Nothing to envy

I have just finished reading Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, a journalist on the LA Times. In this book, which won the 2010 Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, she follows the lives of six North Koreans whom she chose these from over a hundred people she interviewed. Her subjects were fromChongjin, the third largest city in the country because she thought it would be more representative thanPyongyang. She has the following defectors:

Dr. Kim is a doctor, devoted to the Workers’ party, who finds herself blocked by the country’s rigid caste system.

Mrs. Song another loyal communist is a wife forced to find any way she can to feed her family, including rebellious daughter Oak-Hee as the country’s economy goes into meltdown.

Kim Hyuck, whose father is unable to support him, has to go to a state orphanage.

Jun-Sang and Mi-Ran, boyfriend and girlfriend, conduct a clandestine but chaste relationship in the dark.

Obviously these are rather special people who have risked their lives to defect. There are many more who stayed behind inNorth Korea. But there is no other way to tell these stories; you can’t just go toPyongyangand interview people. And these personal stories are what make this book so powerful. Demick mentions the misery, the food shortages the gulags, the escapes and the totalitarian nature of the North Korean state. There are harrowing passages in which she describes what happens as people starve to death. But she didn’t want to paintNorth Koreaas just a living hell. In an interview she gave she quoted Primo Levi, who said even in the hell ofAuschwitzthere was no such thing as complete misery. She wanted to show the people inNorth Koreaas real human beings who amid the repression and catastrophe also had their happy moments.

The title of the book comes from a propaganda song:






The book begins with that famous satellite image of North Korea at night. This hermit state is like a black hole which is surrounded by neighbours, South Korea, Japan, and now China which glow with prosperity. It’s called capitalism. North Korea remains an enigmatic country about which we know very little. It is a fascinating mixture of Stalinism and strict neo-Confucianism, interspersed with pseudo-Christianity. Their history has been dominated by the Kim dynasty, the late Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il, who are worshipped as divinities. Papa Kim “caused trees to bloom and snow to melt”, while Baby Kim’s birth “was heralded by a radiant star in the sky”. A swallow descended from heaven to sing of “a general who will rule the world”. We are all familiar with the scenes following Kim Il-sung’s death. If you have forgotten, check out this YouTube video – Death of the Father of the Socialist Homeland.

His son has been in charge since 1994.  In an article from the New Yorker, Kimworld Inside the North Korean slave state, Ian Buruma summed up Kim Jong-Il:

Kim Jong-il, meanwhile, was ferried about in his fleet of Mercedes-Benzes, from one grand palace to another, where Chinese, Japanese, French, Russian, and Korean food was always available for feasts that sometimes went on for days. One of the more mouth-watering accounts of life in Kim’s court is by his former Japanese chef, a man who later took on the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, whose duties included special trips to Iran to buy caviar, to Denmark for bacon, to Japan for the best cuts of tuna. We know from Fujimoto’s book, “Kim Jong Il’s Cook—I Saw His Naked Body,” that Kim was an avid consumer of fine French wines and Hennessy X.O cognac.

In a previous post I mentioned that it was rare to be able to do an experiment on different economic systems under laboratory conditions. The division of Germanyafter WWII was probably as close as we could get. Koreahas been a similar experiment with even more striking results. Demick points out the divergence has not always been so great. But the country has fallen out of the developed world. This decline culminated in the “Arduous March,” the propaganda machine’s euphemism for the famine of the mid-1990s, in which between 900,000 and 3.5 million people died from starvation or hunger-related illnesses. The desperation was such that people were eating weeds, grass, and bark. This contrasts with the dramatic rise of South Korea.  The Kims have practised a policy of juche, which can be translated self-sufficiency. It was based on a lie because in reality they were heavily dependent on China and the Soviet Union. When these two props were removed, collapse was inevitable. North Korea cannot survive on its own, but it cannot open up, either. However, not everyone shares this negative opinion of Kimland. If you want a more nuanced perspective, you can try Andrew Holloway, who lived for a year in the capital. He has a book you can see online – A Year in Pyongyang:

The average North Korean lives an incredibly simple and hardworking life but also has a secure and cheerful existence, and the comradeship between these highly collectivised people is moving to behold.”

The book closes with the defectors arriving inSouth Korea. The North Korean system has, in Holloway’s words, stultified and infantilised the population.North Koreais like a prison camp and logically many find it hard to adapt when they leave. One poor guy actually loses all his money in a pyramid scam. Welcome to capitalism! I won’t tell you if the two lovers are finally reunited. But generally the defectors don’t find it easy to fit into their new country. The difficulties tend to suggest that any possible reunification of the whole country would bring immense problems with it.

What will happen in the future to this grotesque regime? Kim Jong-il is in many ways a comic figure but the tragedy of 20 million people is very real. Moreover, he may well have some kind of nuclear capability.  Experts have been predicting its collapse for more than fifteen years. Kim may be a nightmare for his people, but he has proved very adept at hanging on to power. That is what Kim il yung cares about – his political survival. Surely nothing could be worse than the perpetuation of this regime. What we have to hope is that if it does go, Kim will not go with a big bang.

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