this limitation, the novel succeeds in illustrating the hurdles many defectors have to cross before escaping North Korea. Ultimately, the fact that Dumangang was written by a defector – someone who experienced escaping North Korea firsthand – lends a degree of authenticity that cannot be found in novels written by outsiders.