Monday, August 09, 2010

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

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

While working as the LA Times Korea correspondent, Demick met several North Korean defectors now living in Seoul. Through many interviews with them and their family members, she learns the stories of their lives in North Korea and why and how they left. The why tends to be a much easier question to answer than the how.

The people range in experiences and backgrounds-- Mi-Ran had tainted blood (her father was actually a South Korean who was taken as a POW during the Korean war and never returned) and many avenues of schooling and advancement are closed to her because of her bad class background. Mrs. Song was a true believer. Her father was killed in the Korean War, which gave him the status of "martyr of the Fatherland Liberation War"-- a class status that helped his daughter. She married a Party member, and was frequently the leader of her inminban.* Mrs. Song's daughter, Oak-Hee, didn't believe in the regime and saw through its lies. Jun-sang was Mi-Ran's secret boyfriend, and a university student in Pyongyang. Kim Hyuck was given to an orphanage when the economy tanked and his father couldn't support him anymore. After getting caught smuggling goods across the river to China, he ends up in a labor camp. Kim Ji-eun was a doctor and wanted to be a Party member. She watched her patients starve to death and the hospital run out of supplies. All of the people interviewed came from Chongjin, a city in the northern part of the country.

In their stories, and the others told here, the reader is introduced to life in North Korea during the last 20-30 years. Things go from bad to worse to unfathomable. A few months before the death of Kim Il-Sung (July 1994) Jun-Sung and his fellow university students were forced to sign a petition swearing they would volunteer for the army in case of war. They were literally forced to sign in blood.

What this book is great at is showing the daily life and how it indoctrinates citizens into believing in the regime. A math problem in an official textbook reads A girl is acting as a messenger to our patriotic troops during the war against the Japanese occupation. She carries messages in a basket containing 5 apples, but is stopped by a Japanese solider at a checkpoint. He steals two of her apples. How many are left? (page 120) a school song contains the lyrics

Our enemies are the American bastards
Who are trying to take over our beautiful fatherland.
With guns that I make with my own hands
I will shoot them. BANG, BANG, BANG.
(p 121)

What was also interesting were their escape stories. As everyone lived in the north, they crossed the border into China. However, once in China, they weren't safe, as the Chinese deport all North Korean refugees they find back to North Korea (where they will be killed). The embassies in China aren't allowed to take them in, either. They have to find a way out of China so they can find an embassy that will get them to South Korea. Amazingly, if you enter Mongolia and get arrested, you automatically get deported-- but to South Korea. The cheapest way to get to South Korea is to cross into Mongolia and hope you get arrested.

Every time I read something about North Korea, I'm amazed. I've spent most of the last decade studying (for school and just on my own) modern Chinese history. I've read countless memoirs of the Great Leap Forward, Great Famine, and the Cultural Revolution. I've read all about the truth under the economic boom China's currently going through. North Korea isn't China, I know. But, there are enough parallels that when it comes to human tragedy I feel I should be on comfortable ground, but... no. I'm not. Maybe because this happened within my lifetime? Because I remember it happening on the evening news? While all I actively remember of China is the economic miracle (I mean, Tiananmen certainly happened in my lifetime, but I missed it. I was obsessed with Germany and the fall of the Iron Curtain at the time.) And even as I become more comfortable in my knowledge of North Korea, where I think that I'm familiar with the basics of the situation... no. I'm not. I'm shocked and horrified every single time.

Very readable and a fascinating look into an area of the world it's so hard to get information out of.

*North Koreans are organized into what are called the inminban-- literally, "people's group"--cooperatives of twenty or so families whose job it is to keep tabs on one another and run the neighborhood. The inminban have an elected leader, usually a middle-aged woman, who reports anything suspicious to higher-ranking authorities. Personal files were local offices of the Ministry for the Protection of State Security and, for extra safe-keeping, just in case someone dared to think of tampering with the records, in the mountainous Yanggang province. p27-28

Book Provided by... my local library

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