Friday, April 09, 2010

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

For the most part North Korea remains a dark, inscrutable place. Journalists, tourists and AID agencies are allowed in but with severe restrictions. They are usually not allowed beyond Pyonyang, the Potemkin village-like capital, and they (especially journalists) are assigned "minders" whose job is to make sure no unauthorized conversations or reporting take place. When Barbara Demick moved to Seoul as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, her job was to cover both the Koreas, but as no contact was permitted with the North Korean people she took to talking to North Koreans who had defected to South Korean and in time a picture of real life in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea began to emerge which she put into words for articles written for the Los Angeles Times.

Eventually after seven years of conversations with North Koreans, she decided she would tell their stories in a book titled "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea" -  a title inspired by a North Korean children's song which boasts that the N.Korean people have nothing to envy of the rest of the world.  Nothing could be further from the truth as Demick very ably describes in this beautifully-written narrative of life in the Hermit Kingdom.

For the book she focuses on people that came from a place called "Chonglin", N.Korea's third-largest city and one of the places that were hardest hit by the terrible famine of the mid-1990's. It is also almost entirely closed to foreigners.

Funnily enough, North Korea hasn't always been this hopeless. In its early history, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was actually considered a success case in economic development. In the 1960s, the "Korean economic miracle" referred to the steel plants and electrified transport networks of the DPRK, but as South Korea, China (1980) and even Vietnam (1990) embraced market reforms the chasm between North Korea and its neighbors grew wider...South Korea grew richer while its neighbor to the North kept getting poorer.

Also, all through the '70's fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, X-ray machines and more were coming at a low or no cost from Moscow, East Berlin and Prague.With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc 20 years ago there was a sharp decline in Soviet aid and credit, which could not be replaced by the less advanced Chinese, thus the North’s economy was in free fall...

The country’s electricity supply collapsed. Factories went silent. Salaries went unpaid. Food disappeared. Families foraged for grass, and ground the barks of pine trees into a flour substitute in hopes of staving off death. Corpses piled up. Animals that might have provided food disappeared; even frogs were hunted to near extinction.

However, "People did not go passively to their deaths, when the public distribution system was cut off, they were forced to tap their deepest wells of creativity to feed themselves. They devised traps out of buckets and strings to catch small animals in the field, draped nets over balconies to snare sparrows."

By 1996, North Korea was in the grip of one of the deadliest famines in modern times. Much of Demick's book is devoted to that time period when an immobile, totalitarian country was transformed into a place of "wandering swallows" (children whose parents had died or gone off to find food) stealing fruit and hunting frogs; middle-aged women who had never worked before bartering skills for food in the black markets; college-educated women wading half-naked across the Tumen River to sell themselves into arranged marriages with Chinese farmers; family patriarchs making sure that the food gets to the younger members of the family first often going raving mad before a quiet, hideous death from starvation.

Demick, (through the eyes of six ordinary North Koreans including a female doctor, a pair of star-crossed lovers, a factory worker and an orphan) describes the harrowing toll of mass hunger on the basic institutions and infrastructure of North Korean life. Its tales of mass starvation, brutal political repression, citizens working long days  followed by hours of ideological training at night; gulags; neighbour spying on neighbour, and a communist regime which seemed intent to blame the “American imperialist bastards,” for having created the famine by imposing blockades on North Korea does not make pretty reading, but you will be riveted because the rationalist in you will keep asking if this post-apocalyptic scenario really could have this modern day and age...where new reporting has scaled new heights...can a place like North Korea actually exist? How do they exist? How do they keep their population so ignorant?

The truth of the matter is that North Korea sadly is a place where transistor radios were/are tuned into domestic services only, the only country on earth not connected to the world wide web, no mobile phones, also, a rigorous system of passes largely forbade internal travel.  North Korea manages to seal its inhabitants off from any outside influences, while at the same time inculcating a belief that North Korea is a paradise.

While North Korea may not have been a paradise, defectors had very mixed successes when they arrived into South Korea.   It is not easy for people earning less than a dollar per month be integrated into the world's thirteenth-largest economy.  A good deal of propaganda on both side of the DMZ is devoted to how North and South Koreans are the same (one people, one nation), but after 60 years of separation the differences between the people are significant.  South Korea is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world while people in North Korea don't have access to the internet.  North Korea has been frozen culturally and economically for the last 50 years so even the languages are no longer the same.  South Koreans pepper their Korean with a lot of English slang words. Physically too, the people have grown apart with the average 17-year old South Korean boy being atleast 5 inches taller than his North Korean compatriot!

