BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
NOTHING TO ENVY: Love, Life and Death in North Korea, by Barbara Demick
, May 1, 2010
Lifting the curtain on the Hermit Kingdom
NOTHING TO ENVY:
Love, Life and Death in North Korea
by Barbara Demick
(London: Fourth Estate)
Paperback: 336 pages
Rec. price: AUD$35.00
Reviewed by Bill James
Barbara Demick is a journalist who wrote this book after spending seven years meeting with former inhabitants of North Korea. She reports with caution, aware that escapees from a repressive dictatorship will paint it in the worst possible light in order to justify their defection. Wherever practicable, she has checked their statements against both other defectors' stories, and publicly reported events.
The characters whose lives are described here all come from Chongjin, an industrial city in the north of the country, far from the stage-managed capital. She tells their stories with enormous compassion and respect, not only for them, but for all the victims of the Pyongyang regime, which is to say, the ordinary people of North Korea.
It is not uncommon for commentators on North Korea to treat the monarchical, indeed divine, pretensions of the Kim Il-sung / Kim Jong-il dynasty as a huge joke, and the North Korean citizenry as pathetic dupes for going along with it. Demick is all too aware that totalitarianism is not funny, and that people cannot be blamed for supporting it when they have known nothing else all their lives, and when they are threatened with condign penalties for the slightest indication of dissidence (such as being observed not weeping loud or long enough at the Great Leader's 1994 funeral).
Nothing to Envy is the latest in an ongoing trickle of books which reveal something of life - and death! - in the hermetically sealed Hermit Kingdom. They include Kang Chol-Hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag and Bradley Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, both reviewed in News Weekly.
The title of Nothing to Envy comes from a popular children's song which begins: "Our father [Kim Il-sung], we have nothing to envy in the world." Nothing that is, except writing paper, pens and pencils, soap, combs, nail-clippers, razor-blades, batteries, umbrellas, underwear and socks, which are smuggled in from China. (One captured defector reports that the border police wrote down his particulars on a piece of wood because their station lacked a note pad).
Also computers, telephones, cars, cameras, working postal and public transport systems, and a medical service which lacks just about everything, including anaesthetics.
And electricity - to dispel the ubiquitous cold and dark (seen from space, North Korea is a black hole), and to supply the power for the industry and agriculture which provide jobs, which provide incomes, which provide food.
The relentless search by ordinary citizens for food from any conceivable source - tree bark, weeds, frogs and insects - is a dominating theme in this story. One defector stumbled into a farmyard after reaching China to be confronted with the spectacle of a dog's food bowl which contained the unimaginable luxuries of white rice and meat.
From the late 1940s until the late 1980s, the absence in North Korea of all human rights was justified by its apologists on the grounds that it at least fed, housed and educated its population. The natural disasters of the mid-1990s, coming on the heels of the collapse of its economy when the former Soviet Union stopped supplying it with fuel oil, produced the starvation of hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of victims, and the lifelong stunting of countless children's bodies and minds.
Children were also abused by being exploited as informers against their parents (a device favoured by some Greens in the West), or by being victimised for "tainted blood " (i.e., less than total veneration of the Kim dynasty) supposedly inherited from their ancestors.
During the worst years, dead bodies littered the streets, in a famine that was completely avoidable. The government either refused offers of aid from the outside world, or directed the donated food to its expensive, unnecessary and disproportionately huge army.
Finally, here are three uncomfortable issues raised by Demick's impeccable but relentless research.
First, South Koreans are very ambivalent about North Koreans. They sympathise with their plight, but few except the very old feel much sense of intimate affinity with them, and they fear that the collapse of the North would swamp them with 23 million mouths to feed.
Second, North Korean totalitarianism forces survivors of, and particularly defectors from, the system, into dehumanising and crippling compromise: "many hate themselves for what they had to do in order to survive". Demick cites Primo Levi, who wrote that he and his fellow-survivors of Auschwitz "never wanted to see one another again after the war because they had all done something of which they were ashamed".
One North Korean defector observed that the "simple and kind-hearted people who did what they were told - they were the first to die". Such people included another defector's teachers, described as: "starving intellectuals who could quote Tolstoy by heart but were utterly clueless about how to feed themselves". Worst of all, defectors "had to live with the knowledge that their freedom came at the expense of loved ones who would likely spend the rest of their lives in a labour camp".
Third, it is extraordinary, but true, that old, obscurantist, left-wing Cold Warriors are still prepared to function as apologists for North Korea despite the information now freely available in publications such as Demick's.
Australian Gavan McCormack's Target North Korea has also been reviewed in News Weekly.