Monday, December 3, 2012

Book 110, North Korea: "Nothing to Envy" by Barbara Demick

I'd read a couple of books about North Korea before: Guy Delisle's graphic memoir Pyongyang and Hyejin Kim's "novelisation" of defector accounts, Jia. I didn't think I had to read any others, especially not this one. After all, if a Canadian and South Korean had already given me their two cents' worth, what fresh insights could an American have?

Ah, but Barbara Demick's proven me wrong. I've realised that the two above accounts capture only a tiny fragment of the North Korean experience, mostly confined to the capital city, which it seems is a huge Potemkin village, where only good-looking, able-bodied citizens are allowed to roam so that foreign visitors will be impressed.

This book looks instead at the northern factory city of Chongjin, home to gulags and coal mines and party officials and undesirables alike. We follow the lives of six ordinary North Koreans who escape the famine in the nineties, wading their way past the border with China, then flying into South Korea: the rebellious POW-daughter Mi-ran, the rich university student Jun-sang, the party loyalist Mrs Song, her daughter Oak-hee, the street kid Kim Hyuck.

And god, it's heartbreaking. Demick is a master storyteller: she begins with the teenage love story between Jun-sang and Mi-ran, in the blacked-out darkness of their city, bereft of electricity, noting its provenance: Mi-ran was now a prosperous and well-adapted resident of Seoul, married to another man, yet wistful for her innocent past.

The density, maybe length of the story, matters so much. We learn how life is different for insiders and outsiders, what they ate, what they feared, what they sang (the title is a reference to a North Korean children's song, that claims We Have Nothing to Envy in the World). We see disaster unfolding, slowly, as the horrible political realities of Juche creep up on idealistic youngsters and Kim Jong-Il dies and the famine descends with its pellagra and constipation, weird rashes appearing in spectacle-circles around people's eyes, the most virtuous dying first, the old then the children then the men then the women, and the crazy run-around cycle of imprisonments and recaptures that so many people had to go through to finally make it into the promised land of Hanguk.

Come to think of it, it's also important that we're hearing the stories of individuals. So many images of North Korea portray its people as brainwashed masses, or else single out idealised heroines among them (seems a majority of defectors are women, partly because they can sell themselves off as wives or prostitutes). The unique quirks that these people have, the different extents to which they've adapted to South Korean culture (did you know, what strikes the Northerners as weirdest is how South Koreans kiss and hug in public?) are just so compelling, and inspiring - because of all the six, all of them seem to have done okay, in the end.

Also amazing is Demick's discipline in creating this book: she spent six years interviewing over 100 defectors, heaven knows if she speaks Korean, she must by now. I'll be teaching a non-fiction course next semester - how can I convince kids that that kind of investment is worth it?

Bloody amazing, anyway. And I'm glad I finished this before I fly off for the ILGA Conference tomorrow.

View Around the World in 80 Books!!! in a larger map

Representative Quote: Dr Kim looked down a dirt road that led to farmhouses. Most of them had walls around them with metal gates. She tried one; it turned out to be unlocked. She pushed it open and peered inside. On the ground she saw a small metal bowl with food. She looked closer - it was rice, white rice, mixed with scraps of meat. Dr Kim couldn't remember the last time she'd seen a bowl of pure white rice. What was a bowl of rice doing there, just sitting out on the ground? She figured it out just before she heard the dog's bark.

Up until that moment, a part of her had hoped that China would be just as poor as North Korea. She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world. The beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime would be vindicated. But now she couldn't deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.

Next book:  Murasaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji, from Japan.

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