How I Became a North Korean

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How I Became a North Korean
256 pages; Viking
After a dinner of delectable fish flown in on a private jet from Tokyo, smiling celebrities in fur coats and government functionaries wearing Rolexes dance to an American pop song under a glittering disco ball. But look closer: Their smiles are grimaces, dressed up to conceal terror. This is not Manhattan but Pyongyang, North Korea, and the elites know they are dancing on a minefield. From the shocking opening of her debut novel, How I Became a North Korean, Krys Lee invites us into a world Westerners rarely glimpse and can barely imagine.

Lee's heroes are three young refugees: Danny, a headstrong Chinese-born Korean who winds up in a Christian safe house in China; Yongju, a privileged university student who fled North Korea after "Dear Leader" shot his father in the heart; and Jangmi, disillusioned to the core after allowing herself to be sold into a marriage that failed and then doing a stint as an online sex worker. They find one another on their fraught quest for freedom, during which seemingly secure hideouts fail to offer protection and would-be saviors are revealed as betrayers, or the other way around. Throughout their odyssey, the trio of protagonists revise their answers to the novel's biggest question: Why do people risk their lives to help strangers?

While tackling weighty themes of power and politics, Lee zooms in laserlike on minute details to create moments of startling intimacy. "The sole of her foot was as tough as animal hide, but her toes were somehow still perfectly formed, like cultured pearls. It moved me, her rough elegance," Yongju says of Jangmi. Rough elegance is a perfect metaphor for Lee's unflinching novel, written in stark poetic language and peppered with Korean words. Despite the violence it encompasses, at the heart of the story is a belief in the human capacity to transcend hardship, and to hope.' '

— Kseniya Melnik