Writing this novel has been a ten-year journey of research, hard work, conversation, and reflection, especially on the subject of identity. I’m a white American whose own identity was profoundly shaped by moving from New Hampshire to South Korea in 1960, when I was seven years old. Korea, where my parents worked as medical missionaries, was our family’s home base for twenty-one years.
I speak fluent conversational Korean, spent my junior year of college at a Korean university, and have returned to Korea many times throughout my adulthood. Korea is “home” to me, even as my connection remains that of an outsider-insider. But prior to this book, my sphere of personal knowledge, experience, and interest in Korea had never included the North. Even when I was a child and teenager in South Korea, the country occupying the other half of the peninsula seemed unknowable, foreign and menacing — a feeling exacerbated by the bellicose threats and posturing of the DPRK, and its 1968 assassination attempt on South Korean President Park Chung-hee.
Ten years ago, a chance interview question about reunification led to the idea for a novel about two American kids on the run in North Korea. I did some reading and daydreaming, but I felt uncertain about my connection to the material until I met Reverend Peter Yoon, a member of the Council on Korean Studies of Michigan State University. In 2007 he had traveled into the DPRK from China by train and had an hour and a half of video footage of the countryside between Sinuiju and Pyongyang. The images were spellbinding, and to my surprise, they were familiar.
Rural North Korea in 2007 — wide plains filled with rice fields, farmers planting in flooded paddies, people pushing carts and riding bicycles, clunky concrete apartment buildings painted pink and blue — looked exactly like the South Korean countryside of the 1960s where I grew up. I realized the DPRK was not unknowable and foreign; despite its government, it was part of a land I knew and loved. Over the years of research and writing that followed, North Korea came into focus more and more as a place of enormous complexity and contradiction, and most of all a place full of real people.
Indeed, contrary to the popular image of a country shrouded in mystery about which we know almost nothing, I’ve found an extensive amount of information available about the DPRK.
More About Growing Up in Korea:Read More
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A family holiday goes badly awry, leaving two siblings racing for freedom in a totalitarian nation armed with little more than an outdated guidebook and a few packets of airline peanuts.
Adopted from South Korea as an infant by a white Connecticut family, 12-year-old Mia has grown up feeling conspicuously different from her family and peers. To help heal the rift from a serious fight with her older brother, Simon, and to encourage Mia to connect with her cultural roots, the teens travel with their father to North Korea, a country he knows well as a foreign aid worker. Mundane sightseeing gives way to danger following Mia’s discovery of a cellphone containing shocking photos from a prison camp and her father’s abduction by authorities. Simon and Mia embark on a daring cross-country journey in an effort to reach safety and alert authorities to their father’s plight. The action is punctuated by short profiles of individual (fictional) North Koreans, tantalizingly pulling back the veil of secrecy, but readers are soon plunged back into a thrilling and immersive experience reminiscent of the best spy and wilderness adventure stories. Character development is not sacrificed to action, as the siblings mature in their relationship, gaining insight into family and racial dynamics, culture, and identity. Opening information from the fictional tour agency gives readers enough background about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to fully understand the peril the family is in. An author’s note illuminates O’Brien’s strong personal ties to Korea and gives suggestions for further reading.
A riveting work that will appeal to a wide range of readers. (Thriller. 9-13)
Honored to have Entertainment Weekly share a selection of In the Shadow of the Sun on their website!Read More
I have attempted to present the realities of life in current-day North Korea as accurately as possible based on the present available information. (By the time the book is in print, some of what I have written may already be outdated.)
But I have also made a few decisions in service of my story. For instance, the Arirang Mass Games have not been held since 2013, but I included a performance here, because the scale, organization, and presentation of the event is a uniquely and definitively North Korean phenomenon.Read More
It’s possible to trace Mia and Simon’s entire journey in In the Shadow of the Sun.
I plotted it on Google Earth as I was researching and writing it.
Note that I did add the stairs down which they escape at Mangyongdae, and the park along the river in Sinuiju.Read More
Throughout the development of In the Shadow of the Sun — and the thirty years of our life together — our beloved daughter, Yunhee, has shared her experience of being a transracially adopted Korean American.
I had personal connections to several people who had deep knowledge of North Korea and were willing to read my manuscript. For other expert readers, I contacted two Korean American organizations with which I’ve had previous contact, Korean American Story and the Council on Korean Americans.
I am enormously indebted to those who provided expert and essential feedback on the final draft (a number of whom choose not to be named for fear of difficulties if they return to the DPRK):
1) A, an international observer of North Korean affairs who travels frequently to the DPRK;
2) D, a foreign resident of Pyongyang, for detailed information about city life;
3) SJK, who taught English in Pyongyang, for a Korean American perspective on North Korea;
4) David McCann, Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature, Harvard University, who has traveled to the DPRK four times and lectured there;
5) Seongmin Lee, who was born and raised in North Korea and escaped as a young adult;
6) J, who was also born and raised in the DPRK, and escaped at a teenager; and
7) An expert on Korean transracial adoption.
These readers corrected many mistakes and misimpressions and challenged me to go deeper into the material. There were notes on history (don’t refer to the Chosun Dynasty as “unifying” the peninsula, as the Silla Dynasty did that first), tourism (which currencies are used when, by whom), contemporary life in Pyongyang (many ordinary families don’t have running water, even in city apartments), political realities (officials would not be likely to identify themselves as from the Ministry of Peoples Security; security checkpoints are frequent). One of my experts even knew that the knock-off of “Angry Birds” that’s used by North Koreans is in Korean, not Chinese!
