North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is an anachronism from the Cold War era of the twentieth century, which has survived, against all odds, into the twenty-first. The North Korea watchers were predicting the demise of Kim-Il-Sung’s totalitarian regime at the beginning of the 1990s, when the Stalinist dictatorships in the satellite Eastern Bloc countries began collapsing like packs of cards. However, twenty-one years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the vice-like grip of the Korean Worker’s Party on this tiny country in the Korean peninsula—flanked on either side by the Yellow Sea and the East Sea—and its twenty-three million benighted citizens, shows no signs of weakening. Included by George W Bush in his axis of Evil, North Korean regime seems to thrive in its isolation even as the population starves to death.
The North Korean dictatorship, with its state-controlled, ineffectual and stagnating economy, was propped up by the Soviet Union for decades by offers of almost all the essential commodities at heavily subsidized rates. From 1980s onwards, with its non-functioning industrial and agricultural sectors North Korea came to depend almost entirely on the largess of the Soviets. Soviet Union was also a guaranteed market for what little North Korea produced. All that changed in the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed: North Korea descended literally into darkness when the Soviet supply of cheap fuel oil ceased. The millions of tons of staple grain that North Korea was purchasing at very friendly prices from the Russians became unavailable. However, Kim-Il-Sung and, after his death in 1994, his son, Kim-Jong-il (North Korea is a unique example of Communist dictatorship combined with dynastic rule), saw no reason to jettison the inefficient and unworkable quasi-autoarkic approach to economy. At a time when China and Russia were embracing Free Market with the zeal of a nymphomaniac who has spotted a man after having been marooned on an uninhabited island for months, North Korea remained (and still remains) an entirely state-run economy. The floods and famine that hit the country in the mid-1990s compounded the misery of North Korean people. In three years, between 1995 and 1998, 3 million people (12% of the country’s population) died of starvation. It is this period, the lost decade of the 1990s, the devastation and the unspeakable misery it inflicted on the people of North Korea, that is the focus of Barbara Demick’s excellent book, Nothing to Envy, winner of the 2010 Samuel Johnson prize.
Demick is a respected American journalist, whose previous work about the daily life in Sarajevo in the middle of the Bosnian war (she was a foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer and lived in Sarajevo for a year) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She was posted in Seoul in 2001 as a foreign correspondent for ‘Los Angeles Times’. Over the next eight years Demick interviewed men and women who had managed to escape from North Korea. Nothing to Envy is the fruition of years of painstaking work. And the portrait that emerges out of the narratives of Demick’s interviewees is not pretty. While nothing that is revealed comes as a surprise, it is not the less shocking for it. What unfolds through the pages of Nothing to Envy is a tragedy of epic proportion.
What is remarkable about the six individuals—all of them came from the city of Chongjin in North Korea—whose stories Demick tells us, is that none of them was a political activist. They were all ordinary citizens; some had no political views, while some others were staunch believers in the purported socialist ideal of the dictatorship, as also in the improbable stories of mythical proportion systematically spread by the party about the ‘Dear Leader’ (as Kim-Jong-il is referred to in North Korea) and his father, Kim-Il-sung, the ‘Great Marshal’, who, sixteen years after his death, still remains the official leader of his country—the kind of grotesque oddity that is possible only in totalitarian regimes. All of defectors, except perhaps one, defected for one simple reason: there was nothing to eat, and they were starving.
In unostentatious language, unadorned by hyperbole, Demick describes the disintegration of a country and its descent into chaos. The factories stopped production; the power plants collected rust; the hospitals ran out of medicines; the trains stopped running, and the regime simply stopped paying salaries to its people. The regime’s response to emerging food shortage and ensuing disaster was—depressingly and unsurprisingly— propaganda and more propaganda. The official party newspaper –the only one that is available in North Korea—began extolling the virtue of having only two meals a day as the food shortage began to bite. In the next couple of years, even that became an extravagance only a few could afford, as the food disappeared from the market. The stories of famine and hunger reported by the defectors beggar belief. Rice became a luxury; meat and vegetables became scarce; the only grain that was available (in miniscule quantities) was corn; and the once proud people of this country were reduced to eating grass, and crushing barks of pine trees and conkers to add to the soup to thicken it. That led invariably to health problems and, not surprisingly, the young and the old suffered the most. One of the defectors Demick interviewed worked as a teacher in a nursery. She described how the once bubbly and energetic toddlers became progressively listless and lethargic; the families simply could not afford to give them food, and the school had long since stopped giving lunches. The toddlers had no energy left to participate in the activities and instead just sat, with eyes closed, in the class. During the recess, instead of going out into the playground, they lay down on the floor in a corner of the classroom. In the year prior to the teacher’s defection, the number of toddlers in her class dwindled down to fifteen from fifty. The statistics Demick provides are staggering. Apparently 42% of North Korea’s children show ‘stunted growth’—too large heads compared to torsos, and short limbs—the result of chronic malnutrition. The damage might be permanent. The food shortage, like the Communist regime of North Korea, showed no class distinction. One of the defectors Demick interviewed was a doctor, working in the Paediatric department of the Chongjing’s increasingly dysfunctional hospital, as the common antibiotics became unaffordable. The hospital stopped paying salaries to all its employees, but the authorities still forced the doctors to work (towards what end, you wonder, as there was little that the doctors could do). As time went by, the doctor became increasingly enfeebled and had neither the energy nor money to travel to her hospital. She spent long hours during the day, starving, in her bed. Interestingly, the doctor’s father, an ethnic Korean, had escaped China in the 1950s (when millions in China died of starvation as a result of Chairman Mao’s disastrous ‘great leap forward’) to North Korea, which, at that time, was more prosperous (indeed the North Korean economy was doing better than that of South Korea until the 1970s). The father remained a staunch supporter of the North Korean regime until his dying day (he starved himself to death because he could see no point in carrying on after Kil Il-Sung, the ‘Great Marshal’, died). And now, as the twentieth century neared its end, his daughter was starving in North Korea while China was frolicking in its newfangled affluence. This doctor eventually escaped to China, crossing the Tumen river—a common escape route for North Korean defectors. As the doctor entered the nearest village on the Chinese side of the border in freezing cold, and pushed open the door of the first house she came across, she noticed a big bowl of rice and chicken—neither of which she had tasted for years—in the verandah. Just then a dog from the house entered the verandah and began eating from the bowl. Then the realisation hit her: the dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.
All totalitarian regimes exert some or the other form of thought control over the population in order to cling to power. Towards that end an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion is deliberately engendered, paranoia is systematically stoked. People are actively encouraged to denounce and report others for misconducts and infractions which cover a wide range of activities. Stalin in Soviet Union, Mao in China, and Stasi in East Germany excelled in this. The North Korean dictatorship appears to be no exception. Throughout the 1990s, as the famine raged all over North Korea, the regime was still whisking off people in the middle of the night to labour camps, styled on the Soviet gulags, for antinational activities such as doubting the capability of the ‘great marshal’ (Kim Il-Sung) in their personal diaries or for passing sarcastic comments after listening to one of the many clichéd, tub-thumping speeches of the party demagogues. In many instances, members of the same family were encouraged to spy on one another. