The triumph of humanity in a place bereft of hopeIt’s hard not to reflect on “Long Road Home,” a memoir dictated by a North Korean defector known as Kim Yong, and not think about faith. An orphan in his early years, he was later raised by North Korean Worker’s Party members. He attended revolutionary school and entered the National Security Agency, where he earned positions of wealth and prestige, all thanks to, of course, “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung. Absolute faith in his country, its leadership, and their system brought him fortune and happiness. Until, that is, it no longer did.
Kim finds out later in life that he was orphaned because he was the son of an “American spy,” a poor farmer who passed along information to the CIA during the Korean War, and found himself on the wrong side of the 38th parallel after the armistice was signed. When the National Security Agency finds out this secret of Kim’s past, despite the fact that father and son never met, he’s thrown into a brutal North Korean labor camp.
Awaiting him is not just torture, beatings, starvation and squalor, but a crisis of faith.
“The great purpose that had defined my life was gone,” he recalls. “I felt like an idiot for having given my life for the Great Leader everyone was brainwashed to believe was a living god.”
Kim endures Labor Camp No. 14, where inmates spend their daylight hours in a coal mine deep underground, and the book claims he becomes its first known survivor. His journey tries him at one more camp before his escape to China, Mongolia and finally South Korea.
His faith comes full circle, in a way, as during the course of the book he discovers truths about not just the outside world, but himself, his past and his capabilities. The book, however, does not spend much time chronicling his time in South Korea or the U.S., which is unfortunate, because it would be interesting to read about the conflict that might occur within a man whose devotion to the North Korean regime has been replaced with faith in a different power.
The narrative is often enthusiastically written, as Kim regards quite fondly the memories of his time among North Korea’s prosperous elite, and he seems to have made room in his heart for his wife and children alongside the Great and Dear leaders.
The book is also not short on detail. It provides an enlightening look at the lives of upper-class North Koreans and their conspicuously consumerist economy. Kim himself worked as a “foreign currency earner,” and his accounts of his work life provide some insight into how North Korea once raised funds.
At times reading the book you have to remind yourself that you are not reading a work of fiction, and that the maniacal zealotry or dreadful acts of ruthless violence Kim recounts are indeed real. It is not the most graceful of prose, but translator Kim Suk-Young, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, has surely accomplished something, making such a text as readable as it is and brimming with life, emotion and fascinating imagery. Her introduction, including thorough citations of other scholarly works on North Korea, provides a helpful context to bring readers who are not obsessed North Korea-watchers up to speed.
Given that, this is a book that I would recommend to anyone, not just those interested in North Korea or human rights, but anyone who appreciates a story about the triumph of humanity in a place so bereft of hope.
Long Road Home
Author: Kim Yong, translated by Kim Suk-young
Publisher: Columbia University Press
By Andrew Siddons [firstname.lastname@example.org]