For a poet of the North, artistic freedomThe first time I met Choi Jin I, a North Korean poet who defected to the South, she was settled comfortably on a sofa, chatting amiably with a young girl next to her. Dressed in natural beige tones, she almost blended in with the furniture. The dreamy look in her eyes suggested that her verses would contain some environmentally friendly content, perhaps something about walking barefoot on moist earth.
That pastoral image was shattered at our next meeting, however, when she began relating her past experiences. “There is hell on earth, and that is North Korea,” Ms. Choi said vehemently.
When speaking about the North, the twinkle in her eyes disappeared and she pursed her lips; the deep lines around her mouth showed that this was not a recently acquired habit. I then noticed that at the age of 46, Ms. Choi looked older and wiser than most women her age.
“Defectors are afraid to speak of the realities of North Korea and if they do, they wish to be anonymous, but if no one tells the truth, who would believe that circumstances in the North are as bad as they truly are?” she said.
Ms. Choi, who defected to the South in 1999, published a memoir this month providing details of the harsh living conditions in North Korea in the context of her own dramatic life.
While Ms. Choi is one of the few defectors to openly criticize the North, she is also one of the few who have left despite having a fairly successful career. Ms. Choi was a recognized poet in North Korea’s literary community and a member of the Joseon Writers Alliance Central Committee. She was even praised by writer Hong Seok-jung, who is famous for his book “Hwangjini,” who said she would be a writer who would “change the scope of literature in the future.”
Then what prompted this promising female poet to decide to leave her fame and position behind?
When Ms. Choi was five, her family fled from their house in Pyongyang, when her literary scholar father sensed danger from the ongoing crackdowns on intellectuals in the city. Her mother, who suffered from diabetes, died when Ms. Choi was still quite young, and she was punished for reading books, which was the only solace the shy, unsociable girl found.
Although the family was able to move back to Pyongyang when Ms. Choi was in her teens, she chose to work full-time at a factory, where she lived as well, because of money problems and troubles with her stepmother.
The best days of her life came when she went to college, Ms. Choi said. “In North Korea, classic literature from the West is banned beginning in the first grade of elementary school. I only began reading Western literature when I turned 20. I remember how impressed I was when I read Goethe’s ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther.’ Goethe had written a masterpiece at the age of 20, and I had just written my first poem,” she said.
She began writing poetry for magazines and newspapers, and gained recognition among her peers, joining the prestigious Joseon Writers Alliance Central Committee, a group that produces more than 60 percent of all successful writers in North Korea.
Although joining the committee enhanced her reputation, Ms. Choi realized that she had to pay a price. Now that she was a member of North Korea’s greatest literary group, she was required to present regular poems about former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung and the current leader, Kim Jong-il.
“There were certain rules,” she said. “For example, in a six-stanza poem, references to Kim Jong-il had to be made in the first stanza.”
Even in poems that were not about Kim Jong-il, strict restrictions applied to the subject matter.
“Writers were not allowed to write about love between teachers or about three-way relationships because they would supposedly have a bad influence on the readers. Mentioning specific items was also prohibited. We were forbidden to write about the lotus flower, for instance, because it symbolized Buddhism,” she said.
It was a huge dilemma. “I spent most of my days in distress. If I wrote odes praising Kim Jong-il, I would be disappointing my readers and literary friends. But if I refused, I would be kicked out of the committee; leaving voluntarily would be like committing suicide as a writer. And yet I wanted to keep writing. It was the only reason to live in such a desolate world,” Ms. Choi said.
Unwilling to give up writing entirely, she tried to avoid writing accolades.
“At first, I tried to understand Kim Jong-il and take some sort of emotional approach instead of blunt praise. After all, he had lost his mother at a very young age, which was something I could relate to, and I tried to imagine how lonely and tired he must be in maintaining authority,” Ms. Choi said.
“But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t do it. My poems would turn out to be lousy ones that were neither creative nor political. Some people can’t be forced to flatter, and I was one of them. I saw how contradictory North Korean society was and I felt that there was no future. I bided my time, looking for opportunities to escape.”
That opening came in 1997, when her husband, a divorced man whom she had married a couple of years earlier at the age of 36, was banished from Pyongyang for improper education of his son, a 26-year-old who had run up debts.
“It was good timing. The government was moving people out of Pyongyang due to food shortages and when my husband abandoned me, it was a good excuse to leave. It was like God had created the ‘bad situation’ to give me a chance for a new life,” she said.
With the help of friends, Ms. Choi crossed the Tumen River into China in July 1998 and was “sold in marraige” to a Chinese man, but found an opportunity to go back for her 3-year-old son in September of that year. With the boy strapped on her back, she swam across the river again, fighting against the strong current.
