Before I start, I need to say: this book contains references to sexual, verbal and physical assault, and covers distressing events and potentially dark topics. It’s a book about life in, and escape from, North Korea – and Yeonmi set out determined to tell every part of her story. It won’t be for everyone.
I was surprised by how much detail there was about her life in North Korea. I started this book expecting it to focus predominantly on her escape, but I enjoyed reading about her childhood, and I appreciated her talking about the positive as well as negative facets of life in the Hermit Kingdom. Between the accounts of huddling up to the fire in the dark in winter because there was no electricity, digging up any food they could find in the hills because they were so hungry, and people disappearing without a trace when they fell on the wrong side of the government, she talked about the happy memories she shared with her sister, and times when things weren’t so bad for their family. She talked about heading down to the river to play with the other children after school, and how they’d carry her into the water because she was too scared to swim. Too often we’re used to thinking of North Korea as the ‘other,’ but it demonstrated how North Korean people are just like us – only suffering at the hands of an oppressive, criminal government.
It was an eye-opening book in many ways. Her account of life in China, as a fugitive with no rights, was harrowing, and it’s worth remembering that it’s an experience in no way unique to North Korean defectors; anytime a person lives in a country they aren’t legally allowed to be in, their human rights are at risk, because there’s no-one they can go to for justice. It enables exploitation. For me, it shined a light on how the politics between large states can impact the lives of people so strongly: China feels the need to support North Korea, so they send North Korean defectors back when they find them, but that policy forces so many to live outside the law, falling into the hands of predators, gangs and traffickers.
It is a very emotional book, and I cried several times. Again and again, Yeonmi made a break for freedom, only to find things were worse on the other side. But she and her mother never gave up. They kept pushing, always looking for a way out, and eventually, they were able to get to South Korea. You’d think that would be the happy ending, but Yeonmi was very realistic about her life there: it’s not easy to adjust to life in a free, capitalist country. She talked about her struggles with having to make every decision for herself, and feeling so far behind others her age who had grown up in that world. By the time she reached South Korea in her mid teens, she’d only had two years of proper education. She talked about how many North Korean defectors are tricked into exploitative situations because they have never before signed a contract, so they don’t know what they’re getting into. (Of course, it was still better than North Korea by a long way.)
Hongwei was an interesting character: a gangster raised on the streets, he bought Yeonmi to be a mistress-slave, and was an abuser. But along the way, he genuinely came to care about her, and saved her from trouble several times. Yeonmi addresses this moral greyness: she has mixed feelings about him, and that remains unresolved when he’s the first person she phones as she leaves China, and he replies: “Stay alive, Yeonmi.”
I think this greyness defines the book. Difficult situations defy simple answers, and especially where situations like this are concerned, there is no easy solution. But Yeonmi did what she had to in order to live, and that’s what matters.
I highly recommend this book.