Significance of North Korean Defectors in Fiction

  • onFebruary 17, 2015
  • Vol.26 Winter 2014
  • byPark Dukkyu

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 young woman named Chung-sim who is trafficked out of North Korea and subjected to seemingly endless abuse as a woman and as a stateless person. The collection is notable in that it draws attention to the real life problems of North Koreans being subjected to human trafficking and other human rights abuses in the burgeoning cottage industry known as the “North Korean defector trade,” run by brokers and religious organizations.

Hwang Sok-yong’s novel Princess Bari (2007) also depicts the human rights abuse inflicted upon a North Korean defector, the eponymous Bari, who finally finds a home with other migrants in England. As a stateless person and a woman, Bari is a minority twice over. In Kang Young-sook’s novel Rina (2006), 15-year-old Rina is separated from her family while escaping from North Korea to a country called P. After being kidnapped, she survives rape, forced labor, prostitution, human trafficking, drug trafficking, the slaughterhouse, and near murder. In Cho Haejin’s novel I Met Lo Kiwan (2011), the titular character and his mother are escaping North Korea when the mother dies. Lo Kiwan uses the money from selling his mother’s body to go to Belgium, where he struggles to gain refugee status.


From Minority to Owners of the Ghetto

To categorize North Korean defector fiction by period, works from the 1990s explore North Korean issues from a South Korean point of view, while those from the 21st century tend to incorporate more international experiences and points of view. Another way of categorizing these works would be by setting, with some concerning characters who have escaped North Korea but are still on the run, and others featuring characters who have settled down in one place, usually South Korea. Brier RosePrincess BariRina, and I Met Lo Kiwan feature characters that have escaped North Korea but have not yet found a permanent home. Kwon Ree’s novel Left-handed Mr. Ri (2007), Kang Heejin’s novel Ghost (2011), and Jeon Suchan’s novel Shame (2014) depict the isolation of North Korean defectors who have settled in South Korea. It is likely that this second type of North Korean defector fiction will flourish in the future, highlighting how North Korean defectors are already present in South Korean society yet continue to be marginalized.

In this light it is particularly interesting to note the open ending adopted by some of these works. In Princess Bari, for example, Bari ends up in a ghetto of capitalist London, where she and other migrants build a community of their own. In Rina the protagonist is left in limbo, excluded from both her country of origin and P, her hoped-for destination. What is noteworthy is that these outcasts, living in marginalized and impoverished enclaves, go on to establish tightly-knit and freestanding communities through their own power.

In conclusion, if North Korean defector fiction focuses on the minority status of its characters, it is not to wallow in the hopelessness of a tragic situation. While the myriad of problems associated with North Korean defection can only be truly resolved through reunification, on a more immediate note it is necessary for North Korean defectors to shed their ghetto mentality and feelings of inadequacy. Princess Bari ends with Bari carving out a multicultural, deterritorialized place for herself in an immigrant enclave of capitalist superpower London. In Rina, the ever-marginalized Rina is reborn through life-defining experiences and claims ownership of a ghetto of her own. 


by Park Dukkyu
Professor, Dankook University


Author Title Genre Protagonist Sex Residence Hardship
Park Dukkyu “Deer Hunting” Short story Park Dang-sam M South Korea/ culinary school Lack of skills, inability to adapt
“You Tremble from Loneliness Even When You Are Together” Short story Yeom Jeong-sil F South Korea/ government facility Culture shock
Jeong Do-sang Brier Rose Short story collection Chung-sim F Northeastern China Casualty of North Korean defector trade
South Korea/karaoke
Hwang Sok-young Princess Bari Novel Bari F Northeastern China UK/ 3rd country Victim of human trafficking
Kang Young-sook Rina Novel Rina F 3rd country(en route to country P) Victim of human trafficking
Kwon Ree Left-handed Mr.Ri Novel Mr.Ri M South Korea/ inn Inability to adapt
Cho Haejin I Met Lo Kiwan Novel Lo Kiwan M Belgiu/ detention center, restaurant Statelessness
Kang Heejin Ghost Novel Ha-rim M South Korea/ Internet cafe Marginalization
Jeon Suchan Shame Novel Won-gil M Pyeongchang, South Korea Bullying