Those Who Went Beyond the Borders of Division Between North and South

An Interview with Yun Jungeun, Author of The Promise Long Lost

Cho-Lee Yeoul | 기사입력 2023/04/11 [18:14]

Those Who Went Beyond the Borders of Division Between North and South

An Interview with Yun Jungeun, Author of The Promise Long Lost

Cho-Lee Yeoul | 입력 : 2023/04/11 [18:14]

Journalist Yun Jungeun, who has worked with me at Ilda for the past seven years, has published her first novel, The Promise Long Lost (Tin Drum Books). The novel is a faction—blend of fact and fiction—about the first collective filing for asylum by North Korean famine refugees and an autobiographical novel based on Yun’s experience of accompanying them in the deadly dangerous border areas in 1997, when she was only 24.


The novel The Promise Long Lost is a thought-provoking book in today’s South Korean society, where an acute ideological conflict between the right and left is as serious as the conflict between the South and North, and at a time when a heated controversy exists over the involuntary repatriation of North Korean defectors by Chinese authorities. By describing encounters in which a human meets a human from another societal system, the novel leads us to have a whole new perspective on “North Korean defectors”, a designation that has become too politicized in South Korean society.


▲ The Promise Long Lost (Tin Drum Books, 2012) & Journalist-turned-novelist Yun Jungeun, the author of The Promise Long Lost ⓒYun Jungeun


Because the issue is politically sensitive, it has not been easy for Yun to get this story out into the world over the past fifteen years. Her biggest concern was how well this novel could be understood by South Korean society.


But now, two months after publication, the novel is well-received by many readers who are giving their acclaim and sympathy to it, dispelling worries that “the novel will be exploited for political purposes,” or “no ordinary Korean will be interested in the story.” There has been a stream of inquiries to this online journal that ask about the author and praise the novel as “page-turner”, or “a must-read book for South Koreans.”


The story involves weighty issues: North Korea, its people, food shortages, defectors, relations between the North and the South, etc. Nevertheless, South Korean readers can easily relate to this story. Wondering why that is, I had a conversation with her about the novel.


Q. The novel consists of three parts: Man-geum's story, set at Musan Railway Station in North Korea; the story of North Korean food refugees and the South Koreans living with them in an apartment in Beijing; and the story of thirteen North Korean defectors crossing the Chinese border into yet another country. Each part is written a little differently—the first part is told from Man-geum's point of view, the second is from an omniscient point of view, and in the third, the story is told from the writer A-yeong [pronciation: “ah-young”]. Why did you choose a novel as a means to raise people's awareness about difficulties North Korean food refugees face, even though you are a journalist?


A. I think it is important for us to perceive North Korean food refugees as human beings. So I chose novelization to help readers not to politically stigmatize them as "North Korean defectors," but empathize with them.  I have written some articles about this topic, but reporting is about social affairs and issues, so it is difficult to make readers relate to the food refugees through news articles. But a novel can shed light on the various dimensions of a person, focusing on his life and showing what his life and experiences are like as he faces the changes of a certain era.


Although I didn't major in literature and hadn’t published a novel before, I reached a point where I have a deeper understanding about individuals' lives in various societal situations thanks to years of experience as a journalist. I came to know that there were literary non-fiction and literary journalism in other countries. Journalists often write fiction in other countries. So writing a novel was very natural thing to do.


Q. The first section, “Foot”, was finished ten years ago. Why did it take this long to release The Promise Long Lost?


A. When I wrote the first chapter, “Foot: The Story of Man-geum,” all I wanted was to let people know about the food crisis North Koreans were suffering. I wanted to tell South Koreans why North Koreans had to cross the river. But after my acquaintances read “Foot”, none of them seemed to understand the issue as well as I wished. They just perceived the story as an ideological one and said it might well be used as a tool to criticize the North Korean regime. Then, I thought, “Ah, it is too early for this story to be understood in Korean society. But someday, someone will read this story, even if it’s one single person.” It was that kind of vague hope.


That was when I became acquainted with the Feminist Journal Ilda, which understood my story. I started working at Ilda and published “Foot” in ten installments in Ilda. After that, several publishers contacted me, and I felt I should write the second and third parts, which are about the North and the South as traveling companions. However, I lacked bravery. I was reluctant to further reveal my accompanying defectors because it had been a painful experience for me, instead of a beautiful one. I defined the experience as an imperfect journey with people who I wanted to give up on, for which I harshly condemned myself.


