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  • On the Call to Dismiss North Korean Defectors’ Memoirs and on Their Dark American Alternative
  • John Cussen (bio)
Stars between the Sun and Moon: One Woman’s Life in North Korea and Escape to Freedom, by Lucia Jang with Susan McClelland. New York: Norton, 2014. 280 pages. $26.95, hardcover.
A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea, by Eunsun Kim with Sébastien Falletti, trans. David Tian. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015. 228 pages. $24.99, hardcover.
The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, by Hyeonseo Lee with David John. London: William Collins, 2015. 304 pages. $26.99, hardcover.
In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom, by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers. New York: Penguin, 2015. 273 pages. $27.95, hardcover.
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. New York: Random House, 2012. 433 pages. $26.00, hardcover.
Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson. New York: Random House, 2015. 301 pages. $27.00, hardcover.

They are wrong, of course—the more finical sects of North Korea experts, that is, those who advise us to set aside as unreliable the four recently published memoirs by female North Korean defectors listed above. Too novelesque to be trusted, the experts say. Too infrequently backed up [End Page 140] by corroborative testimony. Too often controverted in their plot details by the memoirists’ own spoken accounts of their childhoods in North Korea and of their lives in peril in China. Too transparently suborned by those several right-wing geopolitical leviathans whose ‘‘soft power’’ modus operandi include the buying and shopping of human rights discourse. And, lastly, too fond of the spotlight themselves, these videogenic survivor-memoirists. In short, not to be relied upon in the all-important project of knowing what everyday life is like in North Korea, say the experts.1

The memoirists have been defended too (see below), and it is my purpose here to add two more arguments to the several that have already been put out in their favor. However, before making the points I wish to make, I’ll begin with an important concession. Also, by way of introduction, I’ll unpack the more important cultural and political contexts out of which come the memoirs’ dismissive critiques, for the contexts’ unpacking is also instructive.

The concession is this: that, yes, the memoirists have themselves to some extent brought on this criticism. In particular, discrepancies between Yeonmi Park’s spoken accounts of her escape from North Korea and of her transit through China from her printed text’s accounts of the same life intervals have provoked skepticism. Did she cross the Yalu River into China with her mom and dad on the last day of March 2007, as she has in several of her speeches testified?2 Or, as her memoir has it, did she cross with her mom alone? Also, importantly, in the absence of her father, was her mom immediately raped by the smuggler/broker who received the pair in Changbai, China, moments after they had scooted across the frozen Yalu?3 And what about Hongwei? The next, more powerful human trafficker in Park’s memoir, the thug who, having collected into his peripatetic criminal household not only his thirteen-year-old ‘‘little wife’’ Yeonmi but also her mom and (until he dies) her dad, suddenly releases daughter and mother, with no clear motive for doing so other than the desire to lighten his retinue in a time of police pressure and, too, because he felt as if he ‘‘was being haunted by [Yeonmi’s] father’s ghost’’ for having raped his daughter?4 Is that counterintuitive turning point in Yeonmi’s story credible?

On the other hand, much of the memoirists’ checkered credibility is of the associational sort. In January of 2015, just as their books were gaining prominence, Shin Dong-hyuk, the defector subject of Blaine Harden’s Escape From Camp 14 and their best-known predecessor on the defector-with-a-harrowing-story circuit emended parts of his story. He had not spent the whole of his pre-escape life in Camp 14, the most [End Page 141] notorious of the sprawling...


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