“Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick


Reading books like this makes me realize how great a blessing it is to live in a free country. North Koreans are fed a bunch of lies about the rest of the world (they are told that they are much better off than anyone else; hence this book’s title) and are ruthlessly monitored for loyalty. Snitches are in every neighborhood. A close call is described in the book, where a father watching TV laughed at a documentary describing how a certain factory was churning out tons and tons of great shoes, then made a comment like “then why don’t my kids have any?” Everyone was shocked at his audacious criticism of the government and, sure enough, he was reported, interrogated by the secret police and almost arrested.

How did North Korea get to where it is at today? In the latter stages of World War II, the Soviet Union pushed into Japanese-occupied Korea and then never left, similar to what happened in Eastern Europe. They set up Kim Il-Sung, an anti-Japanese resistance leader during the war, as a puppet leader. Then the Korean War left Korea bitterly divided. Kim stayed in power in the North and was revered as a paternalistic provider, almost a god. Children in North Korea were not permitted to celebrate their own birthday; rather they received a gift of candy on the Great Leader’s birthday, then bowed in thanks to his portrait, one of which was issued to each family for display in the living room. Literally Big Brother watching over you. The enemies during the War are still reviled; for instance elementary school math books have problems like, “A heroic soldier kills three American bastards, ten South Korean cowards, and five Japanese dogs during a battle. How many enemies of the Worker’s Party did he kill in all?”

Despite political repression and rampant propaganda, living conditions were generally ok until after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, which terminated much of the aid that was keeping North Korea afloat. The economy shut down, literally – factories closed, transportation became spotty (it took three days by train to travel the width of the peninsula, and months for mail to be delivered), and, most devastatingly, there was widespread and lasting famine.

This well-written book follows the lives of half-a-dozen or so North Koreans who ultimately defected to the South. (It is just about impossible to get any real information about North Korea from those still living in the country.) They all went through years of hell, always obsessing about where to find food, eating grass and tree bark, and watching children and other family members slowly die of starvation. This suffering continues today; North Korea’s infrastructure is stuck in the 1960’s (when it functions at all), and the government continues to pursue nuclear weapons and a strong military rather than worrying about a generation of starving citizens.

Despite all this, relatively few North Koreans protest or try to flee. Undoubtedly part of the reason is the North Korean concept of “tainted blood,” which holds that not only shall the criminal himself be punished, but his family out to three generations, in either direction. Many defectors harbor great guilt, because their family is punished when they escape: “Her sisters paid the ultimate price <sent to a labor camp; likely death> so that she could drive a Hyundai.”

The route to defect is typically through China, across the Yalu or Tumen rivers. Several North Koreans stay right there, either common-law “marrying” Chinese men or scraping together a living in the wild capitalism now embraced in China. However, the border area is not too safe — there are frequent round-ups which send the illegals back to North Korea, destined for prison or the labor camps or even execution. China is officially “buddies” with North Korea and doesn’t offer asylum. One of the more interesting solutions is to cross China into Mongolia. Any North Korean captured by the Mongolian authorities is also deported … but to South Korea.

Once defectors arrive in South Korea, they are debriefed (mainly to make sure they aren’t spies, which has happened before) and given some training on how to survive in the modern world. They’ve never seen an ATM or tried to find a job or worried about any number of things that the Dear Leader decided for them back home. Then they are given a substantial lump sum stipend (which apparently many are scammed out of) and released into the wild.  It is admirable that South Korea accepts the defectors as citizens and tries to help them out.  Everyone wonders how things will be when unification occurs, and the South has an extra 20 million people to feed and shelter…


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