Q. The existence of North Korean defectors is often used by both conservative and progressive camps in ideological conflicts. You said you had waited a long time until Korean society could understand the story. Can I consider the publication to be a sign that you believe your story can be understood in today's society, then?


A. I was not sure about that. But I just thought now was the time to talk and reveal [my experiences]. I think it is very important for us to understand and learn about differences between the two countries, about the long-lasting aftereffects of the Korean War, and how the division of the two affects us. So I decided to publish the novel, even if it were not read. And I was not sure how deeply readers could understand this story.


Q. The novel is getting more praise than you expected. What do you think about this?


A. When I released the book, I was looking forward to it, even though I also felt anxious. Now, I have learned that there are more people than I thought who read this story with an open mind. It was really unexpected that so many people encouraged me after getting my message. I once wondered who would become my readers. I think that maybe my readers are those who hope for positive changes to happen in the world, and want changes in the relations between the two Koreas.


I think that only a small fraction of our society—politicians, journalists, and conservative and progressive camps—sees North Korea and its defectors from the angle of the Cold War era and participate in controversies about them. The conservatives are using the North Korean defector issue politically. Because of this, there was a period during which the progressives avoided this sensitive topic. But it doesn’t seem to be like that now. There seem to have been some changes in our perception of North Korean defectors.


Q. In the novel, the heroine Man-geum seems more special than other defectors. Why did you make her the protagonist?


A. All defectors had their own social status and classes back in North Korea, and each of their lives was unique. I chose her because she left her children behind in the North and she once took pride, as a laborer, in being a "prime agent [juche] helping to lead history." These aspects intrigued me. And she was very diligent and sincere. During the trip, she was my roommate so she told me many stories, and I came to empathize with her very much. I felt sympathy for her sadness and pain.


If I hadn't met Man-guem, I would not have written this novel. I wanted the story of this North Korean woman to be heard by South Koreans. In the first part, the story of Man-geum, I wanted to explain why she had to cross the river [the border]. In the second and third parts, I wanted to show her perspective, as I felt sorry for her harsh reality of being taken advantage of by many people.


Q. Starting from the second chapter, some serious conflicts between North Koreans and South Koreans begin to surface, which is far from the concept of "the South traveling with the North." The novel also shows differences among North Koreans by revealing the conflicts among North Korean characters in the novel.


A. There is only one image of North Koreans in the psyche of South Koreans. But when the defectors were living in North Korean society, each defector had a different class and social status. If they had met in North Korea, they would have seen the same issues differently, and had different interests. Furthermore, all defectors who had crossed the border and come to China seemed to have a sense of guilt that they had betrayed their country.


Kim Min-gyu's father was a prisoner of war [from the South], so in order to survive, he was more compliant to the regime than any other North Korean. By contrast, Jo Hak-su wanted to be assimilated into South Korean society because he realized, by reading South Korean magazines and newspapers in China, that he had been trapped in the North Korean regime. To Kim Min-gyu, Jo looked like a fool who let himself be “blindly absorbed in the South Korean bastards’ game”. Of course, Kim also has a desire to lead a good life in South Korea, so he is torn apart between this desire and guilt.


Q. It is hard not to talk about this character, Kim Min-gyu. Later, A-yeong loses her temper in a conflict with him. For South Korean readers, the North Koreans’ behavior in such conflicts may be hard to understand.


A. North Korean defectors were living very anxious lives as illegal residents in fear of death, hiding in a closed space, not knowing where they would go. One of the factors making them anxious was the guilt that they had betrayed their mother country. In my opinion, most defectors were torn apart inside between their desire to be better off and the ideological dichotomy. If this insecurity was projected outward, they had fights with others, and if inward, they hurt themselves.


Kim Min-gyu might have wanted to become a new hero, shedding the shell of traitor. He wanted to make an impressive entry to South Korea, as a son of a war prisoner. But South Koreans didn’t give him special treatment, and he resented that. Kim was unhappy with Jo Hak-su—who is pro-South Korean—and resented South Korean people because they didn’t treat him as a hero.


▲ At the “Meeting With Yun Jungeun, Author of The Promise Long Lost”, organized by Cheonbuk Women’s Research Center, held in Cheonbuk National University, May 18, 2012 & Ms. Yun, lecturing at the Ilda interview skills class, May 15, 2012 ⓒIlda


Q. It is horrible that some of the North Koreans were endlessly suspicious of, and even tried to kill, the South Koreans who risked their lives to help the defectors in China. All of the female volunteers living in an apartment with the defectors were only in their 20s. However important the cause was, it would have been very difficult to endure the situation. Some readers asked how the South Korean activists could endure such ordeal.


