The image has become an icon, and at times a cliché, of the disastrous poverty fostered under the totalitarian North Korean regime. It is a truism for the decades of repressive policies that, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, threw the country into a famine that lasted throughout the 1990s – perhaps killing 600,000 North Koreans. But the map cannot tell us the stories behind the human toll.
Barbara Demick, the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, has finally filled that gap in her poignant oral history, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. After a decade of interviewing about 100 North Koreans who defected to Seoul and after visiting North Korea nine times to report, she offers a daunting and original glimpse into the stories of six North Koreans who faced starvation and repression under the country’s famine – known as the arduous march – in the 1990s.
Fittingly, Demick begins her book with a picture of that map – but goes deeper than the conclusions many people might draw from their first peek. To us, the darkness appears sinister; to many North Koreans, it gives solace from oppression.
Because the nights are pitch black with no lights or electricity, the police in Chongjin (a poor industrial town in the northeast where all six characters once lived) cannot locate people on the streets. This opportunity prompted two teenage lovers, who in the book use the aliases Mi-ran and Jun-sang, to meet for years on secret nighttime dates. “It took us three years to hold hands. Another six to kiss,” Mi-ran recounts in an interview with Demick in Seoul years later. “At the time I left North Korea, I was 26 years old and a schoolteacher, but I didn’t know how babies were conceived.”
Had they been caught holding hands in the daytime, Jun-sang, who comes from a high-ranking family, could have lost his alluring job prospects after he finished his education.
Such are the realities of life under one of the most repressive regimes in the world, Demick explains. By recruiting average North Koreans to rat out their neighbors and spouses, the State Safety and Security Agency – the country’s intelligence agency – has managed to create a chilling replica of the fictional state in George Orwell’s “1984.”
Orwell even foresaw that, in such a society, propaganda posters would be the only items to bear color. So it is in North Korea.
Yet for Mi-ran and Jun-sang, the situation became far worse after the famine took hold in the 1990s. Mi-ran, an elementary schoolteacher, witnessed her students – once cheerful gamboling children – be eaten away slowly by malnutrition. Their limbs became scrawny, stomachs bloated, heads disproportionate to their bodies. Fewer and fewer showed up to class each month.
Underneath the facade of optimism the government tried to impose on her, Mi-ran knew the real reason the children never returned.
The state machinery assured its citizens that all was fine. The “American imperialist bastards,” government officials falsely claimed, had created the shortage by imposing on North Korea a blockade of food and oil. In 1998, Mi-ran fled across the northern border to China and then flew to Seoul. She split with her lover out of fear that he would tell the secret police.
Devastated, Jun-sang followed her six years later to South Korea. But it was too late: by then, she had married a South Korean.
Demick paints the everyday experiences of these and four other North Koreans to the tiniest detail. Most of them experience a similar fall from grace – at first revering the godly powers of Kim Jong-il – known as "Dear Leader" – then faltering in their convictions as they nearly starve from a food shortage. Finally, they reach a moment of insight, when they determine that their convictions are lies fed to them by the regime. Risking death, they all escape to China and South Korea.
Some might question Demick’s heavy reliance on the accounts of defectors, but there is no other way to tell these stories. She explains that she cross-checked their accounts with books, reports by nongovernmental organizations and think-tanks, and other defectors. (This correspondent has interviewed several defectors as well, and their accounts all match closely with Demick’s.)
What is most gripping about this book is that Demick does not tell; she shows. Whereas most literature on North Korea is laden with blurry statistics and speculation of the policies of ruling elites, Demick exhibits in gut-wrenching detail the struggle for survival that North Koreans face. This makes “Nothing to Envy” a fresh contribution to a tired topic.
Geoffrey Cain is a freelance writer based in Seoul, South Korea.
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