Who Is Allowed to Speak For North Koreans?
Narratives of Captivity and Freedom
The Southern Slavocracy’s obsession with people escaping slavery helped create anti-slavery feeling in the rest of the United States. The Slavocracy viewed these escapes as threats to the viability of the South’s Peculiar Institution. But until the Civil War, very few of the black people held in slavery did escape. Few of those who did were literate, and even fewer agitated for abolition. Frederick Douglass, having struggled and succeeded in learning to read and write, was one fugitive who was both literate and who did speak out against slavery after he escaped. He was not representative. His was, however, a mighty voice.
The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) became a classic, not just of African-American literature, but of American literature in general, and its author considered one of the greatest speakers for those whom America held in slavery. Yet Douglass’s right to speak for them did not go unquestioned at the time. Douglass wrote the book, recounting the circumstances of his life and putting himself at risk of re-enslavement, to counter claims that such an intelligent, well-spoken man had never been a slave at all. The book itself raised new challenges to Douglass’s authority to speak. To some it suggested that Douglass had never been a slave; others argued that a white abolitionist must have written the book for him.
They had not. But even the white abolitionists who sponsored Frederick Douglass in many ways sought to stifle him. As they saw it, his job was to expose the cruelties and sufferings of slavery by giving their audience direct testimony of what he had witnessed and endured. Analyzing his own experience and the experience of the enslaved masses, and proposing remedies, however, was best left to the educated, abolitionists believed — to white people. “Give us the facts,” Douglass’s white adviser told him. “We will take care of the philosophy.”
Not unlike these nineteenth century American fugitives, very few people who live in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea succeed in crossing the border. Indeed, given the penalties inflicted on their families, very few try. Most of those who do are farmers. The Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Unification says it has processed a little over 31,000 escapees who have succeeded in reaching the Republic of Korea in the south, usually by crossing the border with China and making their way by some complicated route—perhaps through China’s mountainous, less well patrolled, southern border, into Laos or Vietnam and ultimately back to the Korean peninsula.
These few escapees are our main source for understanding how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea works. But only if we listen to them.
We don’t even have a generally accepted term for these people. Dr. Suzy Kim objects to the term “defector” as misleading, as most people who leave the DPRK seem to be “economic migrants.” Hyeonseo Lee, who herself escaped, agrees in her memoir The Girl With Seven Names that “most people escape because they’re hungry or in trouble — not because they are craving liberty.” This, she says, is because North Koreans cannot know their rights are abused, as they have no concept of rights. The DPRK itself calls them terrorists and criminals.
I will refer to these people as “escapees.”
If you have read the books of North Koreans published in the U.S., you know “escape” is a popular theme. At least three different books are subtitled with some form of the phrase “Escape from North Korea.” Escapes thrill. One remembers that in theatrical productions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s great anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a book far more popular than The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the tour-de-force scene was Eliza, her baby in her arms, fleeing slave catchers and, jumping from ice floe to ice floe, crossing the Ohio River to freedom.
We are most content to listen to escapees when they speak of their adventures. We prove less likely to accept their judgment when they, as did Frederick Douglass, attempt to analyze the place from which they escaped. Indeed, the more revelatory a defector’s knowledge is, the more he shakes up the received wisdom on the DPRK; the more he challenges the received wisdom, the more likely it is his new information is dismissed as bogus.
Like Frederick Douglass, Jang Jin-sung writes under a pen name. Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea (2015) differs from other accounts in that he is a relatively high-ranking escapee, and offers insight into the workings of the regime. While I find those portions of his book the most compelling, reviewers sometimes complain that he dedicated too much space to the government and not enough to his thrilling escape. One Amazon reviewer said, “While the book was a bit ‘wordy’ at times with political background material, the gripping story itself made it worth the read.”
Yet in the “political background material,” and in subsequent lectures, there is important information: Jang Jin-sung has challenged standard interpretations of how the DPRK works. Among other things, he argues that Kim Jong-Il effectively undermined his father Kim Il-Sung, during his lifetime. He doubts that Kim Jong-un has inherited all of his father’s power.
There are other important comparisons to the slave narrative as well in Jang’s account, most importantly how it was written. Douglass’s book grew out of his experience as a public speaker; he was probably the best orator to emerge from those people who escaped slavery. His elocution actually raised questions about his authenticity, to the point that his white patron advised that Douglass must try to sound more black. However, Douglass rejected this advice, deciding to write a book in his own voice with verifiable details of his life under slavery. Jang, whose book began not as lectures, as did Frederick Douglass’s, but as a blog, perhaps the 21st century equivalent of the lecture circuit, could not make his book as verifiable as Douglass could his, because he still has family back in the DPRK, who could be punished for his “crime” of having freed himself.
Is there a reliable mechanism for judging the accuracy of any escapee’s account? I have heard South Koreans complaining that North Koreans write their books merely for the money. Generally, experts on North Korea — so-called “Pyongyang watchers” –are the final word on the legitimacy of a narrative. In other words, non-North Koreans are the ones who rule on which North Koreans can speak for North Koreans, just as white audiences just the accuracy of an escaped slave’s account.
When Frederick Douglass published his narrative, he took a grave chance: he revealed who he was and where he was. Under federal law, his legal owner had every “right” to reclaim him. Douglass went to Ireland and Britain to avoid recapture and remained until abolitionists bought him and freed him. When Jang Jin-sung published his narrative, he was sentenced to death in absentia in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea: there is no way to free him from that sentence until the regime itself falls.
It is possible that the vast majority of people in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are loyal and content and the relatively few escapees do not speak for their country. Of course, possibly most enslaved African Americans also accepted both the reality and the ideology of slavery, and abolitionists should have ignored Frederick Douglass. This was argued at the time and well after slavery’s demise. But we don’t believe it now.
The Civil War revealed how hollow the central lie of the Slaveocracy was: that the people it held in bondage were content. Anytime a Union army arrived nearby, “contented” enslaved people flocked to it, freeing themselves. Perhaps someday, in some great crisis, we will finally learn how many North Koreans remain because they love the regime, how many stay because of threat and force, and how many wish to live their lives in freedom.
In the 20th century Reid Mitchell was an historian of the American Civil War. Now he is Professor of English and Scholar of Fourth Jiangsu Top 100 Talents at Yancheng Teachers University in Jiangsu Province, China.