Stars Between the Sun and Moon: One Woman’s Life in North Korea and Escape to Freedom by Lucia Jang and Susan McClelland is an extraordinary memoir by a North Korean woman who defied the government to keep her family alive. It was published in 2004 and dedicated to Jang’s three sons, “so that they may understand their history and their mother’s love for them”, and “for the numerous nameless North Koreans who attempted to escape to freedom and life, and perished on their journey before they could reach their destination”, each with a story filled with as much heartache and pain as well as hope and love as Jang’s own.
In the Prologue, Jang writes a letter to Taebum (her second son) telling him that from the moment he was conceived, no one wanted him; and about how she carried him across the Tumen River to China and carried him in her arms to Mongolia. She acknowledged that Taebum will never set foot on the soil of his homeland; nevertheless, she wants him to understand the Chosun that is his soul.
Part One is mostly about Jang’s childhood days. It is when she first learned that ‘I love you’ means many things: “if love comes to us, we must let it land. But we must also be prepared to let it go”. She was led to believe that “if you are good and have a kind heart, all your struggles and pain will be rewarded with what you want most”. She married at 22, to Myungin because he raped her and got her pregnant. He hit her, punched her and kicked her until she gave birth to a son, Sungmin, when she decided to leave. However, she was forced to go back to Myungin and the beatings, with belt and stick, continued. By the time Sungmin was 10 months old, Jang’s eyes were glassy from malnutrition and her limbs were stuck in slow motion; so she went back to her parents’ house. Her mother sold the baby for 300 won and two bars of soap.
Part Two tells of how Jang asked her mother for the address of the woman who had organised the adoption. Hunger was sweeping the neighbourhood but she wanted to buy her son back. Life was terrible in Chosun. She learned to live as a ghost. She was taken to Beijing to be sold off as wife to a Chinese man for 3,000 Chinese yuan (about $350 in Canadian currency). She managed to escape and fought with a dog for a bag of rice it was eating. Fatigue overtook her and she collapsed. She met a fellow train commuter who introduced her to her brother Jungsoo.
Part Three tells of how Jang became gaunt and malnourished as she was taken to the detention centre at Chosun where “life is not life”. She vowed to stay alive to see Sungmin again. After being freed, she went back to Jungsoo and became pregnant. She was asked to abort but refused and ran away. She was caught and released to her parents, where she gave birth to Taebum, and then sent back to prison to serve her sentence. She left with her baby crossing the riverbank to China; then another smuggler took them to Mongolia and then to South Korea.
The Epilogue tells of how Jang sought asylum in South Korea until 2008, then immigrated to Canada. She is now a Canadian resident, granted permanent status on humanitarian grounds. Taebum has a younger brother born in Canada.
I salute Jang for her tremendous courage in telling a heartbreaking personal story of pain and tenacity. This story also serves as a record of, and tribute to, the untold stories of numerous North Koreans who have attempted to continue to escape to freedom, so that their lives and struggles do not go unaccounted. This fascinating memoir helps us understand the lives of those many others who have no way of making their voices heard.