South Korea’s Samsung Construction has dramatically raised its profile around the globe over the years by building some of the world’s tallest towers – from the Burj Khalifa, to the Petronas Towers, to Taipei 101. Now, the Hanjin Group of South Korea will leave a new profile on the Los Angeles skyline – the Wilshire Grand Tower will be the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi when completed in 2017.
But for now, the US Bank Tower retains the title of tallest in the West. In the shadow of that tower is the wonderful LA architectural specimen of the Central Library where on Monday authors Adam Johnson and Blaine Harden discussed what’s going on in the other Korea – North Korea.
The event, “Unveiling North Korea through Fact and Fiction,” was occasioned by Harden’s recently released “The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and the Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom.” The book tells the story of No Kum Sok, a North Korean fighter pilot who defected to South Korea in 1953 – and later the US – by stealing a Mig-15 fighter jet and landing it at a US Air Force base near Incheon. Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his 2012 novel “The Orphan Master’s Son,” set in North Korea. The two took the stage to compare the journalistic and fiction approaches to writing about a country where firsthand information has traditionally been hard to come by.
Johnson opened by exploring what gets people interested in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the first place. Some places represent an extreme version of what life and human experience can be, he explained. North Korea is one of those extremes, from our reference point, which provides us a lens to view ourselves through.
The two authors agreed that in the last decade or so, American perception of North Korea took a turn toward the serious with the emergence of books like David Hawk’s The Hidden Gulag and Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, though the perception of comical buffoon dictators and general destitution remains. Johnson also stressed the fact that the stories we hear first-hand from North Koreans heavily skews our view of the country. We think of North Korea monolithically, but it’s more useful to think of three North Koreas. There’s Pyongyang, where the country’s elites are concentrated and the standard of living is relatively high. There are the northeast and northwest border regions where trade with and travel to China is regular and there is ready exposure to foreign media and culture, and where private markets are experiencing something of a boom. Then there’s the remaining middle where the capital’s affluence and the border regions’ international trade has yet to reach. “Two thirds of all defectors come from one province – North Hamgyong province,” Johnson said. North Hamgyong is the north easternmost province of the DPRK which borders both Russia and China.
The number of defectors multiplied by orders of magnitude in the wake of the famine in the 1990s, and their stories make the bulk of firsthand accounts of life in North Korea. Thus, their stories represent the most desperate and tragic cases. The challenge then, which Johnson aimed for in his novel, is to use the skewed information we have to try to put ourselves in the shoes of Koreans in the north who are living normal lives. Harden said one of the biggest challenges for Americans is to remember that North Korea is frozen in the Korean War and that citizens are reminded of its horrors constantly, whereas in America it is commonly referred to as The Forgotten War – it plays virtually no role in anyone’s daily life. “The United States has a fundamental role in the creation of North Korea,” Harden said. The relentless US bombing campaign of the DPRK is the “fact-based propaganda gift to the Kim family that keeps on giving.” As he writes in The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot,
“…The perceived persistence of the American threat – and the Kim family’s sacred duty to fight against it – is an all-purpose excuse for the country’s long slide into isolation, poverty, and hunger. The family’s argument goes like this: Sure, it’s miserable living in North Korea, but don’t blame us. Imagine how much worse it would be if we weren’t protecting you from the American bastards. Never forget, their bombs killed Grandma.”
The authors also explored the dilemmas faced by Koreans aware of alternative, more realistic narratives of the war and the world, especially those faced by parents. If you come to the realization that the Dear Leaders are not actually protecting you, but are the main obstacle to your country’s advancement, do you tell that your children? You could set their mind alight, or you could put their life – indeed your entire family’s life – in immediate danger if they ask the wrong questions and someone informs on them.
During the question and answer period, a US Army veteran named Bo took the mic and with a shaky voice explained how her “heart jumped” when Harden and Johnson described how people in Pyongyang’s surrounding towns can see the trains that lead to the detention camps for political criminals. Bo described things she believed can be found in FEMA camps around the US – barbed wire that faces inward and train cars with shackles. Why are we discussing camps in North Korea and “why would the government need that?” she asked.
