Monday, October 30, 2006

This is Paradise! Hyok Kang with Phillipe Grangereau

# Paperback: 176 pages

# Publisher: Little, Brown (7 Jul 2005)

# Language: English (translated by Shaun Whiteside)

# Classification: Autobiography/Non-fiction

North Korea, The Hermit Kingdom, is not exactly welcoming of foreigners and nor does it allow its people out, hence books about daily life in this small and very poor country are scarce, but in recent years owing to a number of defectors willing to tell their stories and publishers willing to give them a platform, there are now a few of North Korean memoirs on the market, but because none of their stories can be corroborated , these books probably don't meet the expected standard of reliability that one has come to expect from other biographies and memoirs (let's pretend we didn't have a James Frey, shall we?)

Hyok Kang was born in North Korea in 1986 and lived there until 1998 which is the year he and his family escaped to China. In this book he recounts the struggles of his family and friends to survive the cruel and hard life that was North Korea. To start with, his family, because they were among numerous North Koreans that were willing to be repatriated from Japan,were favoured by Kim Il-Sung, but when the famine set in 1993, they gradually lost all the wealth they acquired and were reduced to begging (and sometimes stealing) just in order to live.

Famine does terrible things to people. It turns reasonable people into selfish, indifferent people with no conscience "...the misfortune of others, even your own family, leaves you completely indifferent when you have nothing in your belly. Your stomach becomes a thousand times more important than your conscience" For a long time the reader will be haunted by images of people willing to do anything for something to eat, even if it meant prostituting themselves, stealing or maiming others; cannibalism and killing someone to get a meal was not unheard of.

What I find distressing is that the isolated North Korean people are made to believe that despite the food shortages, they have it better than the "Southern Puppets" (South Korea) and the "long-nose imperialists, (USA). Due to intense propaganda and consistent brainwashing, the people genuinely believe that This (North Korea) is Paradise!

When, owing to a disagreement at work, Hyok Kang's father decides to escape to China, he realizes that unlike what they believed, the people in China actually had food to eat and clean clothes to wear and he makes up his mind to take the whole family across the border. Things in China are definitely better than up north, but they are constantly looking over their shoulder and having to change schools and houses for fear of being picked up by the Chinese police and repatriated to North Korea where death for treason is a certain fate.

This book is not for everybody. The content is disturbing,difficult and dark, but very compelling. In my case, it shocked me out of my complacency and has made me want to volunteer with "Host a Newcomer" program here in Canada,so just for that I am going to have to give this book a high rating.

Out of respect for my more sensitive blogger friends, I have deliberately refrained from discussing some of the human right violations that go on in North Korea, however, for the purpose of reference I will be making study notes which I shall post on my LotusReadsBeta blog a few days from today.

For more reading on North Korea try:

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K. Martin (non-fiction)

North Korea Through the Looking Glass by Kongdan Oh and Ralph C. Hessig

Kim II Sung: North Korean Leader by Dae-Sook Suh

Literature from the Axis of Evil and Other Enemy Nations by Alan Mason

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan, Pierre Rigoulot, Yair Reiner

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
by Guy Delisle (An Illustrated Memoir)

Would welcome any new suggestions.


Anonymous said...

So sad! It breaks my heart just reading your review Lotus.

What suffering they must be going through from what you shared!

Let's hope that through these author's stories, something can be done to save them from this inhumane treatment.

Susan in Italy said...

Thanks for telling us about this one. It's important these days to find out about N. Korea even if the story is as grim as you say.

Beenzzz said...

This sounds truly sad. It's amazing what people have to go through to survive.

Cassiopeia Rises said...

Lotus my friend, I have been waiting for your new review and now that you have posted it, my heart aches.
I have long known of the conditions in North Korea and have felt the pain that these poor people have gone through.
I too am shocked and wish like you I could be a host.
My health makes this impossible.
What a heartfelt review. It makes one realize how small the world truly is.


Asha said...

It's always the little kids who suffer the most in any country's misguided politics!!:(
While we are pampering our kids for Halloween, they are going through a real one everyday of their little lives!!

Unknown said...

Yeah, james frey.....not much we can say about him.

I think that a lot of dictatorships brainwash their population. I know some Germans who still believe the whole idea of concentration camps where fabrications of the U.S. They think they never existed!

Unknown said...

Sorry, I didn't finish that comment. I know it is hard for us to imagine that there could be people out there who think that way, but there are. Just goes to show you how influential government can be.

I read a book many years ago about the Korean War and what was going on really made me open my eyes. I would really like to read a "human" view about North Korean life. Thanks for the title.

Anonymous said...

Hi Angali:
Thanks for the profile of this book. I really feel I must read it, even though,as you say it is disturbing. I feel I owe it to the people who have already left, or want to leave there home country. We lead such a privileged life here in Canada, it is a real eye opener to see how this part of Korea is so oppressed. My heart aches for these beautiful people,I feel so blessed to be able to write these words without fear of government retribution

Booklogged said...

How heartbreaking that people live like this in today's world. How can the leaders in these countries be so evil and heartless? It's hard to know what to do to help. It's wonderful that you've found some way.

I appreciate you reading this book and sharing it with us, Lotus. I think it's important that we know.

Bookfool said...

Lotus, I'm constantly amazed and enlightened by your blog entries. We are so sheltered in North America. Just the description of the book, alone, is a horror. Thanks for sharing with us!

Saaleha said...

Sounds horrible, though the books sounds like it will prove to be an enlightening read. I'm going to have to rethink my view on confining myself to fiction only.

Lotus Reads said...

I don't know sasgirl, at this point North Korea certainly does seem like a lost cause. There isn't much anyone can do - more sanctions on the country will simply hurt the people. If only China and South Korea would be less strict about repatriating these poor fugitives, then maybe more people could escape that hell and send money back to those too tired, sick or poor to make the escape.

