Sally Jo Messersmith’s Hope For Korea

We all have dreams for this world. Sally Jo Messersmith’s dream is for the two Koreas to become one again. She has helped bring this hope closer to reality in part by writing a children’s book and a young adult book which she hopes will leave a lasting impression on young people and spark their interest in this issue.

Sally Jo Messersmith

Messersmith’s cousin was a missionary in Korea from 1920 to 1939 before it was divided in 1945. While there, she sent letters detailing her experience to her grandma in the United States. As a child, Messersmith preferred looking at the pictures her cousin sent, but as she grew older the letters interested her more. She started wondering why Korea was no longer one country.

As an adult, she learned more about the situation in North Korea—the oppression, the public executions, the children being imprisoned. 

She says, “I started to cry in the middle of the night, and I started to pray…The praying started turning into a book, because I wanted a different end to the story.”

Messersmith’s first book, Awaken, Hana, published in 2015, is a young adult novel telling the story of a North Korean woman who is kidnapped on her wedding night. It follows her fiancé’s journey to find her and her eventual attempt to bring Korea back together and end the oppression and mistreatment of Korean people with her own act of bravery and love. Messersmith later wrote Hana Crosses the Freedom Bridge, published in 2018, a children’s book with a similar storyline. In Korean, “hana” means “one.”

Awaken Hanna by Sally Jo Messersmith

“This book is like a gateway,” Messersmith says of Awaken, Hana. She says that many books about North Korea intimidate readers. She wants her book to more gently introduce people to the topic without being as graphic as some of these books.

“Human rights issues scare people,” she says. “They don’t want to think about it.” Her book is meant to raise awareness and hope for this issue without scaring audiences away.

Messersmith wrote her books for younger people because she believes children have a greater sense of possibility than adults.

“When you ask [children], ‘Do you believe that an impossible dream can come true?’ they almost always say yes,’” she says.

Her passion for Korea and its unification is evident. She has visited South Korea and walked in the tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) once used as escape routes out of North Korea (and has the bag of rocks from the tunnel to prove it). She has hosted multiple Korean exchange students and has protested at the Chinese Embassy with the Freedom Defense Foundation against repatriation—sending refugees in China back to North Korea. She also talks to people, specifically children, about her book and the truth behind it.

Young readers of Hana Crosses the Freedom Bridge most often respond to a picture of a North Korean girl sitting alone in a prison cell, Messersmith says.

She looks quite hopeless. 

“‘Are there kids really in prison?’ they ask. I say, ‘Yes.’” She is encouraged that children who have read or heard the book “really start asking questions.” They see how kids made something big happen and think maybe they can make something big happen too, she says.

In South Korea, near the “freedom bridge” over the DMZ, there is a towering barbed wire fence to keep people away. The people there have tied colorful ribbons to the lower half of the fence, covering it in messages of hope and freedom and creating a rainbow of dreams for unity.

Messersmith has her own small piece of a fence which is covered in colorful ribbons on which Michigan children have written messages. Many have written “hana.”

The proceeds from Messersmith’s books go to helping the children at the Jangdaehyun school in Busan, South Korea, all of whom escaped from North Korea, many alone. She plans to continue spreading awareness and hope for Korea by showing her books and giving presentations. She plans to visit more bookstores and attend the Manistee book festival. She is also getting signatures on a letter to the Chinese president. She will hand deliver it to the China Embassy in September, requesting that they stop repatriation. She also works for Centria Healthcare as a behavioral technician, working with autistic children to build their skills.

“I just believe that when we start believing and having faith, people start acting, even if it’s just in little ways. Even if it’s Michigan kids hanging ribbons on a fence,” Messersmith says.

Awaken, Hana and Hana Crosses the Freedom Bridge are available for purchase online from Amazon, Horizon Books, and hana-onefreekorea.com. Erin Evans is a senior at Bellaire High School and in her second year of the Front Street Writers program. She plans to attend the University of Michigan in the fall, tentatively planning on a creative writing major. You can find her blog at www.frontstreetwriters.com.