The book caught my attention because there were more than five copies (probably ten) on the shelves. With North Korea in the news recently, plus my interest in everything Korean, this book piqued my interest.
The author wrote this as Jia’s biography, a North Korean girl she met while travelling in China. But it’s not just Jia’s story, but also of her friend Gun and Sun.
In Jia’s words, Jia was born unwelcome. Her mother, a brilliant dancer and daughter of a high officer fell in love with a poor man and eloped with him. The result was that the man was arrested, Jia, her sister and their grandparents were banished into the mountains.
Jia is lucky. As a sickly child, she befriended a South Korean prisoner on re-education who agreed to take her to her maternal grandparents. At the orphanage, her grandparents denied her claim and left her there. But she was her mother’s child and soon, her talent in dancing was discovered and she was sent to a dancing school to train for the Youth Festival and then to a hotel to entertain foreign guests.
The flood in 1997 changed everything. Famine was widespread and more and more people crossed illegally over to China avoid starvation.
Her friend Gun was caught and tortured. This is his account: What had he done? Gun had been a good citizen in North Korea; never disobeyed the law, never went against the order of the government – in fact, he was the most enthusiastic member of the Propaganda Department in the factory where he worked. He hadn’t crossed the border to betray his country; he just wanted to make a living and not starve to death, More important than that, he didn’t want his parents to starve to death.
Jia’s boyfriend soon found out that Jia wasn’t from the family that he thought she was from and reported her to the authority. Desperate, she had to escape to China. Along the way, she met Sangwon, a little streetboy who had crossed to China and returned many times. He helped her into China until she was kidnapped and sold to a karaoke bar.
The lives of ordinary North Koreans are hard. The Great Leader took credit for every little thing, even a bridge that was built ‘was the gift of the Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, to the people in 1960, to ease their commute.’ There was no freedom. Moving around without permission of the government could cause trouble.
The book could seem to be more and more in despair as one read on, but Jia was born with a guardian angel who helped her along the way and she had a good ending finally.
Published in 2007, this book highlights the hopelessness of ordinary North Koreans. Even as their Dear Leader now wrecks havoc around the world, the people merely wants to meet their basic needs.