North Korea hasn’t really been on my radar, maybe except when I was watching Team America and when occasionally reading in the news about defectors. So I’m not quite sure what compelled me to pick up L.A. Times staffer Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, which follows the lives of 6 defectors whom Demick interviewed in South Korea. Their hometown is Chongjin, near the border with China, which was one of the areas hardest hit by the 1990s famine.
Mi-ran’s family was one of the first few to defect and whose ‘tainted’ South Korean blood (her father was a South Korean POW) helps her in her defection (although her father’s family in South Korea need a little convincing, since they believed that he had been killed in action at the age of 21). Her boyfriend Jun-sang, whose relatives live in Japan, makes his way to university in Pyongyang, and they have a sweet relationship that involves a lot of letter-writing and walking in the dark (partly because there was no electricity, partly because his parents would never have approved of his dating a girl of ‘tainted’ blood). Dr Kim works in a hospital and despairs at the patients she can barely help (the hospital has no heating, bandages are so scarce that bedding has to be ripped up, doctors have to collect herbs to make their own medicine). Mrs Song started out as a model citizen but desperation and hunger forced her into the black market where she begins to realise that all isn’t well in her country. Her daughter Oak-hee grows up angry at the North Korean government and becomes a bartered bride to a Chinese farmer for two years. Hyuck is an orphan who survives by stealing and eventually trading illegally in China.
The sad part was that some defectors find it very hard to settle in South Korea, despite the help that the government provides, such as money and a stay at Hanawon, a campus where they are taught how to live in South Korea (such as using an ATM and unlearning a lot of what had been drilled into their heads in North Korea). Hyuck and Jun-sang, for instance, drifted from job to job. Hyuck in particular was constantly startled by strangers making small talk and often felt that South Koreans were being condescending towards him.
These stories chronicle the daily lives of ordinary North Koreans, struggling to make ends meet and scrounging for food (the government actually starts a campaign to tell its people eat just two meals a day). It is a depressing depressing book, but an important one. It provides a voice for the countless who still live there. And despite the lavish banquets thrown for foreign visitors in Pyongyang in recent years (Light describes a multicourse dinner that included pheasant, crab, ice sculptures in a rather successful effort to make visitors believe that North Korea was improving – only to learn later, when speaking to the UN World Food Programme rep in Pyongyang that the lights were turned off as soon as they left), two-thirds of North Korean households surveyed in 2008 were still supplementing their diets with grass and weeds, and many adults were still skipping lunch (the 1990s famine had resulted in a large number of orphans, as the adults often ignored their own hunger to feed their children).
Demick’s book relies heavily on the accounts of these defectors, but that is quite understandable as it is difficult – impossible really – to travel in North Korea, as one is constantly trailed minders. Even aid officials stationed in Pyongyang have an escort when they visit the countryside.
What I admired most about this book is how it reads so well. Readers, even those who don’t often read non-fiction, will find themselves completely absorbed in these stories. While their situations are undoubtedly painful and quite sad, it is heartening to read of their perseverance. And so with all the sadness and heartbreak that surrounds the book, there is some joy when reading about these brave people who have made better lives for themselves.
Have you read any other books on North Korea? What would you recommend?