With almost 30,000 North Korean escapees calling South Korea home now, many of their stories have been printed in novels, essays or poems. In fact, there are so many that literary works by or about North Korean defectors now form a new genre in South Korean bookstores.
North Korean refugee Jang Young-jin’s debut novel “A Mark of Red Honor” departs from the typical conventions of this genre.
In the 368-page book, written in Korean, he narrates his own childhood, growing up and major events that led him to flee North Korea, without trying too much to reveal “horrific” details about the world’s most closed society.
The result is a powerful and captivating story of a man who risks his life to find meaning in it. North Korea is just a backdrop, although the book offers an interesting look at rural life in the communist state in the ’70s and ’80s.
Jang’s life, in reality, is stranger than any fiction that a novelist would ever dream up.
“The novel is based on my life. All of the characters are real persons in my life and their names are real, too,” Jang said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
Jang Young-jin, the author of “A Mark of Red Honor”
In a country where there is no concept of gay love, Young-jin is gay, although he doesn’t know this. His feelings for best friend, Sung-chul, are obvious to readers ― love.
With a wandering mind and not knowing the source of his unhappiness and dissatisfaction, Young-jin carries on with his life and marries a woman who his mother picks for him. But after nine years of marriage, several rounds of hospital visits for his lack of sexual desire for his wife, and a failed effort at divorce, he decides to end it in an extreme way: flee North Korea and start a new life in the South.
“I thought if I die, I die. I was that desperate,” said Jang, now 56. “Life without hope is not worth living, I thought.”
His journey to the South may merit a book to itself. A 13-month ordeal in China leads him nowhere and he decides to take a route that no one ever dares to try ― sneak back into North Korea and crawl through the mine-filled strip of land along the 38th Parallel ― the inter-Korean border ― to the South.
“Five days. It took me five days. Looking back, I don’t know how I pulled it off,” Jang said.
In the wee hours of April 27, 1997, he finally set foot on the southern territory of the border and his new life in South Korea began.
One day about two years after his arrival here, he saw a picture of two men kissing in a magazine. At age 40, he learned what it meant to be gay and that he is, and has always been, gay.
It was like seeing a ray of light at the end of a tunnel, Jang said.
“I was happy that I don’t have to live alone. It gave me hope that I can love someone and be loved.”
Life here has never been easy, though. He lost everything, deceived by a conman who pretended to be in love with him.
“That’s when I started to work as a nighttime office cleaning man. It is hard work with meager pay, but I thought I deserved it. It was a life that I chose.”
Writing this book has been a healing process for him, he said.
“I wrote it in homage to my mother and siblings who have died in the North because of me. I don’t know how much I cried, writing this book. But now that it’s published, I feel that I am ready to move on.”
Jang said he still dreams of finding the love of his life and is writing another novel, this time pure fiction.
“I am already on it. It’s about women in North Korea, like my mother and sisters.”
By Lee Sun-young (email@example.com)