Poverty. Rape. Abusive marriage. A son sold by his grandmother. Human trafficking. Prison. Most of us would not have survived any one of these life tragedies, yet Lucia Jang did, as she shares in her book Stars between the Sun and Moon: One woman's life in North Korea and escape to freedom.
When I asked her what gave her the strength to carry on, she replied "I didn't have much hope by Western standards, just a sense of survival and a need to protect my family."
Here's a snapshot of her story.
Back in the seventies, when those of us in North America were listening to Led Zepplin's Stairway to Heaven, Lucia was just a young child at the time, living her own poverty-stricken hell in North Korea.
Like many families there, her parents worked in the factories and the family was given rations of food. She was allowed just 300 grams of rice a day, and was always hungry. Yet, every night she and her little sister had to stand in front of a framed photo of Kim11-sung and say thank you. In her childhood, Lucia was actually very devotional to Kim Il-sung. She would not have seen this as being forced.
While she was keen to learn, school was not a positive experience. The focus seemed to be always on the negative. No gratitude journals here. Instead, the students had to keep a journal where they recorded all their transgressions for the week, and from grade 6 on, Lucia was often singled out for mutual critique as it was called by her peers, when she would have to listen to her accusers list her crimes.
But all of this seems somewhat tame, when you learn what happened to her later in life. She was raped, married a man who was abusive and the father of her son (who was the result of the rape.)
When she escaped the marriage and came home, her mother sold her son, as she felt they couldn't afford to keep him. While Lucia tracked down the village where he was -- she never saw him again -- although he is never far from her thoughts.
As a mother, I cannot even imagine losing my child that way, but Lucia's loyalty to her family was not broken. Instead, she took more and more risks, crossing the border to China to smuggle back food for them. But she got caught and ended up being trafficked into an unlawful marriage in China. Later she was imprisoned several times and she ended up living on the streets.
Pregnant again with her second son, Lucia knew she had to get away, and she managed to get herself to South Korea, via China. That was, she admits, the scariest moment in her life. "If we'd been caught, both my son and I would have been killed."
Today, she lives in Canada and at first that was an overwhelming experience. Coming from a culture where everything is dictated to one where you have choices and freedom was amazing to her.
But for several years she had nightmares and flashbacks. She had anxiety and the memories were so vibrant, that she saw herself running and being chased by the guards, soldiers and others who were after her.
Then two years ago, she started praying for the nightmares to go away, and they have for the most part. She's joined a church and found her faith. A long cry from the communist control she endured growing up in North Korea.
"Canada has allowed me to gain a sense of self. I now see myself as a separate person" she shares.
At first it was hard to trust people in general, especially men, but as she's felt more safe, she's become more open. But she joked "all my bad experiences with men are not for naught, because I've developed a radar for the rogues."
North Korea is not far from the news these days, and when she watched a documentary recently, she was surprised that in the 20 years since she'd left North Korea, not much has changed, except perhaps that they are showing more to the outside world.
But much of what is filtered through to the North Korean people still paints the picture of the capitalist America, who is to blame for all woes in the country.
When Lucia first started on her book, she says that she had a humble purpose in that her motivation was to let her sons learn where they came from. But as she shares "I realized I had a bigger purpose in that I wanted to show how normal, ordinary people can find freedom."
Quite the story and one that stays with you, because in our sheltered lives here, none of us can really imagine what it must be like to live a life without freedom and choices.