Although she had escaped from North Korea, circumstances in China were not much better. She succumbed to a marriage with an ethnic Korean to avoid getting caught by Chinese authorities, but during their year of marriage, she said she was consistently beaten and abused. In 1999, with aid from a South Korean church organization in China, she was able to come to Seoul.
“Some defectors say that I should be ashamed of myself for telling the world about my past marriages, but how can you be chaste in such circumstances? I was offended against my will and that has nothing to do with who I really am,” Ms. Choi said.
She is currently living in government-owned housing and receives financial support of 170,000 won per month ($162) from the government and 500,000 won from a local church. The funds are not enormous, but she is very thankful. “As long as the hot water is running and I can pay for rice and (household) gas, I am happy,” she said.
After taking part in the government’s resettlement program, Ms. Choi decided to go to school, and began studying for a master’s degree in women’s studies at Ewha Woman’s University, where she is currently working on her thesis and preparing to take the TOEFL, or Test Of English as a Foreign Language, on which a certain minimum score is required for graduation.
Ms. Choi said that she hopes to pursue her writing career in the South, and to become involved in activities to protect the rights of North Korean women.
“North Korean women began participating in social work and earning money much earlier than South Korean women, and yet their rights are totally ignored and they are subject to discrimination,” Ms. Choi said.
“Women are expected to do equal work with men in the workforce, but somehow that does not apply to work at home,” she said. “Women who are full-time homemakers are considered worthless beings and women are considered inferior to men on the whole.”
Although she seems happy with her life here with her son, Ms. Choi pointed out three characteristics about South Korean society that she thought were negative ― an emphasis on “genius,” success and beauty.
“Koreans want their child to be a genius and constantly tell their children that they are geniuses. They are also obsessed with success, especially in education,” Ms. Choi said. “I also had to deal with the high standards of ‘makeup’ that women are required by society to put on. I was always a ‘naturalist’ and never really put on makeup, so it was really stressful when I found that the society required me to do so.”
“The thing that makes this world a better place to live in lies in our hearts, but Koreans think that good looks can change one’s inner self and earn a ticket to participate in the culture of developed countries,” she added.
“They don’t know that by damaging their original beauty, they are disqualifying themselves as persons of developed culture.”
Envy By Choi Jin I
In front, a fierce battle is at its climax
But you, woman soldier,
Cradle a comrade’s head on your knees,
With such distress you hold him,
I wonder, secretly, if he has loved you in the past...
It seems he is not the only person dear to you,
That army cook, the same age as your father,
That young man drafted from college, fearsome as your brother,
They are all valued as your flesh and blood!
You lean your back against a collapsed trench,
Your close comrades slumber at dawn,
While with your bloody hands, you use a glinting needle,
To stitch the bullet-torn naval uniforms
Salvaging the last scraps of their clothes.
The dying comrade’s body cools,
So you donate your body’s clean blood, reviving him,
A small secret smile flits across
Your brightening face.
You’re joined to these battle-weary soldiers, sleep-starved,
Your eyes are bloodshot
Didn’t your compassionate heart know fatigue?
Commander’s radio calls have been cut off.
Trapped inside enemy territory,
Do you know loneliness? You trust your soldiers.
Even if your life was short, you knew no privation,
Inside war’s flames, you learned heart’s compassion
Death’s bold hand cannot touch you,
All the dead leaves piling over the years cannot bury you.
O days full of suffering full of hardship,
Our country will not forget the days of suffering and the soldiers
Who are as precious as gold.
Woman soldier, you have loved them with a love
Of sister and mother combined.
I still have yet to know
Your love like the flames, like the sky,
Which your heart embraced
As a woman, I endlessly envy you.
I thank the fellow soldiers
Who poured their colossal love
Into your heart.
Translated by Cathy Hong, a Fulbright scholar
I hoisted the baby, who was sliding down on my back. I could feel from the child’s stiffness that he was tense from my still position. Never mind myself, I wondered what would be the fate of this child. Would leaving Pyongyang turn out to be a fortune or misfortune for him?
I turned my head and called to the child clinging on my back.
“Repeat after mother.”
“Bye, Pyongyang. Take care of yourself.”
“Bye, Pinga-take care ub youselp.”
The sweet voice of the young one who had not even learned to pronounce words properly stung my heart again and again.
So that was it. That was the last farewell that my son and I had with Pyongyang.
An excerpt from “Choi Jin I, the Woman Who Crossed the Border Three Times”
by Wohn Dong-hee