Sharon Jang: from voiceless in North Korea to author in South Korea

North Korean refugee Sharon Jang, center, poses with her book “Girl with Black Makeup” with FSI co-founders Casey Lartigue Jr., left, and Lee Eun-koo. Courtesy of Freedom Speakers International

Two weeks ago, I briefly told the story of my birthday gift battle with North Korean refugee Sharon Jang. She started it by sending almost $200 to me to celebrate my birthday a few years ago. When it was her birthday a few months later, I sent her almost $200. We have been sending that $200 to each other for a couple of years now, probably confusing any bankers wondering why neither one of us is claiming that $200. There is much more to the story with Sharon.On March 19, she visited the Freedom Speakers International office in Seoul’s Mapo District to sign a book contract. Just 12 days later, on March 31, FSI co-founder Lee Eun-koo published Sharon Jang’s memoir, “Girl with Black Makeup,” on Amazon. While it may not be a record, it is certainly unusual for an author to sign a contract merely 12 days before a book’s release.Sharon first began working on the book with us in 2018 but was sidetracked by personal circumstances, and then we got sidetracked trying to save FSI during COVID-19. We resumed work on the book again in 2022.No signed contract and not even a memorandum of understanding six years later? Authors should protect themselves at every step of the way during the book publishing process. In this case, because of our reciprocal relationships with North Korean refugees, FSI was in the role of both publisher and protector. During the process of writing the book, we explained to Sharon what we knew about book contracts in Korea and the United States so she could exercise her options. We discussed that we could work with her to prepare to publish her book with a larger publisher, but she rejected that option and said she wanted to publish the book with us.When Sharon visited our office Wednesday, I asked her why we had not signed a contract until mid-March. She was clear about the first reason: “I trust you and Eun-koo. FSI is always with me.”Sharon first joined FSI in early 2015. She has been a student in our English Empowerment Project, a public speaker, donor,

fundraiser, office staffer and now our third North Korean Refugee Author Fellow. Every interaction with her has fostered cooperation, deeper understanding and harmony.Like many North Korean refugees, Sharon bears scars from her experiences in North Korea, her escape to freedom and her adjustment to a new life. She has many reasons to be cynical and skeptical, yet she remains optimistic.When I asked Sharon to explain a bit more about not being concerned about the contract, she explained a second reason. Writing the book bolstered her self-confidence. It allowed her to reflect on her life, grow as a person and adopt a more positive outlook on life. “I reflected on my life. It fed my soul and made me a better person,” she shared. She hopes her experience can inspire others who may also be going through difficult times.In North Korea, Sharon was condemned to life as part of the “hostile” or “despised” class due to her grandfather being a South Korean soldier captured by North Korean forces near the end of the Korean War. Her parents were condemned to work in a coal mine because of their respective family social class, and Sharon suffered the same fate, assigned to work in the infamous Aoji Coal Mine.Voiceless and working long hours in a dangerous coal mine without consideration of her desires, the idea of writing a book was unthinkable when she was in North Korea. The North Korean government controls all publishing and would have severely punished her family even further for daring to express themselves independently.In freedom, she has the opportunity to tell her story. Some critics accuse North Korean refugees of hastily writing memoirs. Sharon escaped from North Korea in 2011 and arrived in South Korea in 2012. A dozen years doesn’t seem like she was in a hurry to complete a book.Jang Jin-sung, a former “psychological officer” for the North Korean regime and also an author, praised our engaging with North Korean refugees. He said we empower North Korean refugees who were “stripped of their identity at birth in North Korea.” He said, “An important aspect of adjustment is about helping people gain confidence in themselves as humans. That’s one reason that I tell people, including politicians and NGO leaders: There are many NGOs for helping North Korean refugees, but FSI is the best model for helping refugees practically and productively. Refugees can gain confidence in themselves as they adjust to living outside of North Korea, gaining the skill of speaking English that enables them to interact with anyone in the 슬롯게이밍 world.”

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