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Humanity Amid Inhumanity
[Book Review] 'Jia' humanizes plight of North Korean refugees
Timothy Savage (yamanin)     Print Article 
Published 2007-07-28 14:17 (KST)   
Jia: A Novel of North Korea
By Hyejin Kim.
246 pages. $14.95 (paperback). Midnight Editions.

Two competing images of North Koreans generally emerge in the media: either of unthinking automatons, mindlessly twirling placards and shouting slogans during one of Pyongyang's infamous "Mass Games," or of hapless victims of torture and starvation under the demonic Kim Jong-il regime. Rarely does someone take the time to portray them as human beings in all their complexity, trying to survive in often impossible circumstances.

The latest novel by Hyejin Kim, Jia, does just that. Inspired by her work with North Korean refugees in China, Kim has crafted an engaging novel full of believable characters, alternately kind, cruel, vindictive, zealous, fearful and hopeful.

In the North Korea described in this novel, class -- in its peculiar formulation under the Kim family regime -- is the central obsession of most people. Jia, the title character, is born into the "wavering class" in a remote part of the country near a notorious prison camp. With her mother dying in childbirth and her father sent to prison for possessing foreign books, Jia is raised by her paternal grandparents until age seven.

A chance meeting with a soldier who'd been kidnapped from a South Korean fishing vessel provides an opportunity to send her to Pyongyang to find her maternal grandparents, members of the most privileged class. Fearing that association with Jia's family will be their downfall, they reject her, and she is sent to an orphanage. Although her talent as a dancer eventually rescues her from the orphanage and gets her a relatively comfortable job at a hotel, she is forced to hide her background from even her closest friends. When she finally confesses to her boyfriend, a true believer in the system, his betrayal of her trust forces her to flee to China.

Kim writes in the introduction that Jia, while based on a real person, is really an "amalgam" of the North Korean refugees she met during her stay in China. As such, Jia's experiences as a refugee run the gamut of stories one typically hears from the region. She befriends a kkotjebi -- a homeless boy -- who shows her the ropes. One friend's marriage to a Chinese man is loving and supportive; another's is abusive and exploitative. Jia herself is sold by a fellow refugee to the owner of a karaoke parlor, only to be saved by a Korean-Chinese businessman who takes pity on her.

Noticeably absent from the novel are any of the South Korean missionaries or other groups working with the refugees in China. While this may seem like a strange omission from someone who herself was active in that sphere, it is a wise choice. Although the vast majority of activists working with the refugees are only concerned with their welfare, a small minority have used the issue to push a particular agenda -- of regime change or proselytization. By keeping them out of the discussion, Kim avoids the debate over the motivations of the activists and keeps the focus on the refugees themselves. It's also notable that Jia's eventual path to salvation is to obtain papers that will allow her to work in China, rather than escaping to South Korea or even the U.S. Many NGOs working on the refugee issue have argued for just such a solution to the problem.

Ultimately, what keeps Jia from being yet another account of the "evilness" of the Pyongyang regime is this focus on the characters and their humanity. Kim Hyejin reminds us that in even the most difficult circumstances, human beings are capable of love and kindness, of venality and cruelty -- and above all, of survival.
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Timothy Savage

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