Sungju Lee at Manchester Literature Festival
Our writer reports from a moving and thought-provoking event at Manchester Literature Festival: human rights activist Sungju Lee talking about his early life in North Korea and his memoir, Every Falling Star.
'Inspiration' is a word that’s bandied about too much, but today it’s justified, although no one says it. They’re too busy being thrown into the shoes of a child, a pickpocket, a righteous dissident. On the first slide of Sungju Lee’s presentation at Manchester Literature Festival, we’re given a shocking view of the Korean peninsula, viewed from a satellite. The South fizzes with light and energy; the North, by contrast, sits above it in darkness, locked tight under Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian regime.
There is one area that's shown off, though. Lee, who has first-hand knowledge of this overtly secretive country, compares the capital, Pyongyang, to that of the Hunger Games series. We see a mountain from a rural area – that is, anywhere but Pyongyang – stripped bare for its trees and essential resources; the populace has grown used to looking after itself, by and large, and Lee is furious about it.
When Lee was 12, his father said he’d be leaving for seven days. He never came back, and Lee’s mother absconded shortly thereafter. The PhD student standing before us now, committed to uniting both Koreas as one super-state, was forced to become a thief, scavenging and fighting with other kids his age. It almost led to the robbing of his own grandfather, who’s sketched here as a mistaken fortune teller, then the angel of deliverance that Lee was so desperate for.
Throughout the hour, we’re reminded of how very small acts (such as choosing a pen at a stationary shop) can have big consequences for our sense of freedom. Although Lee’s story is powerful – someone breaks down on the back row – he cautions us against demonising. “Keep your ears open,” he advises, as North Korea will only change if we listen to it.
Sungju Lee spoke at Manchester Literature Festival on 15 Oct