After leaving North Korea, writers are penning stories about their home

Exiled poet Lee Kay-yeon says the stories of North Korea as a powerful nation didn't match her experience growing up there in the 1990s.

Exiled poet Lee Kay-yeon says the stories of North Korea as a powerful nation didn’t match her experience growing up there in the 1990s.

(Steven Borowiec)

SEOUL — Growing up in North Korea in the 1990s, Lee Kay-yeon had access only to literature that was written and approved by the country’s rulers. All of it told similar stories, she says: The country was somehow threatened by outside forces, usually Americans, but would overcome by drawing strength from the teachings of the nation’s founding father, “Great Leader” Kim Il Sung.

Lee says the stories of North Korea as a powerful nation didn’t match her experience. As a child, she lived through a famine that killed more than 2 million people after North Korea lost aid from Moscow in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. The country suffered floods that wiped out crops and livelihoods. She recalls gathering grass and tree bark for her mother to boil to make thin soups for dinner.

Still, throughout that time, Lee says she believed the suffering would be temporary — and was caused by external enemies. “I actually believed that North Korea was the best country in the world.”

Now in exile in South Korea, Lee has begun penning her own poetry, becoming part of a small movement of North Korea-born writers gaining recognition in their new homeland by telling stories about the North.


It isn’t easy for these new arrivals to carve out space in South Korea’s literary landscape, which is dominated by a handful of old publishing houses and prize committees, says Charles Montgomery, an associate professor of linguistics and translation at Dongguk University in Seoul.

“Defectors have been in an interesting kind of no-man’s land because they’re not fully accepted as South Korean poets, but they’re not typically North Korean, either,” Montgomery says.

In 2012, a group of defector writers formed North Korean Writers in Exile and gained official recognition from PEN International, a body that promotes literature around the world, with many prominent writers as members.

Some defector-writers are making waves in the mainstream. In November, novelist Kim Jung-ae became the first defector to win the Korean Novelists Assn.'s best new writer award. Also last year, Jang Jin-sung, who was a poet laureate under former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, released a widely read memoir, “Dear Leader: My Escape From North Korea,” about his close encounters with North Korea’s leadership and perilous escape to China.

The new wave of recognition comes a decade after one defector, Kang Chol-hwan, found a broad readership with his memoir, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.” The book led to Kang’s garnering an invitation to the White House in 2005 to meet President George W. Bush.

It was hardship at home that caused Lee to shed her belief in the state’s propaganda and to seek a new life outside North Korea. Her mother had heart disease, and her family couldn’t afford doctor visits or medication. Free healthcare is guaranteed under North Korea’s constitution, but in practice, patients have to provide bribes or gifts for doctors to receive care, refugees have said.

“We were told to praise the leader for his greatness,” Lee says, “but he couldn’t even get my mother the medicine she needed.”

Late one night in 2010, she says, she slipped away and made the long walk into China, without saying goodbye to her family. If Lee had informed anyone of her plans to flee, there would have been a chance they could have informed the police and had her arrested. She made it to Seoul after nearly a year in China and Thailand.

In South Korea, she has found refuge in poetry. In May, she released her second collection under the title “Waiting for Mom.” The collection is now available only in Korean, but Lee says she is working on finding a publisher for an English version.

After arriving in Seoul at age 24, having never written anything except school assignments, Lee began to spend her evenings in the new and unfamiliar city jotting down her thoughts and experiences. When she showed her journals to friends, they said her writing sounded like poetry.

Like that of many Korean poets, Lee’s work is heavy on metaphors related to the natural world. Flowers are a strong motif, symbolizing untarnished beauty, as well as cycles of life and death. Rice, Korea’s staple food item, represents the difference between survival and starvation, warmth and cold, comfort and destitution.

Her verses contain sparse, vivid language about themes such as the division of families between South and North and longing for faraway loved ones. One poem of hers, titled “Birthday,” has one verse that reads, “Today is mom’s birthday ... a morning breeze blows through my open door, but mom is nowhere to be seen.”

Lee says she doesn’t know of her mother’s fate, as she hasn’t been able to maintain contact with her since fleeing.

Lee first gained recognition after winning a local poetry competition in 2012 and won the Ministry of Unification poetry prize the following year. The prize is awarded to writers born in South or North Korea whose work contributes to bridging the gap between the two countries, which have been separated since the late 1940s.

Writers and artists from North Korea suffer from not having had access to a wide variety of texts and influences at home, where the canonical Korean and Western texts are banned. Also, writing on forbidden topics — most subjects beyond praising the country’s leaders — is prohibited.

North Korean Writers in Exile member Chang Hae-seong says of the group’s early stages, “Not many of our members had any training in writing, and even those that had been published in North Korea had only been exposed to socialist realism and propaganda glorifying Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il.”

It can also be difficult for defectors to attract general readers on the merits of their writing and not because of their ability to describe ordinary life in reclusive North Korea.

“Most people who take an interest in their work are people who already have some interest in North Korea,” said Brother Anthony An Son-jae, a retired Sogang University professor and noted translator of Korean poetry.

Sales of Lee’s books earn her some income, and she says she has received anonymous donations. She also works as a server at a fried chicken restaurant.

She says that she misses the family she left behind in North Korea, her mother in particular, but doesn’t regret leaving. In Seoul, she says, she appreciates the freedom to write and live according to her own choices.

Lee’s favorite from among her own poems is titled “Shilhyangmin,” a difficult-to-translate Korean word that denotes a person displaced, away from his or her hometown.

One verse reads, “I can find my family in my hometown, but where I am now, I’m left searching for stars in the night sky.”