Review: Harrowing memoir of one woman’s escape from North Korea is a gripping collaboration
North Korea has long been a symbol of human injustice. “The Hard Road Out” details one woman’s life in, and eventual escape from, North Korea. This memoir, told by North Korean-born Jihyun Park and written by South Korean-born Seh-lynn Chai, is not only a harrowing story of courage and resilience in one of the world’s most horrific and enigmatic countries, it also details the unique collaboration of two women from opposite sides of the DMZ.
Park, who now lives in Manchester, England, was born in Chongjin, North Korea, in the late 1960s. She endured 30 years of living in North Korea until the famine that plagued the country throughout the 1990s forced her to flee to China. Her first attempt resulted in her being sold into marriage to an abusive drunk; she was eventually captured and forcibly returned to North Korea. It wasn’t until her second attempt, about a year later, that she was able to return to China, get her son and escape to England for good.
The book begins with Park as a child in the 1970s and ’80s in Chongjin. North Korea through the eyes of a loyal and besotted child is a unique perspective. Like most children in North Korea at the time, Park had been brainwashed into believing that North Korea was the best and most successful country on Earth. Because of this, the story of her childhood is more focused on the day-to-day life of a child rather than on the social and political problems in North Korea that we are more accustomed to hearing. This perspective makes the narrative feel intimate and engaging.
Despite her love of country and the Great Leader, her childhood was far from perfect. Hunger and a constant fear that her neighbors were spying on her plagued her almost every night. This wasn’t something to rebel against, and she didn’t blame the government; to her, that was just how life was.
The latter half of the book focuses on her adult life and escape from North Korea in the late 1990s. As Park gets older and the situation in North Korea worsens – between 250,000 and 3.5 million North Koreans died during the famine – she begins to realize the truth about the rule of Kim Jong Il. As Park recounts stories of being sold as a wife (read: sex slave and servant) and her days in a cruel Chinese prison for North Koreans, we find ourselves in a dystopian hellscape most Westerners associate with North Korea. What was once a charming look into a North Korean childhood becomes Park’s harrowing tale of her extremely difficult journey from North Korea to England.
Throughout the book, author Seh-lynn Chai, who grew up in South Korea and now lives in London, interjects with chapters about the process of writing Park’s story. This aspect of the book touches on the dynamic between Park as a North Korean, Chai as a South Korean, and the unlikely story of their friendship. For many years, they were taught to think of each other as enemies. Because of this early indoctrination, the process of getting together to write the book is more than a literary exercise. It is a touching and personal journey for both of them.
As the book comes to a close, it speeds up and the rushed feeling of the ending is a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise powerful narrative. The story of Park making it to China the first time and then getting deported is compelling. I wish the book could have done the story of her second escape to China, and eventually to England, the same justice.
The Hard Road Out: One Woman’s Escape from North Korea
By Jihyun Park and Seh-lynn Chai. Translated by Sarah Baldwin
(HarperNorth; 224 pages; $29)