In the time it took for the technician to repair and service my air-conditioners, I read the entire novel Jia by Hyejin Kim. Which means it is an engrossing book.

After reading the Introduction, I was most eager to find out why Kim chose to write it in Singapore in Mar 2007 and got it published in the United States but alas there was no hint at all by the end of the story.

Jia is the name of the woman whom the author met on a bus who was the inspiration for the book. She (the author) was in North China to do research documenting ayslum seeking and North Korean society – people with links to North Korea: Chinese-born Koreans who had North Korean neighbours, church group sympathetic to North Korea and activists who took risks to help North Korean border crossers.

Jia is the gentle daughter of a dancer who died at her birth and a father who “disappeared” for owning foreign books. Jia grows up in a North Korean mountain gulag where her grandparents have been sent as punishment for their son’s supposed treason. When her grandfather manages to smuggle her out of the gulag, Jia’s  journey takes her first to an orphanage in Pyongyang and then to a dance school where she performs for foreign dignitaries and the Great Leader himself. As life in the capital city worsens, Jia and her friends struggle to survive the “capricious political winds” of modern North Korea.

Other than painting a grim picture of famine-stricken North Korea (70% of land had been devastated by the two years [’95 & ’96] of flooding and there was a possible spread of infectious diseases eg cholera and paratyphoid fever), the author also showed the plight of the countless North Korean refugees whose brave struggle for freedom and struggle continues:

Life can change in a flash, or lead you in an unexpected direction;

The more you miss people who have already left you, the more pain you feel;

Everyone in this world had their own sadness to contend with, and ours might not be the worst;

Family members, relatives, neighbours might disappear without a trace;

The search for food drove people to desperate measures;

The government supplied power from 5-8 am & 6-11 pm, even that, irregularly, and shutting off power to residences at 8.30pm;

I was breathing every moment, but I wasn’t alive { “When you open your eyes, a day starts. When you close your eyes, your day is over.” }.

The above are but a few lines from the story which is common in North Korea: how people lose their families, the reasons are always by starvation or punishment by the government and how some are tricked and sold during their escape to China.


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