Significance of North Korean Defectors in Fiction

The Future As a Unified Country

In 1960, Choi In-hun expressed his longing for a square that would serve as a truly open space for individuals and groups to communicate in The Square, the story of a character named Lee Myong-jun who gets a taste of the two regimes during the Korean War only to become a casualty of both. This square never actually materialized, but it did leave an indelible mark on Korean literature. Fifty years after The Square and 60 after the Korean War, Lee Eung Jun’s The Private Life of a Nation (2009) imagines a reunified Korea (the South having absorbed the North) that has become “a ship about to sink in an endless sea of desire.” It is true that nearly 70 years of division bodes for a murky, chaos-ridden future when the two Koreas are finally reunited. Nevertheless, there is really only one option. It is impossible to discuss the future of Korea without assuming that it will become a unified country.

     North Korea remains the most isolated country in the world, and chances of the regime surviving into the distant future look to be slim. The massive rise in this past decade of North Koreans defecting to the South supports this. But what kind of country do they find in South Korea? Is it, as The Private Life of a Nation claims, “a ship ridden by desire, drifting in a sea with no place to drop anchor”? The gaze of North Korean defectors who have experienced life in the North and have made the drastic choice of escaping from that regime to live in the South, therefore, may very well serve as a barometer of the present and future of Korean society. It is from this perspective that North Korean defector literature is such a fascinating subject.


Diaspora and Minority

North Korea’s economy plummeted in the 1980s, influenced by a mixture of both internal and external factors. Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994 marked the beginning of a great famine that claimed countless lives. The North Korean regime responded by launching the “Arduous March” campaign, so-called after an apocryphal exploit of Kim Il-sung’s. According to legend, Kim Il-sung, braving starvation, marched for 100 days in freezing conditions during his fight against the Japanese in the late 1930s. By the time the new century rolled around, however, it became clear that the campaign had failed. North Koreans were fleeing the country for South Korea in greater numbers than ever before, preferring to take their chances rather than starve to death. As of September 2013, the number of recorded North Korean defectors in South Korea stands at 26,483, with the majority having defected post-1990s.

     This mass defection is symbolic of South Korea’s absolute dominance in North-South relations and may be viewed as circumstantial evidence that the North Korean regime is crumbling. Defection has kicked off various debates in favor of reunification, marking a noted decline in old, separationist points of view. This shift of perspective triggered by North Korean defection is not limited to the Korean peninsula, but influences the power relations of Northeast Asian politics and beyond. In this age of globalization, with national boundaries being redefined, the transnational population, or diaspora, has become a subject of lively discussion.

     North Korean defection is a specific phenomenon that allows us to posit the dissolution of the North Korean regime within the realm of probability and to extrapolate upon the future of a reunified Korea. It might also be interesting from an international perspective as an example of redefining territorial boundaries in a globalized world. From this point of view, it is worthy to note that North Korean defectors are both a diaspora that have left their former country and are in the process of being assimilated into a new one, and a minority group that suffers from second-citizen status in their new countries, including but not limited to South Korea. As North Korean defectors become a more visible presence in South Korean society, they are increasingly depicted in more varied and sophisticated ways in comparison to the earliest portrayals, which were limited to their immediate plight.


Defector Fiction

North Korean defectors first appear in South Korean literature from the mid-1990s in such short stories as “Deer Hunting,” “You Tremble from Loneliness Even When You Are Together,” “Three People,” and “The Woman Who Reads Children’s Stories.” The struggles these characters face adapting to life in South Korea highlight the contradictions and pitfalls of South Korean capitalism while also showing defectors as guinea pigs of a reunified Korea. Following this initial stage in the 2000s, North Korean defector fiction began to diversify in terms of characterization and setting. Jeong Do-sang’s short story collection Brier Rose (2008) depicts the trials of a you...