In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council announced a commission to “investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea…including the violation of the right to food…torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention…violations of freedom of expression, violations of the right to life, violations of freedom of movement, and enforced disappearances…” (Source: United Nations Human Right Council Resolution 22/13.)
A year later, the commission published its findings which, not surprisingly based on all the anecdotal evidence that had been seeping out over the past fifty years, accused the North Korean government of being involved in systemic, widespread, and gross human rights violations. The chairman of the commission compared the North Korean government to the Nazis, presumably not a comparison that most governments would want to have made about themselves. But North Korea, and more specifically—Kim Il-Sung and his descendants, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Eun—really don’t care about the comparison. Kim Jong-Eun continues to rule in the spirit of his grandfather. Because of this, North Korea continues to be one of the most caricatured countries, but also one of the most egregious abusers of human rights. It is no wonder then that there are thousands of North Koreans who want to escape this regime and many are risking their lives to do so.
Within the past ten years, more and more North Koreans are choosing to defect (interestingly, the majority of them are women which is somewhat unusual in the history of defections). And more and more of them are coming forth to bear witness about their treacherous escapes from their native country, mostly in the hopes of raising international awareness and to bring help to their former country people. And it now seems that this is their time. There is a spate of memoirs being published this year by successful North Korean defectors, including: In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park; Under the Same Sky by Joseph Kim; and The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee. A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea by Eunsun Kim is also on this list.
Kim’s escape was not literally a thousand miles, but figuratively it seems much more than that. More than anything, her journey to freedom is a sobering reminder to those of us living in a “free country” to be grateful for our country, our rights, and our freedom. As much as we complain about the current issues plaguing our country (and let’s not sugarcoat it, there are many), the life we are afforded here should never be taken for granted.
The structure of Eunsun Kim’s story is straightforward enough. When we first meet her in December 1997, she is eleven years old and starving to death in Eundeok, North Korea, a small town close to the border to China. Her father died a month ago. She believes her mother and sister have abandoned her. She has just enough energy to write her final will and then she falls asleep, “sure that [she] was never going to wake up again.”
When we see her in the next chapter, fifteen years have passed and she is on the subway in Seoul, Korea, heading to Sogang University where she is taking classes. Clearly she did not die of starvation, and the rest of the book is devoted to filling in the details.
While the structure may be straightforward, the story is not. The details of her escape to freedom are harrowing, almost unbelievable, and stretch across nine years. Reunited with her mother and older sister, the three escape to China, where they were befriended by a woman who spoke Korean and fed them well. She then sold them to a peasant farmer who wanted a wife to give him a son. They left for the country and their new home where they were treated like second-class citizens—forced to sleep in the stables, work in the fields, and be beaten by the family. Kim’s mother eventually bore the farmer a son, but that did not change their status within the family. Someone then turned them into the police and they were sent back to North Korea as per the arrangement between the two countries (China treats North Koreans as illegal economic migrants, despite requests from the UN to reconsider this policy.) But, by a stroke of luck, they narrowly miss being sent to prison. They chose to flee to China again and went back to the peasant farmer. It was the best option that they had at the time.
Eventually, they decide to escape from the farmer’s family and gradually make their way to Shanghai, where Kim starts to think about escaping to South Korea. She saves up enough money to pay a smuggler to get them to Mongolia where they can seek asylum at the South Korean embassy. This is the final destination as South Korea offers citizenship to all North Korean defectors, provided that they aren’t proven to be spies.
The final part of the book recounts Kim’s integration process into South Korean society, her quest to get her sister out of China and into Korea, and her return to education and decision to become a child psychologist. Adjusting to life in the bright, shiny, bustling capitalistic city is not easy. But Kim is resilient and it is not difficult to believe she will be successful.
A Thousand Miles to Freedom is a memoir with a mission. Kim, in addition to her studies, works for The Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, an NGO based in Seoul. She wants to raise awareness about the plight of all of her country people who were, unlike her, unable to escape.
In that mission, she has been successful. She has an amazing story of escape (though sadly, it is not a unique story; most North Korean defectors have similarly amazing tales of dangerous escapes). She does a credible job in showing how North Koreans are indoctrinated and why it is virtually impossible for North Koreans to think any differently. She also represents well the challenges of integrating into South Korean society and the conflicting feelings of having to shed her former views of North Korea as the supreme motherland and South Korea and America as the evil enemies.
One very minor quibble: the story is easily read, but it is not great literature. Her story is told to Sebastien Falletti, the Korea correspondent for the French newspaper Le Figaro, so it is natural that the writing is not fully developed. At times though, the language and style were distracting, and I wished that there had been a little more editing. But it feels ungracious and overly nitpicky to complain about that, especially after all that Eunsun Kim has endured to get this book into print. The story is clear and her mission is being accomplished.
Don’t look here for beautiful writing, but do look here for a must-read, first-hand account of what it is like to grow up in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and what one must endure in order to escape to freedom.