These experts also caught a number of crucial errors that were based on my South Korean experience instead of accurate to North Korea. For instance, I had learned that North Koreans refer to Korea as “Chosun” and Korean language as “Chosun-mal.” But having grown up calling Korea “Han-gook” and Korean language “Han-gook-mal,” as they do in South Korea, I had inadvertently used that in the manuscript.
The adoption expert responded with challenging and penetrating questions that caused me to reflect more deeply on Mia’s experience of being transracially adopted and the particular ways in which she and her family members lived that reality.
Any remaining errors of fact or interpretation are my own.
The responses of these expert readers was also sometimes deeply affirming. One of the questions I carried throughout the writing of this book was about my choice to write about North Korea through the lens of two Americans. To what extent might that be exploiting or marginalizing the lives of North Koreans? At the same time, I remained convinced that young readers outside of North Korea would respond to characters who could provide a bridge from their world to that of the DPRK.
I was amazed and humbled to read this note from one North Korean defector:
“Through the courageous, brave characters of Mia and Simon, their journey, and your vivid narratives, I was amazed while reading your work and found my memories awakened, and my senses redolent, as if I were once again in North Korea.”
I met one of the most important influences on this book in 2010, at the invitation of my friend Yoo Myung Ja. She introduced me to Professor Kim Hyun-Sik, formerly one of North
Korea’s foremost educators, and the personal Russian tutor to the teenage Kim Jong-il. In 1991, while working in Moscow, Professor Kim was approached by a South Korean agent with the astonishing news that his sister, whom he hadn’t seen since the Korean War and had long thought dead, was alive and waiting to meet him. A double agent reported their reunion to the DPRK, and Kim was forced to make the excruciating decision between returning home to face certain death, or defecting, knowing his entire family in North Korea would be killed. He spent a number of years in South Korea before moving to the US, where he served as a research professor at George Mason University.
(You can read Professor Kim’s account of his years in North Korea, the circumstances of his defection, and his life since in this article.)
Throughout the hours of our conversation over several days, Professor Kim, a gentle, soft-spoken man, was often in tears recalling the struggles of his former countrymen.
He was the first North Korean defector I’d ever met, and he told me I was the first white American with whom he’d had such a personal encounter. “They told me you were my enemy,” he said. I shared my book idea with him and asked what he would hope to see a novel about his homeland accomplish. “To create empathy for the North Korean people,” he said. In the course of writing In the Shadow of the Sun, this has become my hope too.
While I was writing In the Shadow of the Sun, I traveled to Dandong, China, where I was thrilled to discover that my hotel room window faced the Yalu River with a view of the city of Sinuiju.
I took a motorboat ride through the waters that separate the two countries, and traced my charcaters, Mia
and Simon’s steps up a section of the Tiger Mountain Great Wall. There, I sat and gazed at “One-Step Crossing” and the North Korean countryside.
These books and films emerged as some of the most significant for me as I wrote In the Shadow of the Sun, especially in illuminating the variety of contemporary life experiences of North Korean people. I encourage readers to seek out primary sources, to learn from authentic North Korean voices speaking about their own experiences. (Resources appropriate for younger audiences are marked with an asterisk.)
The Bradt Travel Guide, North Korea * (2003, 2007, and 2014 editions) by Robert Willoughby, the “only major standalone tourist guide to North Korea.” The guidebook Mia brings with her is based on the 2005 reprint of the 2003 edition.
“Camp 14: Total Control Zone,” a filmed interview with Shin Dong-Hyuk, the only person known to have been raised in and to have escaped from a no-release North Korean prison camp. Shin has since admitted that not all details of his account were accurate, in both the film and a book about his experiences — for instance, that he was not born in the camp but sent there with his family as a young child. But observers seem to agree that as his story is similar to accounts of other former adult inmates and guards, it still provides important and accurate information about
the realities of prison camp life.
Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea (Atria, 2015) by Jang Jin-sung, a rare account from the elite perspective of a poet laureate to Kim Jong-il.
Every Falling Star* (Amulet Books, 2016) by Sungju Lee and Susan Elizabeth McClelland, a young adult memoir of a boy, born into a privileged family, who spent five years scrounging on the streets as a “flower swallow” before escaping to South Korea.
The Girl with Seven Names (William Collins, 2015) by Hyeonseo Lee, a richly detailed memoir of growing up in a high-status, relatively affluent family and crossing the border into China as a willful teenager, an unwitting defector.
(Ms. Lee, now an activist on behalf of North Korean defectors, has a popular 2013 TED talk.*)
“My Daily Life in North Korea (MYSTERIOUS 7 DAY TRIP)”* (2016), a 14-minute video by “digital nomad” Jacob Laukaitis that takes the viewer along for a typical DPRK tour.
North Korea Confidential (Tuttle, 2015) by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson, the most up-to-date and comprehensive account of the astonishing changes that North Korean society is currently undergoing.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau, 2009) by Barbara Demick, a rare picture of daily life in the northeast and the devastating impact of the 1990s famine, based on interviews with defectors.
“A State of Mind”* (2004), a documentary film that follows two young gymnasts in Pyongyang as they compete for the privilege of performing in the Mass Games.
Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America (HMHC, 2015) by Joseph Kim with Stephen Talty, a memoir of a North Korean childhood, from comfort to deprivation to street life, before escaping as a teenager. (See also his TED talk.*)
Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim (Broadway Books, 2015), an account by a Korean American investigative reporter posing as an English teacher at a Pyongyang school run by foreign missionaries.
For details of North Korea tours, I consulted numerous online blogs and photo essays. NKNews.org (by subscription) offers a comprehensive source of news about the DPRK.Read More