It took the Bolsheviks a good while, but they eventually learned something that may still be eluding their North Korean counterparts. By as early as the 1930s, Stalin and his accomplices seem to have come to terms with two fairly basic facts of life: The family is a real institution, and there is no substitute for it.
We have no clear idea of what has been occupying the minds of the three generations of madmen who have ruled half of the Korean peninsula for nearly three-quarters of a century. For that matter, we know precious little about the lives of the people who have been forced to live in that dark land. Now, thanks to this memoir written by a young North Korean woman, we know more than we might otherwise have known. More specifically, we know that even in this godforsaken place, the family remains a real institution. We also learn that the author knows—and acts as if—there is no substitute for it.
Presumably, it’s fair to speculate that Hyeonseo Lee (her seventh and self-chosen name) is far from alone in her thinking, if not her acting, among her fellow North Koreans. Whether the regime has come to terms with the family is another matter entirely. Given Lee’s story, we can at least conclude that those in charge haven’t yet managed to destroy the family—and maybe they are smart enough not to undertake such a project.
Lee’s story reads like detective fiction, as she proceeds from place to place and name to name. Most of the action takes place in China, her first home-away-from-home. The most dramatic and improbable scenes occur in Laos; the most telling—and compelling—ones take place in South Korea. But this is not a story of high drama or political intrigue. In truth, it isn’t really a political story at all. It’s a family story, first and last, as well as a tale of limits twice over. Those would be the limits placed on the lives of North Koreans by the regime and the limited reach of that very same regime. A totalitarian regime it pretends to be, but it fails at being totally totalitarian.
It’s not that Lee is out to paint a picture of east-west convergence, or even of North and South Korean communalities. Far from it. Life in North Korea was (and is) overflowing with privations. Persecution is real. Oppression—physical and mental, ideological and actual—is inevitably part of the routine of ordinary life. And yet, life on a daily basis was, to borrow from Lee, by and large “manageable.” At least that was the case for her small family of mother, stepfather, and younger brother. Of course that manageability required cunning and determination, not to mention adaptability and resignation. A little bribery here and there helped as well. So did the ties and demands of family.
Home for this small crew was the city of Hyesan. Located on the Yalu River, it was “on the edge of the world” and virtually a stone’s throw from China. By Lee’s own account, her “happy childhood” of the 1980s and early ’90s included the arrest and presumed execution of the military officer she knew and loved as her father. It also featured intrusions into (and ransacking of) the family home. Toss in the ideological indoctrination that constituted her formal education from the first day of her schooling, and it’s no wonder that she defected from all this happiness while still a teenager.
Actually it was a wonder: Not only was her happiness apparently genuine, but her initial leave-taking was almost a lark and intended to be brief. Motivated by curiosity, not politics, the girl who was still five names removed from Hyeonseo Lee did not so much escape from North Korea as make very careful arrangements to visit relatives in China. Yet, when her departure was imminent, she somehow felt that her “life was about to change forever.”
In a fundamental sense, it did. But in an even more fundamental sense, it did not. Once in China, she remained and eventually managed to pass as Chinese. Reunion with her family was always a dream, while building a life in South Korea was not. In the end, she was reunited with her mother and brother—in South Korea, no less. But all was not necessarily well: If the tug of family proved to be powerful for all three, the pull of their North Korean home proved to be equally powerful for mother and brother. A free life has its glories, but for those who have been unfree, it can have its terrors as well.