Friday, September 10, 2010

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

Barbara Demick is a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. She was stationed in South Korea in 2001, and again in 2004, to cover news for both North and South Korea. Frustrated with being unable to communicate with North Korean citizens when she travelled there in 2005, she resorted instead to extensive interviews with former North Koreans who had managed to escape to South Korea. The book tells the stories of six of these refugees, from about 1994 to 2009, covering the period of the famine, which began in the early 1990’s and was most intense through 1997 and 1998, when up to or more than 2 million people perished. These six refugees lived in the northern city of Chongjin, on the coast of the sea of Japan. They have different backgrounds and aspirations, some hoping to rise through the Party, others slowly becoming disillusioned with the repression they experience.

What is most numbing about the book is how the people in North Korea really know nothing about the outside world, not even what life is like in South Korea or China, their neighbors. While we have heard of their cultural isolation, the details of their experiences truly illuminate their condition. One woman is smuggled into China, left to make her way alone to the nearest village. She sees food in a dish outside of a house, for the dog, and realizes that all these rumors of the “well-fed” Chinese are true, since no such food is placed outside in North Korea. A common escape route to South Korea is by way of China, and one of the dangers facing the refugees is that their emaciated figures immediately stand out in Chinese society, making it hard to stay hidden. People survive the famine by any means, and many do not. In the Chongjin train station, where many people congregated, each day cleaning staff went through the crowd identifying those who had died, and taking them off in carts for burial. One woman’s story stands out…how her husband had taken to his bed, legs swollen from starvation, and began talking incessantly to her of food and restaurants. They hadn’t eaten in 3 days, and there were no restaurants. She runs through the town frantically asking people for some food, acquiring some noodles, only to return and find him dead, past caring about anything to eat.

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