Book Reviews

Book review: “North Korean Defectors in a New and Competitive Society”

Book review of "North Korean Defectors in a New and Competitive Society", written by Lee Ahlam and published by Rowman&Littlefield in 2016.

Instytut Boyma 07.09.2019

The number of defectors from North Korea increased significantly in the past decade. In South Korea as of 2017 about 29,000 North Korean refugees are said to have settled down, and many more are thought to be hiding in the border region between China and North Korea. Their stories are most valuable for understanding the totalitarian regime in the North and publicizing unthinkable human rights abuses in the infamous gulags in which about 200,000-300,000 prisoners are believed to be forced to work under inhumane conditions. The book is only dedicated to a minor extent to the stories of these defectors. The publication is much more focused on what is happening when defectors settle in South Korea or other countries. The author is Lee Ahlam, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Human Resource Development at Xavier University Cincinnati, Ohio.

The book North Korean Defectors in a New and Competitive Society, written by Lee Ahlam was published by Rowman&Littlefield in 2016. Excluding the preface, the conclusion and additional elements, the book consists of six chapters. 70% of the book is related to the situation of North Korean defectors in South Korea.

Chapter one is related to the policy of foreign states toward the situation of North Korean defectors. The author underlines that China is not only repatriating North Korean citizens to their country but allow also the defection of 2,000 North Korean people. Chapter two describes the journeys of North Korean to other countries where the reader will remark that an average journey took 4 years. Chapter three is discussing problems North Korean defectors face in a “New Society”, but providing only elements related to the South Korean one. The support of the South Korean government to defectors is mentioned in the chapter four. The fifth chapter is discussing the fate of North Korean defectors who are not living in South Korea. The chapter six proposes some policy implications related to the issue of North Korean defectors.

Still, for such a short book — little less than two hundred pages –, this book provides a good deal of ground related to the adaptation of North Korean defectors to Western societies and demonstrate that many issues may be improved in spite of the willingness of the South Korean government in the case of that country. As a kind of precursor (the book was published in 2014), it content provides some unknown facts related to the situation of North Korean defectors based out of South Korea. In spite of the clarity of the book and its valuable brought knowledge. I do have some minor remarks that I want to point out below.

First, the book provide an amazing number of data related to North Korean defectors in South Korea, but didn’t deeply analyze interrelations between South Korean citizens and North Korean defectors in selected areas such as New Malden, a suburb in south-west London. Secondly, I recommend to the author shall discuss whether issues faced by defectors are different for female and male defectors. Thirdly, information provided by the authors are clear and verifiable thanks to the important bibliography mainly based on South Korean documents, nevertheless I would like to point out some issues. Page 51 the author underlines that investigations are done by NIS. In some cases, US inspectors are also involved. Fourthly, I would like to underline that the author provided three successful history of North Korean defectors: Jung Sung-san, Lee Soon-shil and Joseph Kim. On that case, the author didn’t clearly define what means successful. Secondly, each of them has a different profile, but I think that it would more valuable to provide a story of a self-made North Korean man in South Korea such as Choe Sae-ung, the owner of a financial company (SN뱅크). Unsuccessful stories may be also provided such as one of Lee Young-kuk, the bodyguard of Kim Jong-il, who couldn’t fit to the life in South Korea. He finally emigrated to Canada in 2015.  Fifthly, I also consider that the author focus also on testimonies provided by not fully trustable people such as Park, Yeon-mi (page 44, footnote 31) who was criticized to a certain extent by other defectors. Here I consider that the author shall indicate that the information. Furthermore, page 62, a paragraph is related to self-employed North Korean defectors, where the author mentions traditional North Korean restaurants in South Korea, he indicated the “start of big business” but that point is not further developed what I deeply regret. Regarding that matter, the author renvoys us in footnotes to a report entitled 탈북자가 말하는 남한 사회 prepared by Lee Joo-chul (p. 88).

In spite of the previously mentioned remarks, I definitely consider that this book is wonderful addition to the growing field of North Korean studies, I would suggest to the author to make a second edition by updating data and discuss more about the situation of North Korean defectors not only in Great Britain, but also in Canada and the United States. I also suggest the author to discuss interactions between North Korean defectors in the United States and Soy. I would also suggest to the researcher, to incorporate a chapter related to the notion of North Korean defectors in the North Korean media, and to see how the approach toward these defections changed over the last years.

I also consider that Lee Ahlam prepared a brilliant book, and I would like to highly recommend this book as one of the best ways to understand the situation of North Korean defectors. In order to supplement their information on that issue, I would like to invite interested people to read North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground Is Transforming a Closed Society, a constructive book about the escape and the life of a North Korean defectors in South Korea and the United States written by Jieun Baek, a young but already distinguished American scholar with Korean roots. Her book is giving more additional names and inside stories than the Ahlam one, but Lee Ahlam’ book is definitely a more scholar book. Jieun’s one is more similar to a kind of novels. Interestingly both books were written on a humanitarian purpose, as each of the authors underline that proceeds from books sales to organizations that send information into North Korea. It’s a real example of humanitarianism which shall be not only underlined, but also firmly spread.

Lee Ahlam. North Korean Defectors in a New and Competitive Society, London: Rowman&Littlefield, 2016, 159 pages. ISBN: 978-0739192665

Nicolas Levi

Analyst on North and South Korea. He is an assistant professor at the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Author of 7 books, more than 20 academic articles, and over 50 analytical reports on the Korean Peninsula, Poland, and related issues. He conducts lectures at top universities in Poland and abroad.

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