The Yalu and the Tumen. Why should we be talking at all about these two rivers half a continent away, running along a long stretch of the border between China and North Korea? Despite the connected world that we inhabit, stories and their bearers from the so-called Hermit Kingdom travel slowly often under the shadow of mortal danger. And mostly it is those stories which manage to cross one of these two rivers that we get to hear.

Stories of defectors who risk their lives to flee a country ruled with an iron hand. The Yalu and the Tumen are the only practical routes (barring a small stretch bordering Russia) out of North Korea. The border with South Korea is heavily guarded by both sides and impenetrable, unless you are a beer-drunk soldier named Jenkins, but that story is for another occasion.

Absolute power, wherever it may rear its head, breeds self-serving mechanisms of oppression, control and punishment. In case of North Korea, this reality is conveyed to us through the heartbreaking accounts of defectors who managed to flee the country. But disturbing as they might be, these are also stories of resilience of the human spirit and courage in the face of mortal danger.

The North Korean defectors’ accounts have been made into bestselling memoirs, moving TED talks and documentaries (Seoul Train) watched all over the world. With the growing number of such stories getting published, it has almost become a mini-genre. Two recent books come to mind for their uniqueness. One is a rich and detailed account of a brave woman’s defection and the other, a chilling portrait of life in a prison camp and how one man managed to escape.

The Girl with Seven Names, Hyeonseo Lee

Hyeonseo Lee’s much lauded The Girl with Seven Names is the true story of Min-young, who, at seventeen, escapes from North Korea into China and finally, through a series of misfortunes and accidents, manages to get her mother and brother out of that country. It is a compelling read which, because of powerful descriptions, rich backstories, moving images and the scaffolding of a courageous woman’s journey to freedom from a life under an oppressive system, rivals the best in realist fiction.

Lee sketches a dispassionate portrait of North Korea, her relatives and friends and sometimes about the beauty of the land. This idyllic backdrop however conceals much horror:

“Anju may have been grimy and bleak but the hills surrounding it were beautiful. I enjoyed three idyllic childhood summers there, picnicking in fields of wild flowers. In certain months of the year the air would be buzzing with dragonflies. They hovered and flashed in iridescent blues and greens. We would chase them, running through the long grass. All the kids did this.”    

Hyeonseo Lee. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Hyeonseo Lee. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

She grew up within an extended family whose characters, Uncle Opium, Uncle Poor, Aunt Pretty, Uncle Cinema and Uncle Money – names she had to camouflage to protect them from harm – are brought to life through anecdotes and remembered incidents. But danger and betrayal lurk at every corner, and the young girl soon discovers public executions and revolts at the curtailment of freedoms, when a question is raised about her wearing boots and a pink Chinese coat. In her early revolt against authority (in this case against the school teacher) she avoids wearing a badge with the image of the Great Leader, an offence that no one dared to commit in that land.

Lee lost her stepfather when he committed suicide after being arrested by the Military Security command for falling foul of the regime. At this time the family was living in Hyesan on the banks of the Yalu river, right across from China. While her mother, a gritty and industrious woman, built contacts in the regime, brought in smuggled goods from across the border and knew how to bribe her way out of trouble, the oppression was soon too much for Lee. Finally, at the age of seventeen, she crossed the frozen Yalu to the other side.

Here begins the second part of her journey. She almost falls in the trap of the sex trade in Shenyang in north-eastern China, gets kidnapped by a gang as she struggles to use her wits to stay out of danger. Finally she manages to get an identity and settle down to the semblance of an ordinary life. Soon she will find love, but will it last?

In China, ghosts of the past and the zealous Chinese police who often pushed back defectors haunted her. A defector who was turned back landed in the hands of the Bowibu (North Korean state security), which would starve and beat them mercilessly and sometimes send them to a prison camp.

But she always managed to stay a step ahead. This part of the book provides an inspiring account of how almost on her own, and sometimes helped by her mother’s contacts or the extended family, she managed to secure her position in China. She worked different jobs – as a waitress, then as a secretary, as an interpreter and so on. But the pressure on defectors in China became unbearable over the years, and the author never felt her roots there. Which is why she finally made plans to go to South Korea.

In her vivid narration of her brush with the Chinese police or the meticulous planning for the journey to Seoul or even in the way she finally declares her status to the South Korean officers at Incheon airport, Lee comes out as a woman with amazing presence of mind, intelligence and nerves of steel.

Finally, in the last part of the book, where she decides to get her mother and brother out of North Korea with the help of brokers, we are again fascinated by her courage and nerves. Unfortunately, her family’s journey to freedom was difficult as her mother and brother were jailed in Laos and it was only the kindness of a stranger – an Australian named Dick Stolp – that finally secured their release.

