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Lim Il: North Korean Defector Writes of His Home Country and Settling in South Korea

February 7, 2012

Read in Korean

“Of course South Korean people don’t read the reports that catalogue the horrendous human rights abuses in the North. Only through personal anecdotes, making the reader smile and feel touched, can we inform. Anyone can just read and enjoy, and at the same time the important thing is that they are reading something that truly reflects the reality of North Korea.”


The following article appeared on pages 56-59 in the October 2011 issue of NK Vision magazine. Translation courtesy of NKnet volunteer Peter Ward.

The things that usually spring to mind first when the “North Korean problem” is mentioned are starvation, human rights violations, nuclear weapons, and the succession of Kim Jong Un. In North Korea, where an unprecedented third generation succession is taking place, life for the populace is difficult due to economic troubles. But this is because the leadership chooses to stroke tensions on the Korean peninsula through nuclear development. Because of this, whether it be for South Koreans or people worldwide, North Korea is associated with a host of problems. In a time when there are 20,000 North Korean refugees living in South Korea, the abuses that they have informed us of are not merely a South Korean problem but a global issue that must be solved by us all.

It is true that the 24 million people of North Korea do not have easy lives but the way they live is in defiance of dictatorship. It is self-evident in the course of unification that with brotherly love we must first understand their lives. The books of refugees are really helpful in understanding the North but there are limits. There is a writer facing up to these problems by writing extensively about the lives of North Korean people. We speak of Lim Il (43, entered South Korea in 1997), whose recent book, Kim Jong Il: A Novel, received a lot of attention. NK Vision recently met with Lim, who is often referred to by the title of “refugee writer,” to discuss his latest work.



Must overcome cultural differences to unite North and South

Lim Il believes that whilst it is important to inform people about the nuclear issue and human rights, in order to combine the two cultures of North and South Korea it is necessary that we have a cultural understanding of the people of North Korea. In other words, cultural differences could become an impediment to unification. Looking back to the time when he started writing six years ago in 2005, he explained that, “At the time it seemed that unification would come soon, because this was when the September 19 Joint Statement was made, as agreed to in the Six-Party Talks in 2005. I remember, I thought at the time that unification would certainly happen in the next 10 years but that the cultural divide was (and is) so big. So in order to help overcome this I started writing.”

At the time, as he became aware of the fact that most books written about the North dealt with human rights and/or the nuclear issue, he resolved to write in order to inform people of North Korean society more generally. “There are many issues related to North Korea but you cannot explain the country purely through highlighting only its dark side. Merely focusing on the dark side of the country has the effect of creating prejudice towards the country and the refugees from it. It gives rise to the ideas like “North Korea is a bad place” and/or “North Koreans are not our brothers and sisters, they are strangers.” Above all, he thinks that if unification comes, Koreans must live as one country. And he says that to do that it is essential to overcome inter-Korean cultural differences. This is his reason for writing.

Kim Jong Il: A Novel, painting North Korea as it is

Whilst books related to human rights issues help enhance one’s understanding of North Korea, he thinks that there are limits to how much can be known through such sources. Lim was born in Pyongyang and had only lived there until he was dispatched to Kuwait for work, so he did not know what provincial life was like in North Korea. But after arriving in South Korea he found out about the North’s human rights situation and food problems. But he also thinks that writing about his 29 years of life in Pyongyang will help people understand North Korea better. He has written three books of essays and two novels based on his life experiences in Pyongyang. He details what life was like settling in South Korea in Should I Go Back to Pyongyang? (Clear Sound, 2005), and in Unbelievable Pyongyang (Clear Sound, 2007) and in Seoul Rather Than Pyongyang (Clear Sound, 2009) he emphasizes that North Korea is also a place where ordinary people live.

