Country Focus: North Korea (Choson in Korean)
Jia: A Novel of North Korea
Midnight Editions, 2007. 246 pgs.
Acclaim: “the first novel about present day North Korea to be published in English”
Ten years before Hyejin Kim wrote Jia, she didn’t even acknowledge that there was a North Korea:
“To me, there was just one Korea. My upbringing was strictly anti-North Korea, and discussion of North Korea was shunned. I had never thought of North Korea as a real country and North Koreans as real human beings. In comics and cartoons, North Koreans had red faces or bony features and their leaders were all monsters. Every year, on the anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War, I had to hand in an essay and a painting reviling North Korea.”
A year spent living in China changed Kim’s attitude. On a bus trip near the North Korean border, she happened to share a seat with a North Korean woman who had fled her homeland two years prior. The two spent the long ride chatting. Kim was so moved by her new friend’s story that she interviewed other North Korean refugees and the activists who aid them. Jia is a fictional story born out of those people’s experiences.
There are three social classes in North Korea, and Jia was born into the lowest one in 1971. Raised by her grandparents in an isolated political offender’s village, Jia is rescued from a life of drudgery by a soldier who takes her to Pyongyang. She winds up in an orphanage where her talent for dancing is discovered. Despite the uncertainty of her class status (she keeps her past a secret), Jia obtains a job with a professional dance troupe in a high class hotel in Pyongyang. She foolishly reveals her true identity to her über-patriotic boyfriend, who does not take the news of Jia’s “bad blood” well. Worried that he will betray her to the authorities, Jia panics and sets out on a dangerous and uncertain journey to China. Even if she is able to cross the border, will she able to survive in a strange and unwelcoming country?
Poor character development undercuts the novel’s impact. Jia is so unbelievably good-hearted and naive that I pictured songbirds perched on her shoulders a-la Snow White, but Kim’s worst offense is dropping characters into the storyline with barely an introduction, using them to illustrate a personality type or a particular circumstance, and then abruptly abandoning them. The most notable examples include Sun and Gun, who both cross into China and meet with different but equally horrifying fates; Seunggyu, a callous soldier who is part of the “core” [best] social class; Sangwon, one of North Korea’s homeless children known as kkotjebi or “flower swallows”; and Jin, a Chinese-Korean who saves Jia’s life.
However, reading clumsy prose about North Koreans is better than not being able to read about them at all. Jia provides a rare and valuable look into an isolated nation and its people.
In my book (or, what North Korea means to me and maybe you, too)
Decked out in his khaki two-piece “Mao suit”, enormous square eyeglasses and hair big enough for a Texas Junior League member, Kim Jong-il is probably the most easily identifiable foreign leader. His get-up (and eccentric behavior) also makes him one of the most lampooned. Need some silliness in your day? Watch a puppet version of Mr. Kim croon “I’m So Ronery” from the movie Team America: World Police.
In my last post, I listed the 32 official spellings of Muammar Qaddafi. This post outdoes that measly list with the 52 – count ‘em, 52! – official titles for Kim Jong-il.* North Korean media is required to use at least one of these titles when referring to Mr. Ki; print references to him must be made in a bold font. I broke out the titles by recurring theme, except for the last group which is a hodgepodge of flattery.
*Dreamed up by the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee.
Leader of the Pack:
- Leader of the Party and the People
- Leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces
- Leader of the Party, of the country, and of the Army
- Leader of the 21st Century
- Great Leader (his most commonly used title)
- Great Leader of our Party and of our Nation
- Dear Leader
- Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have
- Respected Leader
- Wise Leader
- Brilliant Leader
- Unique Leader
- Peerless Leader
- Supreme Leader of the Nation
- Beloved and Respected Leader
- World’s Leader of The 21st Century
You Are My Sunshine:
- Sun of the Communist Future
- Sun of Socialism
- Sun of the Nation
- The Great Sun of Life
- Great Sun of The Nation
- Great Sun of the 21st Century
- Bright Sun of the 21st Century
- Bright Sun of Juche
- Guiding Ray of Sun
Who’s Your Daddy?
- Father of the People
- Father of the Nation
- Beloved Father
- Beloved and Respected Father
- Great General
- Beloved and Respected General
- Invincible and All-triumphant General
- Glorious General, Who Descended From Heaven
- Great Defender
- Great Marshall
- Great Man, Who Is a Man of Deeds
- Great Man, Who Descended From Heaven
All That and a Bag of Chips
- Center of the Party (his first title, in use since 1973)
- Superior Person
- Amazing politician
- His Excellency
- Invincible and Iron-Willed Commander
- Shining Star of Paektu Mountain
- Guiding Star of the 21st Century
- Guarantee of the Fatherland’s Unification
- Mastermind of the Revolution
- Fate of the Nation
- Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love
Although I never had to write an “I hate North Korea” essay for school like Hyejin Kim, it was always a given that the communist nation – run by cruel leaders in possession of unauthorized nukes – was (and still is) my country’s enemy. In 2002, George W. Bush pretty much gave Americans the presidential go-ahead to hate North Korea when he announced that North Korea was part of an “Axis of Evil” during his State of the Union address.
This animosity is not one-sided. As different as our two countries may be, the North Korean propaganda posters above show that the practice of feeding government-generated vitriol to an under-informed populace knows no borders.
It took a chance personal encounter with her nation’s “enemy” to change Kim’s longstanding government-issue opinion of the average North Korean. She wrote Jia “in the hope that readers will gain a better understanding of the lives of North Koreans – beyond the lens of geopolitics or ideology – and see what I have seen in one woman’s eyes.”