Posted on the Ottawa International Writers Festival.
It is an uncommon opportunity to hear a firsthand account of life in North Korea, and one that drew a large crowd on a rainy Saturday afternoon. As part of the spotlight on democracy and human rights, veteran CBC news producer and Carleton University lecturer, Laurence Wall, began the event with a segment from the fifth estate episode, ‘The Last Great Escape.’ Setting a solemn tone for the next hour, the clip provided some context for those unfamiliar with North Korean society, showing accounts and footage of those fleeing the prison state. Laurence Wall introduced Lucia Jang’s own account as one that spoke of “unbelievable depravation, but also salvation and a new life.”
The book, Stars Between the Sun and Moon was written with Susan McClelland, an investigative journalist and author, with two Amnesty International Media Awards to her name for excellence in human rights reporting. For McClelland, Lucia’s story was similar to many that she had heard from other countries. However, what struck her was that Lucia didn’t realize the power of her account. She kept asking, “Do you think anyone would be interested in my story?” The complete attention of the audience, even through some difficulties understanding her accent, showed that McClelland judgment was right—this is a story that needs to be told.
Jang led the audience from her initial complete dedication to the Supreme Leader, who was loved and esteemed as a god, to her eventual disillusionment with the régime. Before the famine, she remembered receiving candy and new uniforms from Kim Il-Sung, led on with the belief that he could provide for her even better than her own family. When rations began to disappear, the people held on to their loyalty, unaware of the start of a decade-long famine than would leave over a million dead. When the situation only became worse, Jang, among others, began crossing into China and began selling goods through the illegal black market.
Lucia Jang reveals the female perspective that has until now been absent from the written North Korean memoirs. Trafficked into and trapped in an unlawful marriage, she was unable to stop her husband from selling their son. Determination to survive for her children kept her alive through the concentration camps, to which she was sent as punishment for her time in China. Pregnant throughout her second imprisonment, after being cast away for carrying a child not welcome in either China or North Korea, she withstood attempts by authorities to force an abortion, escaping with a newborn baby across China and Mongolia to South Korea.
At times intermingling the serious discussion with anecdotes, she focused on the humanitarian side of the story, avoiding the politics and certain details—such as her full Korean name—that could harm those still in the country. But the most striking comment was in reference to her first time in China, where she saw dogs being fed rice in meat broth, a luxury that the North Korean people could not afford. She felt mocked by their plenty – “I was so extremely shocked that we were worse than puppies.”
But the event was not without hope for the future. Jang, who now lives in Toronto with her two children, is a testament to the possibility of escape and forming a new life. She hopes that her story will change elements of the narrative on North Korea, such as sharing stories of solidarity in prison to alter the misconception that they are hostile to one another. The audience was visibly moved by the event, giving her heartfelt messages of admiration and wishes to offer their support to other North Koreans, concluding the event with a standing ovation. With reference to all North Koreans, Jang stated simply, “We don’t ask for much. Just to be safe.”