For all the support provided by the South Korean government, defectors often find it hard to settle down in their new homeland. It is not easy for somebody who's escaped a totalitarian country to live in the free world.  Defectors have to rediscover who they are in a world that offers endless possibilities.  Choosing where to live what to do, even which clothes to put on in the morning can be utterly paralyzing for people who've had decisions made for them by the state their entire lives. They are also desperately lonely when they first arrive in SK and have a hard time understanding South Korean etiquette, often mistaking sympathy for condescension.  Defectors are also nagged by the impermanence of their situation.  Many fled with the conviction that Kim Jon-il's regime was close to collapse and that within a few years they would be back "home".  Sadly, it's 2010 now and that still hasn't happened.   Many left parents and children behind whom they will probably never see again in this lifetime.   If that is not depressing, what is?  Finally, the qualities most prized in South Korea are height, fair skin, affluence, prestigious degrees, designer clothes and English-language proficiency.  And these qualities are precisely those that the newly arrived defector lacks which accounts for a low self-esteem, making it virtually impossible for them to shine in social or professional settings.

Some might question Demick’s heavy reliance on the accounts of defectors, but because much of North Korea is so impenetrable there is no other way to tell these stories. She explains that she corroborated the stories with publicly-reported events and cross-checked the accounts with reports by nongovernmental organizations and other defectors.  One can only hope that one day North Korea will be open and we will be able to judge for ourselves what really happened there.

In closing I really must commend Demick for this wonderful expose on the world's last totalitarian regime.  She writes with such sensitivity, grace,skill  and novelistic detail you will be completely drawn into the lives of these poor, unfortunate people.  As with all good writers, she leaves herself out of the picture and takes us into the minds of her subjects until they no longer are the grey-clad people marching in unison that we see on TV, but people like you and I with dreams, hopes and desires.


apu said...

Thanks for highlighting this book, Lotus. I would love to read it if it comes to India. It's saddening to think of the plight of these people. One statistic you mentioned probably says a lot of it : the difference in height between N and S Koreans - people from the same racial and cultural background otherwise.

Anonymous said...

A very enjoyable review. I thought you wrote it really well. An intriguing, necessary subject but one so rarely told. What made you choose North Korea, Angie?

susan abraham

Lotus Reads said...

HI Apu!

I hope the book comes to India. North Korea has been in the shadows too long. What this book does is to tell the story of North Korea, not through government think-tanks or spies but through the North Korean people themselves. Demick does a remarkable job of narrating their stories. If you enjoy learning about countries, people and current affairs, this is a must-read!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Susan!

So glad you like the's not a patch on the ones you write, but I am happy for the compliment, thank you!

Why North Korea? I have always been interested in the country Suse...but it's been very frustrating trying to gather information about the place. I have read several books by defectors but they didn't make for interesting reads (I would attribute that to the lost in translation syndrome).

Demick is an experienced reporter and a polished writer and it shows on every page. As harrowing as the subject may be, Demick makes it engaging and interesting. This book is definitely worth investing time with, especially if a reader has an interest in North Korea.

Anonymous said...

Great job giving us a little summary of some of the book's points; I think that even if I never get hold of the book itself, I've gained some basic knowledge of what is happening in North Korea from this post.

I am wondering about what would happen if North Korea ever came suddenly out of the darkness(literally, satellite images have most of the country in darkness)and joined the global society; it would mean an entire population would have to make some herculean cultural adjustments. They'd probably have some things to learn from China, but the two situations are far from being very similar.

-- Sanchia

Lotus Reads said...

Hi Sanchia and sorry for getting back to you so late!

I'm glad you liked the write-up. Even as I was writing it I realized it was lengthy but I just had to record all of that information because it's not every day you come upon such a wonderfully written book on North Korea.

Interesting that you should ask that question. During the severe famine of the mid-90's, experts in foreign affairs were so sure that the famine and its consequences would spell certain death for the reign of the Kims, but no, they survived it and continue to perpetuate the cult of personality to the hilt! Also, I just read that Kim il Jong has now named his successor (his third son). Apparently the first born is out of favour for trying to enter Japan without a passport and the second one is too "effeminate". I guess, at this rate, it might well be a while before North Korea turns on the lights!

karmic said...

Although I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable about the Koreas, I knew that reading this review would educate me further.
I did not know that the DPR was considered a success in the 60s.
While I was aware of the famine and the desperate measures the citizenry resorted to in order to survive, some of the descriptions from Demick that you provide did send a chill thru me.
Your review as always is wonderful, and you do a great job of highlighting something few of us give thought to, which is the adjustment and a kind of cultural shock that N.Koreans expect if they do crossover.
I know a few years ago there was some talk of reunification. Does Demick touch upon that?
Personally I am very skeptical if that can ever happen, but one can never say never I suppose?

monideepa sahu said...

Yes, North Korea has been in the shadows for too long. Thanks for such an in-depth review of a noteworthy book.

Lotus Reads said...

@Sanj~ Just wanted to say a quick thank you for comment...will respond in detail soon!

@Moni~ You are quite welcome Moni...truth be told I was very pleased to find this book and even more pleased that it turned out to be such a wonderful read!

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Happy Reader said...

Angie, I ought to read this book. My knowledge of history is so absymal. Thank you for such a wonderful review!

Lotus Reads said...

Chitts, I don't like bandying the phrase "must-read" around, but this book is a "must-read".