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Stories Change Lives

The North Korean capture and Clinton-assisted release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee brought a compelling human element into a conflict that many Americans know little about. I’m a Korean-American novelist who also paid scant attention to the North Korean regime until Ling and Lee’s 140-day arrest brought the cloistered dictatorship to national consciousness once again. After the two journalists were safely home, though they released an appeal for the dire needs of North Korean defectors living in China, Western interest in the tragedy of the North Korean people once more subsided. Recent news of Euna Lee's book deal gives hope that she'll be able to reach many more people with the story of these abandoned refugees.


Because it was my own mother’s stories that inspired me to learn more about Korea and write about it, I believe strongly that personal stories are the way most of us connect with the greater tragedies and joys of the world around us. I thought I should know more about the stories Ling and Lee were pursuing, and discovered films online about a young man who escaped from North Korea at age 23. Shin Dong-hyuk, now 27, was born inside the worst of North Korea’s prisons—a life-sentence camp that housed recidivist political dissidents. The hard labor of a man and a woman was recognized with a “reward marriage,” and from this, Shin and an older brother were born, after which his father was separated to work in the mines. Shin’s life circled exclusively around hunger, avoiding beatings and following rules. Because families of criminals are punished for three generations, Shin was born into a death sentence. He was taught to read and write at the school camp until age 12. Interestingly, since “lifers” were considered irremediable, he was not indoctrinated with the cultish political dogma of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il infused into all other North Korean children and adults.

When Shin was nine, his mother and older brother escaped. Erroneously presuming he knew something about their whereabouts, Shin was tortured every day until the escapees were captured several weeks later. In one film he shows the scars on his back from being hung by his hands and feet over open flames. He was forced to witness the executions of his mother and brother.

In fall 2005, Shin was assigned to work with a new political prisoner from Pyongyang. He was ordered to report the subversive, treasonous things the new prisoner might say. But the man from Pyongyang treated Shin with the unmistakable kindness of sharing half his rations. A child of the prison, Shin had always believed what he was told--that he was deserving of punishment--but now Shin listened to stories about life outside the prison. He heard about an abundance and variety of food and how people could come and go at will. He repeatedly asked the man from Pyongyang to tell those stories. Shin, who had never before thought of anything outside the camp, who did not know the concept of freedom, attributes these stories to his decision to escape.

Several months later when an opportunity presented, they agreed to run for it. Shin led the way but stumbled, and the man from Pyongyang was first to leap between the lower two wires of the electrified fence. Shin smelled a terrible odor of burning flesh as he threw himself in the gap opened by his friend sprawled on the bottom wire. He felt searing pain as his legs caught the upper wire. He ran toward the far woods assuming his friend was following, but when he reached tree cover, he saw he was alone. He waited late into the night but his friend never appeared.

Feeling guilty but knowing his friend’s outcome was hopeless, Shin found a village. He joined a band of rag merchants and journeyed northeast to cross the border into China, as the man from Pyongyang had described in his stories.
South Koreans ask if he was awed to see the modern bustling city of Seoul. But for Shin, when the sun rose the morning after his escape, the most shocking vision was how people walked about freely, wearing clothes of different colors, exchanging paper for food. For several days he remained in a state of shock at these three facts.

I was struck by how the man from Pyongyang’s storytelling so utterly changed Shin’s life that he has both published his memoir in South Korea and is now an outspoken advocate for North Korean refugees. It gives me new wonder at the power of storytelling, and recalls in a much smaller way how in telling my family’s stories through my novel, I connected to cultural history and to being Korean American with an extraordinary richness. It is a rebirth of changed identity inspired by storytelling that echoes Shin’s far more powerful rebirth.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee traveled to the China-North Korean border to tell stories about the 300,000 defectors living in fear of repatriation and worse. In particular Ling and Lee were concerned that eighty percent of these refugees are women whose chances for a decent life are slim. North Korea managed to shift the focus of that story by arresting these two journalists. Their hope, and mine, is that the stories that continue to trickle from the North will spur us to tell other stories, to give hope, to alter the story into something wholly human.


Links to films about Shin Dong-hyuk: Journeyman and LINKS.org sponsored by Google Maps

Link to Google map I made of the prison camp he describes in the above LINKS film.

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What a thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

Thank you for that concise yet moving summary of Shin's experience, and the film links. I too am looking forward to something more in-depth from Euna Lee and/or Laura Ling.

I agree with you about the power of story to alter awareness and change lives. Even - or especially - in politics and policy, which shape such things as North Korea's draconian prison system, these are all outgrowths of a shared understanding of needs and nationhood. Those are shaped, as always, by the stories people tell themselves about their country, their history, and their destiny.

I've been fascinated by Korean history since I discovered we fought our first Korean War there in 1872: a misguided retaliatory mission several years after the fact of the burning of a yankee trading ship that had trespassed on the river near Pyongyang. In that "war" we succeeded in blowing up some river forts, declared "we won", then (wisely) decided to leave.

It is difficult to find good, detailed, and generally accessible information on Korea's history outside of academic library holdings (to which I do not commonly have access). You are uniquely advantaged in sharing the culture, I presume also the language, and the personal stories you have the gift to retell. I'm looking forward to reading The Calligrapher's Daughter.  I wish you all the best success with your new book. :)

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Thank you

Deborah, thank you for your post. One book that speaks to both Korean culture and history (and is a rare historical document written by a woman) that I highly recommend is about an extraordinary event in ancient Korean history: THE MEMOIRS OF LADY HYEGYONG, translated and annotated by Jahyun Kim Haboush. Lady Hyegyong was the consort of Crown Prince Sado, whose acts of insanity compelled his father the king to ask him to step into a rice chest, whereupon the chest was sealed and Sado perished of starvation many days later. All Koreans know this dramatic story, and while the translated narratives is sometimes difficult because of its complicated historical context, Haboush's interpretation and introduction are brilliant. The story compelled the British author Margaret Drabble to meld it into a fiction called THE RED QUEEN, but there's nothing like the real voices from the past to tell their own stories. Thanks again for writing.