Hi, Susan!

It is a grim situation and now with the food shortages and a harsh winter on its way, things are going to be even worse for the people of North Korea. It's nice for us to be aware of these things, makes us more grateful for what we have, doesn't it?

Glad you brought that up beenzzz because what I didn't mention (and perhaps I should have) is that despite all the hardships this boy and his family have gone through, this is basically a story of survival and human triumph!

Hello, Melanie

THere must be other ways we can help. Only recently I heard on the radio of a modern-day underground railroad, an organisation that works to send North Korean defectors to safety. I'll put up a link on the main post so you can read more about them.

So true, Asha it is always the little kids that suffer. It just doesn't seem fair, does it?

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Angela, true, it's their isolation which allows Kim Jong to make his people believe what he wants them to believe. It is most unfortunate. I keep wondering what would happen if the regime were to topple, but then, China would never allow that because it would mean tens of thousands of refugees making their way into China...they just couldn't afford it. And then South Korea and their "Sunshine Policy"might be causing more harm than good.

Hi sylvia!

I felt the same way - so blessed and grateful for what I have. I have been told that the French version of this book is much better (apparently they hashed the translation),so if you are planning to read it, get yourself the French version since you speak the language.

Hi, booklogged

North Korea has been on my mind ever since I saw a BBC documentary about a family (the kids went first and alone) trying to escape into China, it broke my heart.

You're welcome bookfool and thanks so much for stopping by to read my posts. Although the contents of the book are grim, the narrrator, being a kid, has a very matter of fact way of putting things across, so in that respect it's not a distressing read, but it is dark and it does make you uncomfortable.

Hi, Saaleha

Most memoirs and other examples of narrative journalism don't feel like non-fiction, you should give the genre a try!

gs said...

i was very much moved reading your review on this book which deals with life in north famine is the worst curse for humanity.i have read about some severe famines we have had during the british rule and the collossal deaths and unimaginable suffering.even now many people in remote villages do not get even one square meal.will add this to the list of books to be read.thanks for your eye-opening review.

nomadica said...

This book and your review sounds heartbreaking. It is lovely to see that you were inspired enough after reading it to sign up your time to volunteer for the Host a Newcomer program. That's what I love about some books - the transformative power they can hold over us.

Lg said...

The few details that you've let out are disturbing. Shall read the book. Thanks for all the pointers on North Korea as well.

hellomelissa said...

north korea is such a mystery! whenever i read about it on the news, i wonder what propaganda those poor people are being spoon-fed by kim jung il. here's a book that can help explain it, and i thank you for the review.

Gaijin Mama said...

May I also suggest LITERATURE FROM THE AXIS OF EVIL AND OTHER ENEMY NATIONS? The selections from North Korea were highly propagandistic, and I actually preferred the writings from Libya and Syria, but glimpses of North Korea are hard to come by.

Lotus Reads said...

Hello, gs and thank you so much for visiting. I would love to read more about India and the poverty and famines during the British you have any book suggestions off the top of your head?

Hi nomadica Yes, don't you just love a book that has the power to tranform you? ( I just love that word and all it stands for) I haven't contacted the volunteer organization yet, but I'm hoping to do so today. Let's hope I will be able to be of some assistance to them. Canada has the largest number of volunteers in the world and sometimes it is harder to get a volunteer's job than it is to get a regular job, crazy isn't it? :)

You're so welcome lavanya and thanks for visiting and for the mention, too!

You're welcome Melissa Why this book is extra-special is because there are so few books written by people who are of North Korean descent and who have lived in the place.

Hello gaijinmama and thank you for the book suggestion, I'm going to link to it on the main post and will definitely keep an eye out for a copy. Thank you!

Amelia said...

When I opened your blog, the first thing I noticed was the picture of the two boys. Then I went on to read your review. I'm really glad that you posted a review on this book and I look forward to reading your opinions on the subject at hand. I am definitely going to purchase this book not only to help understand and form opinions on the situations that are occuring, but to also educate myself to the atrocities that are going on everywhere in this world.

Thanks, Lotus! This review was definitely an eye-opener, and I'm more than sure this book will do the same for me.

Smoothieshake said...

the book cover alone is harrowing!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Amelia!

So glad you stopped by! Yes, this book is truly an eye-opener. Another book (a memoir) that's come to my attention is "The Aquariums of Pyongyang" about life in a North Korean Gulag - it's supposed to be a better-written, even more moving story than "This is Paradise", and I suppose I will read it someday, but for now I want to mull over this one!

Hi, Sruthi

Yes, it is an eye-grabbing, heart-tugging cover, isn't it?

Smoothieshake said...

yea one of those books where it's ok to judge what's inside by the cover, unfortunately.

Jude said...

The east is a fascinating place. I had two friends in school who were Korean and this book whilst sad sounds interesting. There is so much to find out in the world and your reviews are an insight into some of them- thanks.

bibliobibuli said...

very useful list lotus, thanks

Lotus Reads said...

So welcome Jude and Sharon I do appreciate you stopping by!

gs said...

hi lr
amartya sen's forte is the subject of famines.please read 'poverty and famines-an essay on entitlement and deprivation'.
257 pages.oup. the great bengal famine of 1943 when about 3 million people died,the famine in ethiopia in 1972,the sahel famine between 1968-73 and the 1974 catastrophe in bangladesh. all these are brilliantly analysed and the economic and sociopolitical causes explained.

Lotus Reads said...

Thank you so much for the info gs, will keep my eyes peeled for the Amartya Sen book. I didn't know about the Great Bengal famine - thanks for bringing it to my attention!