Stars Between the Sun and Moon
A striking memoir of hope in the face of persecution, Stars between the Sun and Moon provides a unique perspective on the brutality of the North Korean regime and the desperation it breeds. This is the first true account of the country by a North Korean woman, one who suffers human trafficking, imprisonment and forced labour before escaping to Canada.
Born in the seventies, Lucia Jang grew up in a typical North Korean household. Her parents were factory workers. The family survived on meagre government rations of rice and what little they could grow in their small garden. Every night before bed, Jang dusted the frame around the portrait of Kim Il Sung, as her little sister looked on. When done, they would both bow and say: “Thank you, father.”
Jang marries young, her abusive husband then selling their baby son for 300 won and a bar of soap. Heartbroken and powerless to reclaim her child, Jang focuses on providing for her family during years of brutal famine until her desperation leads to the Chinese border where she is trafficked into an illegal marriage. She escapes but is forced to return to China in attempts to feed her family and find her son.
Despite multiple periods of imprisonment and a lifetime of brutal hardship, Jang’s extraordinary will to live drives her past every obstacle. Her life – like many others in the regime – is a powerful demonstration of courage, and a reminder that a mother’s love crosses even the most tightly guarded borders.
Enriched by Jang’s keen memory for the details of life within a dangerous and peculiar regime, Stars Between The Sun and Moon provides a poignant perspective on the systematic human rights abuses experienced by millions. Above all, Jang’s memoir is a bittersweet reminder of our capacity for resilience in even the harshest of places.
Chongjin Jipgyulso was a labour camp, too. But the city, located on the coast of the east sea, was a major port of entry to all of Chosun. Our jobs were not inside the prison, but at the harbour. Some prisoners unloaded supplies from the ships onto wagons, which would then be taken to the train station. I volunteered to work at the train station, where I would unload boxes of supplies from these wagons and stack them in a room. I assumed this was for storage, until a train came that would take the supplies to the rest of the country. I never opened the boxes, and I could not tell if they contained food. But there was a lot coming into Chosun—boxes upon boxes in ships upon ships every day. I knew better than to ask questions, though I wondered where those supplies were going when the people in Chongjin had so little.
Every few days, at midday, the guards would give me some noodles and kimchi. At night our meals were broth with a few pieces of cabbage. I had vowed to stay alive, inspired by the source of light at the end of the poplar trees, so I forced myself every day to carry more, to move faster, to be as diligent as I could be in stacking the boxes. The guards, pleased with my work, started giving me a little extra kimchi.
In my cell was a woman who did no labour and rarely left the prison. She was already three months pregnant when I arrived, and the father of her child was in the men’s cell. But she could not visit him. She cried every night, holding her belly, and screamed with night terrors. She told me that she was afraid the guards would abort her child.
“Surely they wouldn’t do anything that vicious!” I exclaimed. “But you’re going to lose the child if you do not have better food. A child can’t grow on a wilted piece of cabbage and broth.” I played the food game with her. We ran our tongues over all the words for foods we longed to taste when we were released.
That night, my dream of the road came again, but this time I was farther down the corridor, amidst the poplar trees. I awoke hopeful, as if a golden light was pulling me forward. In the rays of that light, I realized that survival was far more than just having enough food. Even where there was a bounty of food, like in China, if there was no love, no compassion, there was only death in life. In that dream I came to see that my survival would be based on how much I became one with the others. From that day on, whenever I worked at the train station, I grabbed extra rations of kimchi and hid it in my underwear. I gave it to the pregnant woman when I returned to our cell. I watched her stomach swell. As I started to see life again inside her, life pulsed through me, too.
I encouraged other women who were strong and fit like me to take extra food, to stuff it in their underclothes and give it to the older women in the prison cell who walked with limps or could not see because of cataracts. As if the food we were giving away had become the Chinese foods of our imagination, we all appeared to grow stronger in spirit.
A few times a week, some other women and I were given the task of carrying the heaviest boxes and bags from the port to the train station, many weighing as much as twenty-five kilos. As reward, we were given unprocessed rice. We took twice if not three times as much as we were allotted. We ripped open the seams in our jacket pockets and hid the grains in there. Back in our cell, we used a brick to crack open and remove the heavy casing. Our cell bordered the kitchen, and when the cooks had left, some of us snuck in there to cook the rice. We ate some ourselves, but most we gave away to the weakest among us.
