There is no shortage of books on North Korea. Thanks to its nuclear ambitions, it attracts a surprising amount of attention for a country whose population and economy are roughly the same size as Ghana’s. But little is said about average North Koreans. They come across as faceless people who obediently follow the orders of their Dear Leader, as Kim Jong Il is officially known, and his opaque inner circle. Nothing to Envy, by journalist Barbara Demick, rounds out the picture. Working in Seoul and Beijing as a Los Angeles Times correspondent, she interviewed numerous people who had fled North Korea, into which few foreigners are allowed. Defectors’ accounts of the country they left are susceptible to distortion, so Demick focused her interviews on people who came from the city of Chongjin, which enabled her to check their stories and experiences against each other.
Through their interwoven personal stories, Demick shows us the lives of ordinary citizens as they navigated the ravages of the last two decades, a time of social disaster, famine, and economic collapse. These defectors were not motivated by political conviction. Generally, it was some combination of famine and personal circumstances that drove them—a teacher whose father was a former prisoner of war turned coal miner; a scientist; a street tough; a medical doctor; a couple of petty officials—to cross the border to China and then make their way to South Korea. For some of them it was a risky undertaking; one, helped by money from a relative in Seoul, had a “VIP” defection, during which border guards ensured her safety.
In North Korea, self-isolation and daily control have reached heights that would have seemed extreme in the Soviet Union under Stalin. People are completely insulated from sources of information other than what is provided by the government (owning a radio set with free tuning is a crime, and foreigners are virtually never seen), and as a result they sincerely believe that their impoverished country is an island of prosperity in an ocean of destitution and suffering. Those few who harbor doubts have to be careful not to share their thoughts even with their best friends.
As a student at a prestigious university, the North Korean analogue to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Jun-sang, a promising young scientist, had access to restricted material. It was seemingly innocuous books—such as Gone With the Wind (to read it required a security clearance)—that caused him to reconsider the picture of Westerners as mindless machines driven by sex and money, and prompted his decision to leave. After years of intense (but chaste) romance with Mi-ran, a teacher, the two conceived of and planned their escapes separately, not sharing a word; they still could not trust each other. A few years later they met again in Seoul, but by that time they were living separate lives.
Demick’s narrative is not always inspiring: One of the chapters is titled “The Good Die First.” Those among Demick’s subjects who witnessed the North Korean famine of 1996–99, in which anywhere from 600,000 to two million people died, observed that the honest and goodhearted were less likely to stay alive. Most who survived did so by rediscovering the market: The famine was a time when “reluctant” capitalism boomed in North Korea. Contrary to what is sometimes assumed, the country long ago ceased to be a centrally planned economy. The old Stalinist economy of iron and coal is largely dead, with only a handful of military factories still operating somehow.
About 17,000 North Korean defectors live in South Korea, and most do not fare particularly well. They arrive with an education that is both anachronistic and distorted; they must adjust to a society that is decades ahead of their native land and acquaint themselves with the basics of modern life. Demick’s subjects do better than most, but their success is often equivocal. For example, a once rebellious teenager now runs a karaoke club where North Korean girls work as hostesses and part-time prostitutes.
Sooner or later the Kim dynasty will be consigned to the dustbin of history, but it will take many more decades for the country’s 23 million people to heal the social and psychological wounds inflicted by the brutal social experiment that is North Korea.
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Andrei Lankov is a professor of history at Kookmin University in Seoul. He is the author of several books on North Korea, including North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea (2007).
Reviewed: "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea" by Barbara Demick, Spiegel & Grau, 2009.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gabriel Britto