While the hardness of life in her country and the treacherous road to freedom may overwhelm the reader at times, it is these instances of rare humanity as shown by Stolp or the Joseonjok (Korean-Chinese) Ahn family of Changbai, and the rare courage of the narrator that make this memoir remarkable. Writing about Stolp’s offer to help her with money to get her mother and brother out of a Laotian jail, Lee writes:

“On the way he stopped at the ATM to withdraw the rest of the money for the fines.

My most basic assumptions about human nature were being overturned. In North Korea I had learned from my mother that to trust anyone outside the family was risky and dangerous. In China I’d lived by cunning since I was a teenager, lying to hide the truth of my identity in order to survive…What Dick had done changed my life. He showed me that there was another world where strangers helped strangers for no other reason than that it is good to do so.” 

The brave woman, who changed her name often on this difficult road, keeping one step ahead of the darkness that pursued her relentlessly, had finally regained her faith in humanity and soon she would be passing on this priceless gift to others. Her book and her inspiring talks would move millions.

Escape from Camp 14, Blaine Harden

But as far as defector accounts go, one of the most troubling is that of Shin Dong-hyuk (Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden) who was born in the notorious Prison Camp 14, meant for political enemies of the state – a zone of total control where the only sentence is for life. At the time his book was written, only two persons were known to have escaped from a total control zone, though other accounts (like Kang Chol-hwan’s escape from Yodok prison) have now come to light.

Both of Shin’s parents were held captive here, where Shin was born. A large part of this book is about the acts of inhumanity perpetrated in Camp 14 and his final escape. However, there is also quite a bit of contextual information and analysis of the situation in the country, which is useful to researchers.

The book begins with the description of a public execution of a prisoner which the young Shin and all inmates are made to witness. Beatings, torture and executions were common in the prison camp where inmates performed hard labour in coal mines, garment workshops, cement factories, dam building and pig farms. The dehumanised atmosphere of this total control zone, ruled by fear and punishment, is described in squeamish detail in this book. An idea of its horrors can be grasped in passages such as this:

“In Camp 14, Shin did not know literature existed. He saw only one book in the camp, a Korean grammar text, in the hands of a teacher who wore a guard’s uniform, carried a revolver on his hip and beat one of his primary school classmates to death with a chalkboard pointer.”

Shin Dong-hyuk. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Shin Dong-hyuk. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

In ten years’ time he would be witness to his mother’s and brother’s execution for attempting to escape. And the informer was none other than Shin himself. In an environment where access to meagre rations and other minor privileges turned on spying on fellow prisoners, snitching was common, but still it is hard to imagine a son informing on his mother knowing what the punishment would be.

Perhaps the staggering unreality of such accounts are better engaged with by fiction writers, who switch to the surreal mode as Adam Johnson did in his ingeniously plotted masterpiece set in North Korea – The Orphan Master’s Son.

Just as we begin to lose faith in humanity, a little trust is restored when characters like Uncle – “pallid, leathery skin sagged over his fleshless bones”, who nurses Shin after he is tortured, or the prisoner Park Yong Chul, “a dignified man in his mid-forties” make an appearance. Shin and Park strike up a friendship and soon they plan to escape.

Park was not as lucky as Shin, who managed to flee and, after much hardship – which in itself makes for a chilling narrative – reached Musan, a mining town on the Chinese border. Along the way he stole from empty houses, dug out daikon radish from gardens with a group of homeless teenagers and made the company of wanderers looking for work as he journeyed north.

Shin was lucky in the sense that in the aftermath of the Great Famine of the 1990s (precipitated by the discontinuation of subsidies from a collapsing Soviet Union), the government had little control over internal travel. Private enterprise was growing and small traders were traveling around the country with smuggled Chinese goods. Their presence helped him move undetected towards the border.

Finally, after bribing the border guards with cigarettes, candy and bean-guard sausage, Shin managed to cross the frozen Tumen river into China. Later he would be helped by a South Korean journalist to finally make it to Seoul.

But like many other defectors, he too faced adjustment problems as the life of an advanced capitalist society overwhelmed him. But what plagued him most was the past, from which it took him very long to escape. As Shin himself tells the narrator at one point of his rehabilitation, “I escaped physically, I haven’t escaped psychologically.”

The stories of defectors blend into each other, the accounts of suffering numb our senses for a while, only to dissolve again in the noise of the wider world. Mia Kim, the protagonist of South Korean author Hannah Michell’s novel The Defections asks her English lover, “Do you know what Hyun-min went through? He was torn between two sides whose flaws he saw equally.” Hyun-min was a young boy who escaped North Korea to be sheltered by Mia’s uncle who ran a school for defectors.

What doesn’t change from one story to the other is the suffering that continues even after freedom; for a long while, till that time comes when the human spirit prevails. Having absorbed darkness, it bequeaths light to the world, and hope to those who need it.