A. Sure, there were some thing to endure, but there were also some moments that relieved stress, for instance, a character named Na-yeong tried to lighten the mood; after making everybody sick the first time she cooked, she nicknamed her next dish “A Bloody Battle for Revenge,” after the comedic movie. It was during that time that I realized how important it was to dine together.


For the South Korean activists, they could not express all their feelings due to a sense of responsibility. Our position was different from that of the defectors. As for the North Korean defectors, they could not completely shake off suspicion toward the activists, because they could not know our identities for sure. In the North, there was no such a thing as the concept of non-governmental organization, so it was impossible for them to understand that the activists’ intention was just to help them, asking nothing in return. That was why the defectors caused conflicts, unable to shake off suspicion. On the other hand, the activists knew who the defectors were, so there was no reason for them to cause conflicts. The activists were just in shock due to the behaviors of the defectors. There was no other option but to just explain the reason why we were helping them.


Q. Unlike more senior activists, A-yeong expresses her feelings. Before reading the novel, I knew how deeply you buried the experience in your heart. However, after reading it, I wondered why you had been feeling pangs of guilt when you hadn’t done anything very wrong in the process. What do you think of A-yeong now, 15 years after the trip? And how differently do you see the experience, now?


A. At first, I went there to help these people who literally had nowhere to go, and who stayed there illegally. As a South Korean, I felt guilty about [my time as] A-yeong, who wanted to give up on them, and argued with these defectors who had nothing, not even a penny, because she could not hold in her feelings. I felt guilty as a person who had more than them.


As time went by, I came to a point where I could understand her. A-yeong was only 24 years old back then, and at the moment she was also a fugitive just like them. Now, I come to see her as a separate being, rather than a younger me. The sense of distance from the North Koreans has also grown, so it has all become just like a story in my mind. So I was able to share the story. Enough time has passed for me to see the South Korean character A-yeong, not myself, and see the North Korean character Kim Min-gyu, not [the real] Kim Min-gyu.


Q. Though all the activists were very committed while accompanying the refugees, Ga-yeong, then 29, was astoundingly quick-witted in difficult situations, and her love seemed like that of a saint, which was moving and thought-provoking.


A. Ga-yeong had to be responsible for everything. Her duty was formidable: leading them to a third country safely with no one left behind. On the other hand, A-yeong was in a different position—that of following senior activists—so she was able to complain about things. “Since I promised to go there with them, I am going there with them no matter what,” was Ga-yeong’s motto, and she lived it.


Ga-yeong actually has some aspects of a saint. She fasted many times in order to understand those in hunger. She said, “We have a home to return to, so how can we understand those who have nowhere to go?” She blamed herself for not understanding the North Koreans one hundred percent, and was endlessly trying to understand them.


Q. At the end of the first chapter, Man-geum asked why you helped them. You gave an answer to this question in the epilogue. Is it the message of this novel?


A. “Why should we help them?” is what South Koreans ask, when the issue of North Korean food refugees is brought up. Some even argue that we are giving North Koreans free food, and it is like feeding enemies. If we omit the word "North Korea" from the context, those South Koreans, would naturally say that we have to help starving children, the elderly and women as soon as we hear of the terrible situations they are facing. If it weren’t North Korea, we probably would help much more.


If South Koreans were asked to help African refugees, they would help raise funds; however, if asked to help North Korean children, they would ask in return, "Why?" In the novel, it is Man-geum who asks, but I wanted to use the novel to give an answer to South Korean society of why we should help North Koreans. The answer is easy to find when the words "North Korea” is removed. But when those words are added, it seems to grow quite difficult for us. This is because we don't see North Koreans as fellow humans. No, we perceive North Koreans as a rogue regime, not as people.


Q. Many readers say the title sounds like that of a love story. What is the meaning of the title “The Promise Long Lost”?


A. In the third chapter, A-yeong meets a North Korean escapee named Chun-hui in a rural village in Yanbian. It’s really hard for people from the two Koreas to communicate since they are not used to—and in many cases, are hostile to—each other, and that was the case with A-yeong and Chun-hui. But the two women, who were at first very tense, at last relax and converse because of one word that A-yeong mentioned by chance: “reunification.” It is the one thing that people of both countries silently agree on, and also the promise they make every now and then. That’s what the title means.


