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How I Became a North Korean


How I Became a North Korean

It’s a good thing that summer is winding down, because HOW I BECAME A NORTH KOREAN is hardly beach reading. A debut novel by an accomplished short story writer, Krys Lee, it builds on each chapter (alternately related by one of three protagonists) in much the same way that a good short story collection does. The result is a powerful portrait of young refugees as they attempt to make their way to freedom.

The surprising twist in the plot is that one of the three --- Daehan, or Danny, as he is known to his friends back home --- is a Chinese American teenager who leaves California in search of his missionary mother. When he returns to his old hometown in Southeast China, only to find her living with the deacon from her church, he flees her apartment. Through a string of bad luck, he ends up in a netherworld bordering North Korea, where guards, thieves and local informants are on the lookout for escapees. 

"HOW I BECAME A NORTH KOREAN is a novel that is both ambitious and courageous, and for those who are willing to make the effort, it won’t disappoint."

There he meets up with Yongju, the son of a prominent North Korean family that has fallen out of grace, forcing his mother, sister and him to escape. The women are not as fortunate as Yongju, who watches as they’re taken away after crossing the river into China. He is left behind with no idea of how to make his way without the language, money or ID, and frantically hoping that he will be able to reunite with them. Soon he befriends Danny, who speaks both Mandarin and Korean, and they set off to find missionaries who will harbor them. En route they meet up with beautiful Jangmi, who wants to go to South Korea in order to find a better life for her unborn child. She falls in with them for a time, but her motives are as suspect as everyone else’s, and soon she strikes out on her own --- for a while.

Despite the grinding monotony of the group’s daily life, the plot twists and emotional upheaval keep the reader engaged, as does the language. And while it’s not always clear who is the good guy or even whose story is being told (their narratives are told in a similar style), the cumulative effect of these intertwining chapters and lives is haunting. Perhaps having been to the country whose Dear Leader overshadows every page of this book adds a piquancy for this reader, but it’s also true that the stories told here are variations on those of any young refugee. Who to trust, how to keep hope alive, what matters most when life is so precarious, are the kinds of questions with which each character has to grapple. Lee is generous enough to give us a hint as to what will become of these young people, whose stories seem so real (and indeed the author has worked for a refugee organization), but it’s clear that their lives are marked by what they have witnessed in the journey. 

HOW I BECAME A NORTH KOREAN is a novel that is both ambitious and courageous, and for those who are willing to make the effort, it won’t disappoint.

Reviewed by Lorraine W. Shanley on August 26, 2016

How I Became a North Korean
by Krys Lee

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books
  • ISBN-10: 0143110500
  • ISBN-13: 9780143110507