The guards rotated the position of putting each one of us in charge of the cell. Whoever was in charge had to settle the bickering, the name-calling, the hair pulling and the fistfights that erupted and made us forget our bonds with each other.
One such incident involved Sooil, a heavyset woman from a village not far from where I grew up, who had moved to China to marry a Chinese man. She would sit during our lice checks with a straight back and neck and wave her long fingers in the air as she talked. She rattled on nonstop, like a chicken cackling, about how good her husband was, how many pastries and rice cakes she had eaten in China, and how her husband and his sister were so wealthy they had showered her with jewellery, in- cluding gold rings and earrings. “Which I swallowed,” she said once. “It’s all inside my belly. My husband loved me so much,” she exclaimed, closing her eyes and wrapping her arms around herself to mimic his affection, “he even gave me jade.” I smiled, for I knew this was Sooil’s version of the Chinese food game.
“My sister-in-law, the rich one,” she announced another time, “lives in Guangzhou.” A collective gasp filled the room. I knew she meant the capital city of Guangdong province. I knew Chinese geography because at night Jungsoo had taught me. But I saw some of the younger women wink at each other. They had their own version of a golden light . . . revenge.
The next day, Sooil was forced to stand at the front of the cell, beneath the poster of the Ten Commandments. She had to announce her name and tell us that she had committed the most heinous of crimes, though we would not be told what her sin was for another few days. No one knew her betrayer, but betrayed she was. For two days after that, she was made to stand outside in a thin shirt and pants in the shadow of the doorframe, where the wind was strongest and the sun could not penetrate. She was not allowed to speak to anyone. Her teeth chattered, and her skin turned blue.
On the morning of the third day, she was made to stand underneath the Ten Commandments again. The other prison- ers interrogated her in much the same fashion as my comrades at school had me during saenghwalchonghwa.
“You have ties to South Korea,” spat one of the women.
“Gwangju City, I heard you say,” another yelled. “Your sister- in-law lives in South Korea.” Fingers were pointed at her. Some of the women spat.
I was pushed to the back of the room as Sooil’s attackers hurled insults at her. Sooil sobbed like a baby, saliva dripping down her chin and onto her chest. “Braggart! Arrogant! Cheat- er! You think you are better than us!”
I yelled too, asking a question, but my voice could not be heard over the women in front.
“I wish the guards would cut you open to find that gold you say you swallowed,” a stocky woman with bowlegs yelled.
A hush fell over the room. The prisoners put in charge of set- tling disputes that day shook their heads. The stocky woman’s words went too far, since the guards might actually do what her attackers described. That comment might have condemned one of our own to death, and even those among us who were the most bitter didn’t want that crime on their hands.
A tall woman with elegant features spoke up at the same time I did. “Does your sister-in-law live in Gwangju in South Korea or Guangzhou in China?” we asked.
Sooil looked up, her eyes red and swollen. “China,” she said, clamping her clammy hands together.
The woman who had revealed Sooil’s claim of swallowing gold told the guards she had lied. For her penance, she had to spend one day outside in the cold, exactly as Sooil had done.
In the days that followed, the elegant woman and I began talking. She told me she had been in the Chosun military, something quite rare for a woman. That winter, the elegant woman got into trouble over soap. We were given one bar to share among us. The woman who had been in the military saw another woman slip the tiny bar inside her vagina, stealing it for herself. The military woman accosted the thief, pushing her when she refused to disclose the truth. Eventually, the thief pulled out the bar of soap and gave it to the guard. But the military woman was punished for fighting. Both she and the woman who had stolen the soap had to stand outside our cell, their backs straight, their knees locked, from sun up until sunset for three days. They weren’t given food or water.
I felt so sorry for them I didn’t eat my lunch at my job. I hid the mushy noodles in my jacket and some kimchi in my pants. When I got to the cell, I dug the food out and gave it to them.
“I will repay you,” they said in unison.
“Repay me by living,” I replied. “You stay alive, and we will meet again in China.”
By the end of one month in prison, I had made more than twenty such pacts with other women.