Johnson answered by sharing some of his experiences visiting those “camps” and going back to the idea of using a society like North Korea’s to view our own. “North Korea is fascinated by our prison system,” he said. Stories of police shootings and violence make the front pages in North Korea. “About 1 percent of the North Korean population is incarcerated” and we think that’s terrible. We look at them and think there’s so much that is strange and incomprehensible, but they’re used to it and live with it. But then when you think that about 2 percent of the US population is incarcerated and the practice of prolonged solitary confinement, large scale homelessness and other problems – things that can look extreme from other countries – “what have we gotten used to?” he said. Johnson was not making a moral equivalence, but the illustration was clear that Americans can learn a great deal from taking North Korean society more seriously.
Another audience member questioned Harden about the Shin Dong Hyuk affair. Shin was the subject of Harden’s bestselling Escape from Camp 14 and recently came under intense scrutiny for inaccuracies in his life story. Harden recounted the series of events and explained why he thinks Shin made his confession. Of the approximately 60 defectors who are known to have lived in camps, “Shin is the single most tortured person of them all,” said Harden. The focal point of Shin’s change of story was that he did not actually escape from Camp 14, but Camp 18, and that some of his dates were re-arranged. This was a distinction without a difference, argued Harden. Camps are sometimes moved, expanded, shut down or consolidated as was the case with camps 14 and 18. Shin’s experiences in the camp took place no matter what number was assigned to it, “the fundamentals of Shin’s story remain intact,” Harden said.
North Korea has argued that Shin’s case invalidates UN human rights sanctions being brought against it – and the potential of the DPRK leadership being brought before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity – but the charges are based on hundreds of consistent testimonials.
Johnson offered an explanation from a creative writing angle, “to tell a narrative means to begin the creation of a meaning-making machine,” he said. You take an event in your life, which came to you through immediate perception, and you impose a structure on it, you put it in order and form a chronological progression. Survivors of traumatic events such as combat veterans often fragment their memories and tell them in bits and pieces. Rarely do stories of such experiences come out fully formed.
Johnson recounted an interview he did with another North Korean defector and his puzzlement when the man kept saying “he did this, then he did that, then he crossed the river and then I was out.” “But wait, who is he?” Johnson asked. The man was talking about himself. He had removed himself from the story in order to put distance between him and the experience. Harden said that Shin Dong Hyuk had gone through such trauma, and he was so humiliated by torture and guilty of his actions (he betrayed his mother and brother and caused their execution which was carried out in front of him) that he couldn’t face it. So, he told himself a version of events crafted to conceal certain painful facts. Is that so strange coming from a man who came from a society where glossing over facts and events that don’t comport with the Leaders’ narrative is a matter of survival?
One audience member asked the authors what their solutions would be to improving relations between the US and the DPRK. Johnson turned to Harden, “do you have a strategy?” he asked, getting a laugh from the audience. Harden said he thinks the most likely scenario is that North Korea will transition into a period of developmental dictatorship similar to that of China or post-war South Korea. Increased economic integration would eventually allow for diplomatic relations to take form.
Johnson said that he would first like to flood literature into the DPRK. The most powerful organizing principle of societies is the narratives they have of themselves. He drew parallels to the Soviet Union and writers like Alexander Solzhenitsyn who wrote of their experiences at their peril, but created literature nonetheless. He noted that we have not yet seen any non-state-approved literature come out of North Korea, nor do they have access to such literature from anywhere else. The state’s narratives dominate so thoroughly that before any real opening or rapprochement can occur, North Koreans have to accept and internalize the fact that it’s healthy for a society to openly discuss and compare different narratives. Americans also have to understand where these North Korean narratives, the true and untrue, come from. Let’s not take for granted the tremendous blessings we have in our ability and freedom to do so.