Saturday, July 02, 2011

Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy

I've long had a fascination with North Korea, dating back to when I first taught an Intro to Comparative Politics course and used the country as an example of an ongoing totalitarian dictatorship.  There are a lot of great books about it, most notably Bradley Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, which I heartily recommend.  I also recommend the blog North Korean Economy Watch.  I just read Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea and it is excellent. Demick uses interviews with six North Koreans who left the country, and really effectively shows their gradual disillusionment.

At times the book made me angry, even though I am well aware of the political history--the personal histories pack a punch.  The regime's callous attitude toward famine in the mid-late 1990s is maddening, such as the rousing slogan "Let's Eat Two Meals a Day."  One of the defectors was a doctor, and she recalls the many people she saw die, the telltale signs of protruding stomachs and lethargy.  When she snuck into China it was a revelation: "But now she couldn't deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea" (p. 220).  Another defector soon realized after reaching South Korea that his head and body were out of proportion because of severe malnutrition during his growing years.

The "ordinary lives" of the title is true. These people had no political positions and were not opposing the regime as such. They just didn't want to die of starvation and in different ways had caught a glimpse of the outside world.  And only a glimpse was necessary to let them know that virtually everything they heard from the government was a lie.

For one of the North Koreans, Kim Il-Sung's death was the turning point, and her response as it became clear that no change would occur really sums the situation up nicely:

As she sat alone in the apartment, the enormity of it all started to sink in. Any hope that the North Korean regime might change with the death of Kim Il-sung was quickly dashed. The power had passed to his son. Things weren't going to get any better. She heard her father's words replaying in her ears. "The son is even worse than the father."
"Now we're really fucked," she said to herself.

Unfortunately, yes.  And yet defecting didn't solve things either, because they found they had few skills, jobs were not easy to find, people took advantage of them, and some had siblings back in North Korea who were sent to prison camps as punishment for their defection. With North Korea, it is hard to find happy endings.


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