LAST DECEMBER, all eyes turned to North Korea with the news of the dictator Kim
Jong-il’s death from a suspected heart attack. As the succession falls on his
little-known and untested youngest son Kim Jong-un and the world waits on high
alert, the attention is unlikely to diminish.
despite all the news coverage, precious little is known about what life is like
for those in the so-called ‘Hermit Kingdom’. American author Brandon W. Jones
seeks to address the deficiency with his debut All Woman and Springtime.
Essentially a coming-of-age tale, the novel follows two young North Korean
women as they make the transition from their teenage years to adulthood in the
most brutal of circumstances.
and Il-sun work in a clothing factory by day and spend their nights in an
orphanage for girls. Each has experienced the savage hand of the state: Il-sun
when her outspoken brother ‘disappeared’, leaving her widowed mother to die of
a broken heart; Gyong-ho when her family was thrown into a forced labour camp
for failing to show proper respect for the hallowed portraits of the Great
Leader Kim Il-sung and the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. However, the girls could
not be more different.
is a conventional heroine. Despite the hardships of daily life she has a lust
for experience that will not be suppressed. Petulant, independent and
devastatingly beautiful, she is the title’s ‘all woman and springtime’. In
contrast, Gyong-ho (nicknamed Gi) is the more nuanced and interesting
character. A skinny, hunched and conscientious girl, she adores the Great
Leader as much as she fears what he represents. And while Il-sun uses their
intimacy to confess her crushes on boys and coax Gi into handing over surplus
garments to make up her work quota at the factory, Gi harbours a secret,
repressed desire for her friend.
arrival of the rebellious, seductive Gianni – a trader of black-market goods –
throws their lives into turmoil when he whisks them across the border to the
South and into the sex trade. What follows is a vicious ravaging of their
innocence, accompanied by suffering far beyond the girls’ worst imaginings.
illuminating both North Korea and the inhumanity of sexual slavery, Jones
touches on two important topics; however, the novel would benefit from more
fully developed characters, a more convincing denouement and a purging of
clichés. Il-sun, for example, is described as having a ‘heart-shaped face’,
‘pouting red lips’ and a full bosom ‘tempting as low-hanging fruit’.
Woman and Springtime is at its best when the action takes place in North
Korea. Jones effectively conveys the suffocating nature of daily life under
constant surveillance. In one memorable scene at a ‘voluntary’ education
meeting, all the factory girls laugh hysterically in unison – afraid that if
they stop it would be considered unpatriotic. It’s a disturbingly absurd moment
that recalls images of forced crying and wailing at Kim Jong-il’s recent
complements this with small pieces of information: Americans are referred to
automatically as Miguk nom (American bastards); Joseon (North
Korea) is believed by all who live in it to be the wealthiest and most
prosperous nation on earth; people go hungry while food is stockpiled,
allegedly for the starving South Koreans; and children in labour camps must
betray their friends to the authorities in order to survive.
interesting beginning is undermined by the remaining two-thirds of the novel,
which descends into brutal and often gratuitous sexual violence. On the
surface, the novel’s sympathy is for the women as they are forced into acts of
increasing depravity, but there is a touch of tabloid sensationalism at play:
moral outrage to excuse salacious gawking.