“I thought it would be helpful to South Korean people in understanding defectors through the small experiences and resettled life amidst the maelstrom of South Korea.” He goes on to say, “I think it is important that people realise that even in North Korea, people fall in love, they marry and they have families.” He further emphasises that “In my books I compare Seoul and Pyongyang. It is often assumed that Seoul is a diverse and culturally rich place whilst Pyongyang is monotonous, without variation. I try to show that North Korea also is culturally interesting and colourful.” His journal of life after coming to South Korea, Should I Go Back to Pyongyang?, has been lauded for the way it explains with great wit and insight the culture shock he experienced and how he overcame it. More than anything, Lim wants to write not about politics but about universal topics that appeal to all and can be read by all.

With this in mind he has recently published Kim Jong Il: A Novel (Zeitgeist, 2011). This book, written with great imagination, details the myriad of suspicions and doubts that surround the character of Kim Jong Il. Whilst it is made up, it stimulates the reader’s curiosity and makes for great reading. In the story, Kim Jong Il relates in an interview that his father Kim Il Sung’s death was faked and that he is still alive and well. The book’s most explosive part is that he – Kim Jong Il – has been in charge of the country from 1974, 20 years before the “death” of his father, and he sought to prevent the planned 1994 North-South summit from taking place in order to prevent a South-led unification from happening. And, moreover, the book goes on to suppose that the man purporting to be Kim Jong Il, who met Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun and had a stroke, was a double.

When dealing with the character of Kim Jong Il, he opines that “Kim Jong Il is the scary one. He can decide whether to use nuclear weapons or not. The frightening thing about nuclear weapons is that Kim Jong Il is a frightening dictator. But South Koreans know nothing of this man. They are ignorant about North Korea and Kim Jong Il. So, although it is fiction, I did my best to describe him as close to reality as possible.” Lim went on to say that, “Books that discuss Kim Jong Il just talk about him as a ruthless dictator, but my book draws a picture of a human being with emotions, it is a frank portrait. If it were merely a damning polemic, progressives would not want to read it. I hope that people on the Left will read it and see Kim Jong Il as he really is.”

Showing contemporary North Korea through heartfelt expression

To him, words are the expression of thought but because writing is the expression of the heart, he believes he can move the hearts of South Koreans through his writings. He thinks that telling South Koreans about the lives of North Koreans through writing is his calling in life. “If you are a refugee, you have to have a mission. Both North and South Koreans, before and even after unification can read my work on life after resettlement in the South. It will help both sides understand the differences between the two countries.” Having said that though, this doesn’t mean Lim ignores the human rights issues or the North Korean political system. The North Korean people’s everyday lives are the main subject of his work but he says he must include the North’s social and other issues so South Koreans will be more willing to accept the reality of North Korea.

He does so because talking about political problems within the context of unique and interesting real lives of North Koreans is much more effective. “Of course South Korean people don’t read the reports that catalogue the horrendous human rights abuses in the North. Only through personal anecdotes, making the reader smile and feel touched, can we inform. Anyone can just read and enjoy, and at the same time the important thing is that they are reading something that truly reflects the reality of North Korea.” Lim does not merely write descriptive prose, but he wants to speak for those in North Korea who cannot speak of their own experiences because of the political and social situation. He feels a sense of duty to speak for those who cannot because of the oppressive society they live in.

“People who truly understand North Korea will want to overthrow the regime and the party because it’s their fault. The North Korean people are exhausted by the many hours they spend daily on pointless ideological education and collective work.”

Lim sometimes receives phone calls from his readers. The books are even sold as testimonies in churches. The deacon of a church in Seoul keeps thanking him for his work. The deacon’s son read all of Lim’s work in a week and then told his father that he was so thankful to him for having him in South Korea. Lim thinking about this says “When I heard his story I was so moved that I can remember like it were yesterday. I thought at the time, ‘This sort of feeling is why I should keep writing.’ At the time, I felt so proud my books can capture the hearts and minds of the young. And even though many people think that a man of letters does not have an important role, I became determined to use what role I have to relate the truth of North Korea and keep writing.”

