Part1. North Korean Defectors in Fiction - Drawing a Map of Sadness

  • onFebruary 17, 2015
  • Vol.26 Winter 2014
  • byJeong Do-sang

I didn’t plan to write Brier Rose. At the time, all I wanted to do was go on a long trip or an adventure. I was waiting for something, an adventure that I could throw myself into wholeheartedly—the kind that would find me wading through swamps with leeches sucking the blood from my thighs and chest, after which I would get lost in a deserted grassland, and when I finally threw off my soiled clothing, a few dried-out leeches would fall out. I wanted to spend the winter in Harbin or Jiandao, the temperature below minus 30 degrees Celsius cutting into my flabby body. Finally I got my wish and found myself in Shenyang, China.

There, at a foot massage parlor, I met a small woman. I later called her Soso in my book. Soso introduced herself as Joseonjok (Korean ethnic minority in China). That was a lie, however. After a while Soso told me how she had been trafficked from her hometown in North Korea to a remote Chinese village. I was shocked to learn that her defection was not her choice, but that she had been trafficked against her will.

And with this I came face to face with humanity. Inside the people I met, I saw landscapes and scars, hypocrisy and treachery, jealousy and madness, purity and baseness, excess and deprivation, sadness and joy, chaos and purpose, desire and prostitution, truth and falsity.

With Brier Rose’s Chung-sim, I wanted to depict a protagonist whose body mapped out the course of her existence. However the task was not as straightforward as I had anticipated. With each sentence I wrote, I would take glimpses at the landscape outside the sentence and then shake my head. I found that rather than drawing a map of existence, I was drawing a map of sadness.

In order to visit the site of human trafficking, I took a bus from Harbin to the Mudan River, a long, four-hour ride without any heating in the minus 40 degree weather. I accepted the pain as part of the tension and terror of the story.

The days I spent in Manchuria to meet trafficked North Korean women and their traffickers were brutal. I struggled on, looking at the dingy streets outside my shabby hotel in Shenyang, or walking in the dog-meat street where the red carcasses of dogs were hanging, their fur singed off, beaten to death. And finally Brier Rose was born inside me, of the bones of existence, sadness, and language.

Sometimes the truth is far more destructive than fiction. People who are outcasts or runaways tend to build distorted, fragmented, selective narratives of their hometown. It is not easy to survive as an outsider otherwise. This truth should not be wrapped up in words like freedom or human rights. The drama of North Korean defection is always connected to money. Those who paint themselves as heroes smuggling North Korean defectors outside of China are usually the most suspect. No matter what they tell you or the media of the world, to these professional brokers, North Korean defectors mean money. The number of North Korean defectors determines the size of their income. I know, because I was there. Of course what I saw is not the whole truth, but I know that it does exist. Brier Rose is a testament to this outrage. 


by Jeong Do-sang

Author's Profile

Since 1987, Jeong Do-sang’s (b. 1960) works have relentlessly explored the organizational violence and social mechanisms that suppress free will and the conditions of life. He won the Yosan Literary Award and the Beautiful Writer Award in 2008 for his serial novel Brier Rose.