There are those books out there that sneak up on me, and smack me hard right across the head, forcing me to think hard, and reevalutate some of values. It's a popular thing to do these days to bewail and moan about the state of America, that everything is sliding into the toilet, and it's bound only to get worse. Then there's this book, which reminded me how vividly how bad things can really get sometimes.
Barbara Demick's book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, is one of those books. Crafting her book out of the stories from those people who have managed to escape from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- what we commonly call North Korea -- she reveals a place that is hell upon earth, where what we in the West take for granted and expect is virtually nonexistant. Image, if you can, a place without running water, electricity, little food, no internet, no communication, and where the government runs a constant programme of terrorism and survellience on its own citizens. That, in a nutshell, is North Korea.
The chapter that opens the narrative is a striking one, made all the more so by a satellite photograph of North Korea by night. Unlike virtually every other country, North Korea is pitch black, with only a faint glow around the capital, Pyongyang. There are enough shortages and infrastructure failures that nearly everyone lives in the dark now. But in the years after WWII, North Korea was thriving, after a long occupation by the Japanese that lasted nearly fifty years, and partition from what is now South Korea. Industry and raw material production was thriving, and it was looking to the West that this was a Communist country that was actually working. While the country was being run by a dictator, Kim Il Sung, it appeared that it was actually going to be alright. Then the Korean penninsula erupted into what was known as the Korean War, and with monumental loss of life on both sides, the two countries retreated back to either side of the artificial 39 degree border. And the two Koreas are still officially at war, with a cease-fire that has lasted now for nearly sixty years.
In the meantime, North Korea has turned their country into a barren, fortified prison. What information that there is is distributed by the government, a nearly endless stream of propaganda that insists that the country will be under attack at any moment by the imperialist Americans and the south Koreans, that everyone else in the world lives in poverty, and that the people here are protected by a loving and dedicated 'Dear Leader,' who will sacrifice everything to keep his people safe. What you do in life is decided by the state, and only the most loyal and dedicated will have a chance to get higher education and maybe even the possibility of living in Pyongyang, the capital.
Demick looks at an assortment of people from across the spectrum of Korean life. Each story is slightly different, each person from a family that is struggling hard to make ends meet, but each one has to make that heartbreaking decision to stay and possibly starve to death, or try to make it to South Korea.
The stories that got to me the most were those of Mrs. Song, a woman who believes with all of her heart that the communist regime is the right and correct one, even when her own family is starving, and she's losing what little that she has. Another is of two young lovers, Jun-sang and Mi-ran, both promising bright people who would succeed very well if they were anywhere else but there, and who spend a long courtship with letters and few meetings. And then there is Dr. Kim, a dedicated physician who is stalled not just by the terrible conditions that she has to face every day, but by a betrayal that turns everything that she knows into a lie.
And there is more, each one a story of heartache and deciet and lies. To say that this book shook me up is an understatement. I read it easily through in one night, unable to put the book down, and the mental images that it created still haunt me. This is a country that brainwashes its own citizens, starves its own people for the simple reason that it can get away with it, and commits murder by hard labour, starvation and bullets to keep a military elite in control.
And sadly, it doesn't look as though conditions will be improving any time soon.
The writing here is spare, and Ms. Demick lets her subjects tell their own story. That she is able to do so is a moving statement to her skill as a writer, for these tales are not at all easy to read, and will remain with the reader for some time. For all of the bleakness, there is still hope, as each person clings to the idea that somehow, somewhen, it's going to get better.
As of the time of this book's publication 2009, dictator Kim Jong Il was still alive, and he died in 2011. Evidently his third son, Kim Jong Un, is his successor, but it likely that the repressive regime will be continuing for the forseeable future.
Each chapter has a black and white half-tone photograph at the start, each one very revealing of either the conditions or the people of North Korea. In addition, there is a map of both North and South Korea, and extensive notes that give suggestions for further reading.
Overall, this gets five stars from me. It certainly is not a happy book to read, but one that I think that needs to be read by anyone who is curious about North Korea, and why it matters.
Very much recommended.
Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
2009, 2010; Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperback
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