Ten years ago I had the opportunity to spend the afternoon at the Joint Security Area (JSA), near Panmunjom, on the border between North and South Korea. To say the experience was surreal would be an understatement. The complex surrounds the blue wooden shacks where both sides negotiated an end to hostilities in 1953. We were escorted everywhere by the tallest South Korean soldiers. They were the best fed and most fit of their army. They stood beside us, immaculately dressed, wearing mirrored sunglasses (to intimidate their enemy), adopting a stable Tae Kwon Do position which conveyed one intention. Ready. They faced North Korea at all times, never wavering.
That day, we had company. A small group of North Koreans, dressed in what appeared to be twenty year old business attire, stood quietly across from me. Only, their guards faced inward. Their message was also clear. You may not leave.
It doesn’t surprise me that I recalled that day while reading Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick. As the Beijing Bureau Chief for the LA Times, Ms Demick is well equipped to write about what is considered the most restrictive regime in the world, since her position allowed her access to the north on more than one occasion. Experiences that only serve to validate the personal narratives of the “defectors” interviewed in the book.
Nothing to Envy examines the lives of six former North Koreans over the course of a fifteen year period. It’s a mixed cast—poor, “privileged”, intellectual, driven. All of them faced different day to day challenges. All united however through a simple desire not so much to have a better life, but to survive. Demick explains in the book how at one time, the North was more prosperous than the South. Electricity, food and clean water were abundant and everyone was somewhat comfortable. But that changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s adoption of limited capitalism. Power, food and jobs all started to fade away. Government mismanagement and paranoia essentially locked everyone into a slow death spiral of starvation, sickness, joblessness, and punishment.
Their stories are all saddening. But not surprisingly, the smallest of things led each of them to take great measures to leave the country. The catalysts included an electric rice cooker, a chance visit to an internet café, food, or the irony of a starving child singing a hymn of praise to Kim Jong-il. Each person’s “escape”—mostly through China to South Korea is extraordinary, to say the least. Most tragic is that all of them feel guilty for leaving behind family, even for being traitors to their country.
The final stop on my tour of the JSA was a checkpoint overlooking the DMZ and the Bridge of No Return. Spread before me was a four kilometer wide dead zone where no grass grew more than an inch. The hillside opposite me was covered in long white banners alternately praising Kim Jong-il, the Workers Party, and declaring the people’s happiness. I wondered then and there who they were trying to convince—me or themselves.
Nothing to Envy is a great book which I thoroughly enjoyed. Ms. Demick writes in a clear, engaging manner that really drew me into the lives of each of her subjects. At times, I even felt I was there. I heartily recommend it to anyone curious about what may be the last nation on earth still experimenting with pure Communism.
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