The Hard Road Out
One Woman’s Escape From North Korea
by Jihyun Park; Seh-lynn Chai
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Pub Date 31 Jan 2023 | Archive Date 21 Feb 2023
Harper 360, HarperNorth
‘A gripping, suspenseful and cathartic memoir that tells a story of pain and perseverance and makes the moral case for asylum.’ David Lammy MP
North Korea is an open-air prison from which there is no escape. Only a handful of men and women have succeeded.
Jihyun Park is one of these rare survivors. Twice she left the land of the ‘socialist miracle’ to flee famine and dictatorship.
By the age of 29 she had already witnessed a lifetime of suffering. Family members had died of starvation; her brother was beaten nearly to death by soldiers. Even smiling and laughing was discouraged.
The first time she ran, she was forced abandon her father on his deathbed – crossing the border under a hail of bullets. In China she was sold to a farmer, with whom she had a son, before being denounced and forcibly returned to North Korea.
Six months later guards abandoned her, injured, outside a prison camp. She recovered and returned China to seek her son, now six, before attempting to navigate the long, hard road through the Gobi Desert and into Mongolia.
Clear-eyed and resolute, Jihyun’s extraordinary story reveals a Korea far removed from the talk of nuclear weapons and economic sanctions. She remains sanguine despite the hardship. Recalling life’s tiny pleasures even at her darkest moments, she manages to instill her tale with incredible grace and humanity.
Beautifully written with South Korean compatriot Seh-lynn Chai, this compelling book offers a stark lesson in determination, and ultimately in the importance of asylum.
Available on NetGalley
Powerful account of one woman's harrowing escape from North Korea. The author experienced some truly horrific and unimaginable things, and exposes more about what life is truly like for North Koreans in this book. The ending felt a bit abrupt and the few chapters solely by Seh-lynn Chai felt a bit random and took away from the flow of the writing. Overall, it was a very engaging and eye opening read.
*I received a copy of this book on NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for this opportunity*
How does one, from a place of privilage and comfort, even begin to discuss the impact of this book? THE HARD ROAD OUT details the harrowing life of Jihyun Park, who grew up in North Korea during the 1970s and 80s. She and her family lived through the Great Famine during the 1990s, the death of Kim Jung-il, and the daily attrocities that come with living in a long-standing dictatorship.
Park, through translator Seh-lynn Chai, talks about growing up not always knowing where the next meal will come from, her mother's entreprenural spirit and how it both endangered her life and saved her family's, the utter devotion towards the regime slowly rotting away as her students began to starve, and the heartbreaking reality of being sold by your older sister into sexual slavery. Park's story is nothing short of heartbreaking, while also being an example of the resilience and overarching kindness of humanity.
While Park never goes into minute detail about her life story, often skipping large chunks of her life to the next big event, this story is not for anyone looking for a sensitized version of what is happening in North Korea. Additionally, interspersed throughout, is added commentary by Chai discussing her own experience in writing this book with Park and the attitudes towards Korean Unification.
From a purely editorial angle, I personally wish Chai's chapters were more distinguishingly marked as seperate from Park's story. It was often jarring to go from 1990s North Korea to modern day England without even a title to warn you. I also wish the ending was less abrupt-- I felt very invested in Park and her son's journey towards South Korea, only to find out what happened in the epilouge rather than the book itself.
All that said, THE HARD ROAD OUT is a must read.
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