Everyone grab your to-read lists. It's OK. I'll wait.
Got 'em? Have a pencil? pen? crayon?
This is Paradise! by Hyok Kang with Phillipe Grangereau translated from the orginal French by Shaun Whiteside.
First of all, let me thank Lotus Reads for bringing this book to my attention.
Kang grew up in the last 80s and 90s in North Korea. Originally, his family was relatively well off because they had chosen to stay in North Korea instead of being repatriated to Japan. In addition to receiving funds from Japanese relatives, they were favored by the North Korean leadership for their patriotism in staying.
The book starts covering general day to day life. By Western standards, the rich Kang family is poor. Kang talks about day to day life-- how he often slept at his grandparents house, what he thought of his teachers, what he learned in school. You learn about the rigid hierarchy imposed on the students and their uniforms and what the different badges mean, both officially and unofficially in the school yard.
Then, the famine starts. Kang's family's wealth is slowly drained away. His disillusionment grows-- he starts writing alternate lyrics to patriotic songs. Lyrics that, if found out, would get him and his family killed. School stops being about learning and starts being about farming government fields with food that they will never see unless the steal it in the dead of night (which Kang does). They hunt rats and eat tree bark and grass. Hanging out with your friends involves going to their house to say your final goodbyes as they slowly and horribly starve to death. (Kang estimates around 75% of his classmates died during these years.)
Executions are common place. Bodies are padded so the blood doesn't spray the crowd. During the winter, the bodies steam. People are eating the dead in order to survive-- people are killing each other in order to eat them.
In 1998, the family escapes to China. You know things are bad when China is a rich paradise. Kang couldn't believe that, in China, people at rice every day. Being in China doesn't help-- they constantly fear the police who will deport them back to North Korea where they will all face execution.
They eventually escape to South Korea, where the full effect of the lies Kang had been fed came to the surface. His anger at being brainwashed, his not wanting to believe the South Korean truth, even though he knew it was right, is the most striking part of this book.
I can hear you say right now: What?! It's his anger that moved you? Not the cannibalism? All I can say is that I am a student of twentieth-century Chinese history. Kang's experiences during the famine didn't surprise me. They were tragic and awful and turned my stomach, but they weren't new. It was the horror I was expecting. The difficulties of coming to grips with the lies you believed and fitting in with a "modern" culture was shocking and heartbreaking.
I was struck by an odd sense of detachment Kang seemed to have throughout this book. It could be that it was his story as told to someone. It could be the translation either from Kang's Korean to Grangereau's French or from the French to the English. What I think though is it's because that this was his life and he didn't know anything different or he can't emotionally involve himself for the sake of mental health-- this boy lived through Hell.
What really brings this book alive, however, is Kang's illustrations. He's an extraordinarily gifted artist and his drawings of his life bring the story to life in a very real way.
This is not an easy, nor pleasant read, but there are very few first-hand accounts coming out of North Korea, and I think this is an important book that should be read by anyone who can stomach it. It's real life, so hopefully you will all make the effort.
Read an excerpt here.
Also check out North Korean Economy Watch because it's written by my friend Curtis who not only is awesome, but has been to North Korea several times.