A Melting Border

Surviving on the margin between China and North Korea

North Korea is very much in the news these days. The world’s media rushes to report the spectacle of political purges. The disappearance of Kim Jong-un for a few weeks had columnists placing bets on the possibilities of a palace coup. And there are the constants of North Korean political rhetoric: the dear leaders, the running dogs, the seas of fire.

North Korea certainly serves a purpose for us. Its continued existence beyond its supposed “expiry date” allows us to revel in a type of nostalgia for the surer days of the Cold War, a time when everyone knew who the enemy was, when our foes were “over there” and did not threaten from within, and when individual leaders could be easily villainized. Whether it is reports that Kim Jong-il sank eight holes-in-one the first time he ever played golf, or that his son, tired of the continued presence of an old girlfriend, arranged to have her eliminated, it is as if we want to hear these stories. Look what is still going on there, we seem to say. That in the end these stories often prove false is unimportant since they serve their function: a vicarious titillation that keeps a tumultuous world in neat boxes. For all the serious problems in North Korea—and they are hugely serious—categories and stereotypes from a bygone era do little to help us appreciate the deep changes that are slowly transforming the human security of the region.

It is for this reason that The Stars between the Sun and Moon: One Woman’s Life in North Korea and Escape to Freedom, Lucia Jang’s extraordinary story of life growing up in that country, written with Susan McClelland, is so refreshing. Not because it provides more exotic stories about North Korean leaders, but because Jang’s nuanced story gives us the richest account to date of what it is like to live in North Korea, one that allows us to peek outside the stale Cold War categories with which we have become overly comfortable. Now a resident of Toronto, Jang grew up in a remote area of North Korea near the Chinese border as a member of a politically discriminated-against segment of the population. (After the Korean War, families loyal to the party received privileged status, whereas families with ties to South Korea or from unfavoured political groups, like Jang’s, came out at the bottom of the political hierarchy.) “The foundations of this family are not good,” as her grandfather puts it. Her story is dramatic: she survives hunger and famine, has an infant forcibly taken from her, works in a metal manufacturing plant, illegally peddles goods across international borders, is sold to a Chinese farmer for $350 and survives two spells in a North Korean prison—all this before she reaches Canada via Mongolia. Her fortitude and tenacity are remarkable.

The book begins by detailing the social and economic conditions of life in a destitute North Korea. Jang shows how the official hierarchies of political loyalty have become the social norms of everyday life. When she goes to school for the first time, she notices some of the girls are tall and well fed, whereas others, like her, are not. This scene ends with the girls being divided, the healthy girls led away to their own classroom to keep them separate from their lower status classmates—a harsh lesson of discrimination for any six year old to learn.

Jang’s unfortunate marriage at age 22 to a brutal and brutalized man leaves her pregnant, beaten, abandoned and humiliated—and with little recourse. Socialist equality? No vestige of it in Jang’s hard life. “Life was terrible” in North Korea, she finally writes halfway through her memoir, leaving us to wonder what took her so long to come to this conclusion. These hardships eventually make Jang shift her gaze north toward China.

In Jang and McClelland’s telling, it takes only a few minutes of fear-instilled wading—ankle deep in some spots, chin deep in others—to cross the Tumen River that separates the two countries. There are no fences, no barbed wire and no concrete palisades for long stretches. It is the unlucky traveller who encounters a border guard. It is the even unluckier traveller who meets a border guard who will not accept bribes. This is no Berlin Wall. Tens of thousands of North Koreans have taken advantage of this lax security over the last 25 years. Current estimates put the number of North Koreans illegally living in China at somewhere upward of 200,000. Yet such static figures leave out a key fact: these journeys across the border are not one way.

Jang enters the peripatetic life of a China–North Korea trader, starting by hawking eggs and tofu at the local train station, before moving sugar, fish and puppies north across the border. She repeats the journey once a week, venturing back and forth into China “countless times.”

Many pundits see in this growing trade the liberating force of the market. Yet for Jang the market turns out to be anything but liberating. Today the Chinese countryside has a shortage of women. The lure of the city for young women, together with the one-child family policy, has created a deep gender imbalance. For the many lonely farmers in Northeast Asia, North Korean women are popular substitutes. On one of her journeys across the border, Jang—alone and desperate—has little option but to agree to be sold. At this point her story shifts, becoming a human trafficking narrative, similar to the stories we read about defenceless and exploited women in many parts of the world.

Jang’s life—from earnest student, to petty trader, to transborder merchant to a sold commodity—was unimaginable for a North Korean only 30 years ago. The change has been wrought in part by the rise of China as the juggernaut of the world capitalist economy. The tentative steps made by the North Korean state to use markets to its own advantage and the response of people like Jang have been slowly integrating North Korea into the economy of northeast China. The result has been the resurrection of old networks, labourers and goods circulating without regard to national boundaries much as they have since the late 19th century. This is not the end of history but its return. Jang is the unfortunate, human flotsam of these global historical forces.

Nevertheless, Jang eventually makes it to Canada, where she and McClelland can tell her tale. Regrettably, the significance of Jang’s narration seems lost on the publisher, who is marketing the book as a simple Cold War-style defection story. According to the book’s afterword, Jang came to be selected by the publisher, with the help of the North Korean human rights advocacy group HanVoice, precisely for the purpose of recounting a dramatic story. They have certainly succeeded and this may serve their purposes.

Yet in presenting Stars Between the Sun and Moon this way, they sell Jang’s story short. Her story is far richer. It demonstrates how today we need to catch up with the times when it comes to North Korea and realize that the very way we continue to use the concepts of an outmoded era is in fact part of the problem.

Lucia Jang’s moving memoir challenges us to begin figuring this out.