To the South Koreans main characters Il-yeong, I-yeong, Sam-yeong, Ga-yeong, Na-yeong, and Da-yeong, the “old promise” would mean their promise to accompany the North Korean people.


Q. Let's talk about what happened after the experience. Though the "ping pong refugee incident" [the North Korean defectors from the story sought asylum at the South Korean embassy in a Southeast Asian country, but the embassy sent them back over the Chinese border, but the Chinese police sent them back again; this repeated several times] became known to the public, most of the defectors ended up having to come to South Korea through another route. How have the activists been doing after the incident, bearing the memories of such a painful, unusual and secretive experience?


A. Even though they finally entered South Korea, the South Korean government's attitude toward North Korean food refugees did not change. Things did not change so later North Korean defectors seeking asylum still had to break into the Korean embassy, and had to wander about between other countries. We felt helpless and desperate. Some got really sick, and all of us had a hard time for a long time. When North Korean issues were brought up in conversations, I felt like I was stuck and had nothing I could do. There was a sense of helplessness, seeing these big issues that could not solve, such as the division of the country and the food shortages, as well as the two ideologies within South Korean society that we as individuals could not understand clearly.


As I saw the relationship gradually changing after the inter-Korean summit, I expected that the two Koreas would interact more and the treatment of North Korean defectors would improve. Of course, there were some changes: expanded aid toward North Korea, and 20,000 North Korean defectors living in the South. But when it comes to the reality of North Korean food refugees, things are not that different even after 15 years have passed.


Q. As far as I know, you and Man-geum have been friends since then. How is she doing in the South?


A. It is rare for a defector to proudly say that they came from the North. Those who reveal it about themselves are the ones who circulate political propaganda criticizing the North Korean regime or talk about things that South Korean conservatives like to hear. As for Man-geum, she expresses her opinions frankly without taking part in any political propaganda, which is rare among the defectors. I think she has settled down here very well.


Man-geum is also a person that reveals the existence of another type of defectors. She is a “border person” who, though living in the South, is a North Korean. So she has her own way of understanding the two countries. I am close friends with her, and at the same time, as a journalist, it is very meaningful to witness her life here in the South


Q. In the North, the Kim Jong-un regime has begun, and in the South, China’s repatriation of North Korean defectors has surfaced as a charged issue. South Koreans have a complicated view toward North Korea and its defectors. What would you like to suggest?


A. This issue of defectors has always been a politically charged one. In the appeal for protection of “North Korean defectors’ human rights,” ideological and political calculations have already seeped in. Our view is already fixed in the frame of ideological dichotomy. So South Koreans are skeptical about what is said about this issue, whether it is from the conservatives or from the progressives. On top of that, I cannot help endlessly questioning whether the Korean government really means to improve the defectors’ rights whenever I see related policies and measures.


I want to talk about North Korea’s food crisis and the defectors’ human rights issues from the perspective of just a resident of the Korean peninsula, who hopes to lead a peaceful life, putting aside ideological preference. In the frame of the division of the Korean peninsula, there have been no individuals so far; there have been only the South Korean and North Korean systems. I hope that we will see North Koreans as neighbors sharing this peninsula and think about our rights as residents who want to live a peaceful life without the threat of another war. [End of Interview]


Reunification is not about political systems or ideology, but about accompanying one another.


Reading The Promise Long Lost, I thought about the division of the country, and reunification; not about a reunification in terms of political system or ideology, but about how to keep this old promise between the South and North.


Reunification is not something the ruling party or those in power achieve. On the surface, it looks like a one-time event, but it is, in fact, a gradual relation building between the South and the North. How the two meet depends on the people of the two sides, who remember this silent and old promise, trying to understand each other, not looking the other way when help is desperately needed, and accompanying one another through the times of conflict and reconciliation.


Through the novel’s characters—Ga-yeong, Il-yeong, A-yeong, and Man-geum—I began to have hope that the power to achieve this “old promise” is in us. Those who show us how far a human’s selfless love can reach, who are helping people in need, crossing the borders, risking their own lives—their world transcends the division of the country.


I hope that this book will reach out to people who want to know more about the people in North Korea and the defectors, throwing out their ideological perception and bias against North Korea. 


Published: May 21, 2012

Translated by Yang Seong-ae

*Original article:


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