He emphasised that he hopes the books will be helpful not only to South Koreans, but also to refugees settling in South Korea, too. Because it can show them indirectly his experiences of culture shock and related anecdotes. “It is better to go into an experience (such as culture shock) knowing something about it rather than going into it knowing nothing at all.” A couple years ago, Lim was contacted by a North Korean defector who had sought refuge in South Korea’s embassy in Mongolia and then arrived in the South. The person said that the embassy staff recommended Lim’s book, which he wrote while he was settling in South Korea. Lim also has received a call from a displaced person in the United States. Lim confides that writing the books is very tough but the response of readers makes him feel obliged to keep going.

Searched for Opportunities to Give Unification Lectures at Schools

Lim has also has had his problems. His books initially didn’t sell well. Whilst struggling to earn a living he sought out a place to get his books published. Finding readers is not easy for a writer but faith moves mountains and he found a place. When his first book came out, there were so many North Korean related books that prices were low. As he went from publisher to publisher trying to get it published he got many a cold reaction and started to understand the brutal realities of South Korean society. Publishers also have to make money. He had poured his heart and soul into writing but the reaction was not as good as hoped and thus he was quite frustrated. But Lim did not give up. He went to a school, and whilst introducing his books he asked for the opportunity to give a lecture on unification based in the realities of North Korea. After the third attempt he was given the opportunity. From then on, he received frequent requests for lectures at middle and high schools and he found ways to sell his books.

In the classes that he has taught in South Korean schools Lim says he became aware of just how little South Korean children know about the North. He said that in particular, he was surprised by the effect of left-wing bias in South Korean educators and the results it has. “During the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun administrations (1998-2008), there was no ‘unification class’ per se but holding such classes was left up to each school; nonetheless, children didn’t even know the ‘north’ in North Korea. I really began to understand the scope of the problem. When I felt the level of left-wing bias in South Korean teachers’ perspectives on the North, I couldn’t help but worry about unification education. Since then, I have made a concerted effort to teach as much as possible.”

Lim says that in one’s work, if one has confidence and loves what one does then one can overcome any difficulty. Lim, who will now spend his 14th year in South Korea, says that he still has a long way to go but his industriousness and energy in life are his strengths. He explains that “It is indeed not easy for writers to sell their own books. But whilst earning a living is not easy, as a North Korean defector author I have a sense of mission to do whatever it takes to inform the world of life in North Korea and I have not shirked from it.”

Digging One Well is the Shortcut to Successful Settlement

Lim thinks that the most important things are the North Korean refugees settling in the South and South Korean society helping them settle. “The problems of North Koreans living in the North are mainly about food, but in South Korea, not merely earning a living but also money, education, retirement and many other worries are huge headaches for refugees here. Coping with the intensity of a competitive society is particularly difficult.” Whilst saying this, Lim had a pained expression on his face. What he means is that whilst refugees need to be strong, society should also look after them because they are practically beginners in the society. And he said that North Korean defectors must not just resettle themselves physically but also mentally.

“People who escape North Korea today understand capitalist societies better than those who did so around the time I defected. Still, they should keep in mind that the actual South Korean society is quite different from what they see of it from North Korea and China. It is a quite dispassionate society, so defectors should prepare themselves and think of themselves as one-year-old babies if it’s been only a year since their settlement.”

Whatever one is doing, Lim advices that one should not give up halfway through it. “There are students who do a year of university and then take time off. I hope they try to imagine themselves after graduating from university and resist that temptation. Defectors should humbly try to learn the basics. Even working on construction sites they must think of the tough days back home and do their best as they work.”

Finally, he emphasized that for successful settlement, defectors should abandon their past habits and ways of thinking that they had in North Korea; find a suitable job and keep it for at least a year; be humble; and never forget the thankful heart one had upon first entering South Korea.

Related Daily NK article:
Hopes and Fears of a Defector Writer

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