Dalkey Literary Awards - 20th June 2020
Dalkey Literary Awards - 20th June 2020

DAY 2: Korea: Inside the Hidden Kingdom – Dalkey Book Festival

The Town Hall in Dalkey was packed to the proverbial rafters at lunchtime Friday as a very special event took place inside.

One woman from North Korea, the other from South Korea. Both from countries with entrenched identities and complex histories.

Hyenseo Lee grew up believing she was so lucky to live in North Korea. It was not until she became an “accidental defector” that she discovered otherwise. Her journey from North Korea to escape to China and then, a lengthy ten-year attempt to return to her homeland in order to be reunited with her family, is detailed in her book The Girl With Seven Names. In 2013, her Ted talk was received to critical acclaim; Oprah Winfrey called it “the best talk ever” – you can watch it here.

Han Yujoo grew up in South Korea, a very different land and as a result, has had a very different experience of life.

A successful novelist, she is joined onstage by Michael Breen, a fellow author.

Kelly Falconer welcomes them all to the Book Festival by providing some background. She then invites Michael Breen to “give some background” on Korea; a subject he has dedicated his mind and life to.

Michael tells the audience that he will keep this short as “these two ladies [Lee and Yujoo] are far more interesting than me!”

He asks the audience how many have been to South Korea; a few hands go in the air. He then asks how many have been to North Korea; there is one lone hand. The woman informs him that she’ll actually be going to North Korea in September. It’s no surprise to anyone that North Korea doesn’t top the list of tourist destinations.

An insular and secretive country, the only information that is known terrifies many of us. Totalitarianism. Censorship. Execution.

Michael takes us through “a short contextual history” of Korea. It is a country that existed in roughly along the current borders with China and Russia for 1300 years.

“It’s a very historical country with very ancient people” Michael tells us. In fact, ethnically, Korea hasn’t changed in 5000 years. “Except for people like me coming in and marrying [a Korean]” Michael says, to gales of laughter.

It was only in the 20th century, first at the hands of the Japanese and then at the hands of the US and Russia, that the country was divided. Which, if you pause and consider the current relations between the two – i.e, non existent, the time frame is extraordinary.

It is also what will solve the division, Michael believes. “Division is very short. If anyone in any doubt if these two countries will ever unify again, as difficult as it seems, they will. Because of that history” he says confidentially. 

What we have now he says “is an extraordinary situation”. North Korea is “one of the most horrible countries in the world” Michael asserts. “Most ghastly, repressive regimes in human, in modern history. This is a country that devours its own people. It’s horrible.”

Economically, it’s also one of the poorest in the world while their government spends 25% of GDP on military; making them the biggest spender on warfare.

In contrast, on the “other side of border in South Korea, they have the same, culture, geography… and have picked themselves up. Before the Korean war, they were on the [same] level with Haiti and Ethiopia [in terms of poverty and deprivation].”

Now, they have a trillion dollar economy, are the 6th biggest exporter and the 8th biggest importer. A lesser known fact, Michael believes, because “we hear a lot about the other Korean’s – but their the bad guys.”

Michael adds “The reason North Korea is so extreme in repression and militarisation is because these states exist in rivalry. They both say they are the real Korea.”

There is no diplomatic relationship between the two sides. The reason for all that rivalry, according to Michael? “Only one can win.”

After a round of applause for Michael’s succinct summary of Korea, Hyeonseo illuminates the captivated audience as to what it was like to grow up in her homeland, North Korea.

What we learned from North Korea was South Korea was the most poor country in the world. They don’t have money to go to school or university or pay for hospital fees. Kids were starving in the streets. I was thinking I was so lucky being born in North Korea.” 

It’s a chilling illumination of how tightly channels of information are controlled in this country; how its citizens are conditioned.

It wasn’t until 1998 and Hyeonseo escaped to China that she became aware of the lies.

“In the past, until the big famine in 1994 until the early 00s – and over 1 million people died – before that people in North Korea didn’t know the value of money. If you were trying to earn money in the 80s/90s, people were laughing at people in markets [black market] making money. We thought they were stingy. We didn’t think we needed any money. Then the famine started… over time, people realised money is important. Since then, they started earning money on the black market or people smuggling… or people flee and escape.”

She adds “Right now [in North Korea] people are still dying because of starvation.”

Earlier in the event, she referred to herself as “an accidental defector. Now, Hyeonseo explains why.

“My country was the best in the world. We said so every day. But when I was 17 – which was 1997 – and I saw people dying in the streets, in the markets, near the train station [because of famine]… and sometimes the dead bodies wouldn’t be moved. So the smell… That was really shocking to me. Until that moment, couldn’t realise a human being could even die from starvation.”

“China was the only comparison to me but I could see the differences. We would suffer from power shortages every night. In china I saw neon signs [everywhere]. I was confused. I thought my country was the best, but china seemed the best? Because of curiosity and attraction, it made me cross the border.”

The hall is silent as Hyeonseo carries on.

“I didn’t know the definition of refugee or escape so I just left to see China with my own eyes and then I’ll come back to my own country. I didn’t want to separate from my own country. So that’s the reason I escaped. That’s how I became an accidental defector.”

Hyeonseo didn’t intend to stay in China. She wanted to go back to her family. She was just about to leave to return home when her Mother called. “They found out” she said – the North Korean government.

Her mother told her to stay in China. She fabricated her departure and reported her as a missing child.

It took ten years before she would see her mother and brother again.

For Han, who was born and raised in South Korea, life was different. But North Korea wasn’t a big presence in her life. “There wasn’t much of a channel to learn about them.”

While it is easy to think of South Korea as idyllic in contrast to the North, it’s not without its problems. It is a country with young people who are overeducated and underemployed. It is a country with high suicide rates. It is a country with deep gender issues. For many years, couples would decide whether to maintain a pregnancy or not based on the gender of the child. So much so that it’s illegal in South Korea for a doctor to tell you the gender of an unborn baby now.

There is also huge problems with home ownership in South Korea, a problem that many Irish people can identify with. Michael explains to the audience that “In South Korea, the government used to and still does control the banks and tell them where to lend… [the government] told them you can’t waste money on things like people having mortgages.” That money goes to companies. 

It’s striking to hear from the two woman; from countries divided now by so much more than a geographical border. Their experiences and lives have been intrinsically shaped by their origin of birth.

There are so many more questions to ask, so many more thoughts circulating as the event draws to a close. It’s been a captivating and shocking retelling. More than one person in this room is queuing to buy Hyeonseo and Han’s books. We’ve gotten a glimpse into the Hidden Kingdom; we’re hungry for more.