- Title: How I Became a North Korean
- Author: Krys Lee
- Publisher: Faber & Faber
- Release date: August 2nd 2016
- Pages: 246
Yongju is an accomplished student from one of North Korea’s most prominent families. Jangmi, on the other hand, has had to fend for herself since childhood, most recently by smuggling goods across the border. Then there is Danny, a Chinese-American teenager of North Korean descent whose quirks and precocious intelligence have long marked him as an outcast in his California high school.
These three disparate lives converge when each of them escapes to the region where China borders North Korea—Danny to visit his mother, who is working as a missionary there, after a humiliating incident keeps him out of school; Yongju to escape persecution after his father is killed at the hands of the Dear Leader himself; and Jangmi to protect her unborn child. As they struggle to survive in a place where danger seems to close in on all sides, in the form of government informants, husbands, thieves, abductors, and even missionaries, they come to form a kind of adoptive family. But will Yongju, Jangmi and Danny find their way to the better lives they risked everything for?
Transporting the reader to one of the most little-known and threatening environments in the world, and exploring how humanity persists even in the most desperate circumstances, How I Became a North Korean is a brilliant and essential first novel by one of our most promising writers.
Guest Reviewer: Ashraf Ali
After a dinner of delectable fish flown in on a private jet from Tokyo, smiling celebrities in fur coats and government functionaries wearing Rolexes dance to an American pop song under a glittering disco ball.
Krys Lee’s debut novel opens with a unique and often unseen glimpse of life in the North Korean aristocracy. It’s a shocking display of opulence particularly to those who have only heard of the Hermit Kingdom from mainstream news.
But look closer: Their smiles are grimaces, dressed up to conceal terror. This is not Manhattan but Pyongyang.
Lee’s jarring comparison to Manhattan echoes Anna Fitfield of WaPo’s more recent experience with the party elites in what she calls “Pyonghattan”. It’s a fascinating read and I highly recommend it. Suffice to say Ms. Lee, with an opener like that, I am definitely intrigued.
The Dear Leader was drunk, now angry, and made his decision. He reached as if brushing off lint from my abeoji’s suit lapel, then motioned a bodyguard over and casually withdrew a revolver from the man’s jacket pocket. He aimed it at my abeoji’s heart.
In the blink of an eye, Yongju, one of three protagonists, has his world turned upside down. His abeoji (father) has been murdered in cold-blood by Dear Leader himself. He is forced to flee the privileged life he has for fear of persecution under the oppressive regime. This is the tipping point that sets in motion an arduous journey of survival, in a world where the odds are stacked against them at every turn.
How I Became a North Korean is told through the first person narratives of three main characters. First is Yongju, the son of one of the North Korean elite families. Jangmi, another protagonist, on the other hand, is a commoner. She is pregnant with the child of a high-ranking official thus is forced to sell herself to marriage to a Joseonjok, a Chinese of Korean ancestry to escape certain death.
The skyline blinded me with its glowing signs—neon, he called it. But it was the hundreds of motorcycles flying past that I couldn’t stop staring at. I promised myself that I would become like one of those women who looked so fearless, so free, riding alone on the enormous steel machines.
From a narrative standpoint, I love how Lee is able to use the different social classes of these two characters to convey their unique experiences with the world outside the DPRK. The quote above is a great example of this. Yongju has an introspective almost-poetic side to him while Jangmi, though stone cold in parts, has both a caring, motherly side and a general amazement at the world outside the DPRK.
Am I forgetting something? Oh, yes. The third protagonist in this novel Danny/Daehan, another Joseonjok and a devout Christian that immigrated to California with his father. He however returns to his homeland to see his mother and after a certain plot event I won’t spoil, joins some North Korean defectors including both Yongju and Jangmi.
Honestly, the “Danny chapters” were the weakest in what was for the most part a pretty enthralling read for me. I found him, despite the whole closeted gay aspect, to be a bit one dimensional at times. It is a shame that such a riveting personal crisis that could define his character, just doesn’t feel as fleshed out. Compared to the other two protagonists, Danny comes off as uninteresting and sometimes seems to be just a deus ex machina for the them.
Overall, there’s no getting around the fact this is a beautifully-written novel. Lee herself has worked with North Korean defectors and it really shows in the vivid descriptions throughout the novel. You feel the desperation in their actions and the desolation of the lands they are forced to cross in the hopes to taste that forbidden freedom they yearn. Though I will admit that it’s a bit much at first, stick with it and you shall be rewarded.
Unfortunately, the third act didn’t stick to me as much as the writing style. It felt cliché at points and didn’t live up to the wonderful first act. It isn’t a deal breaker by any means but a disappointment nonetheless. Finally, I have one final albeit minor bone to pick with this novel.
Our eomeoni turned away. Look at me, her posture said. I’ve failed as your eomma.
This novel uses a lot of Korean terms. Some terms were explained but some were left as is, forcing the reader to guess, with varying degrees of success. Usually, one can make a pretty good guess a few sentences in, but in some parts, it does get a bit confusing. A glossary for the non-Korean speaking readers would have been much appreciated.
So, what’s the verdict? All in all, Lee has managed to craft a beautiful and nuanced take on North Korea and its people. Would I recommend everyone go out and get it? Unfortunately, not. This book is certainly not for everyone. But if you’re curious about the subject matter, this novel, despite its flaws, is certainly worth the pick-up.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
I would like to thank Faber & Faber for this review copy in exchange for my honest review!
Ashraf enjoys long walks on the beach and sharing a book during dates, however impractical that may be. You can find him (if he ever decides to update) on Twitter at @AshNitrate.