Jin and Suja come from opposite worlds. Jin is the son of a factory supervisor in one of the poorest provinces of North Korea while Suja is the daughter of a high-ranking member of the government’s media. When Jin earns a scholarship to the university in Pyongyang they meet and begin a relationship. Both are committed to the ethos of their Dear Leader, but in The Last Exiles a fateful decision on Jin’s part overturns their lives.
The Last Exiles presents a clear picture of the disparities in North Korea in the 1998. Many of the details will be shocking. What is interesting is how author Ann Shin shows that even within in the capitol city where life is supposed to be one of plenty there is deprivation. Basic clothing needs can’t be met, animal protein is not always available. The façade of a functioning economic engine is stripped as Suja and her mother go to the opening of a brand-new store only to find that it closes within an hour of opening because there is no merchandise left.
Of course, this pales in comparison to Jin’s life where he, his sister, and their parents are crammed into a two-room apartment with no electricity. Food rationing is the norm in everywhere, but in the provinces even the rations have stopped. The government extols the discipline of only needing one meal a day not three. The family survives on a porridge made by stripping the inner bark of pine trees.
These stark facts are initially softened by the new relationship between Jin and Suja. They are falling in love and Jin hopes that his hard work and outstanding grades will earn him a good job, thereby changing his family’s fate. Instead, on a trip home he acts to right a wrong and disappears from all their lives. When Suja learns of this she decides to find him and abandons her comfortable life for the unknown.
It’s at this point the novel loses its grip on me. Shin clearly shows the naivete of people living in an authoritarian regime. High-born Suja proclaims North Korea will prevail because they have nuclear weapons without having any understanding of life outside Pyongyang. She also seems, despite being an excellent student, to have no basic understanding of geography—even of neighboring ally China.
This childlike belief system is exacerbated by the novel’s basic boy-meets-girl theme. Jin and Suja embark on journeys that, while they may mirror true events, come off as implausible to readers living in the free world. The resulting skepticism dulls the impact of the novel’s realities. If you haven’t read any literature from or about North Korea The Last Exiles is a good starting point. If you’re further along reading fiction on the subject I’d highly recommend The Orphan Master’s Son or How I Became a North Korean.
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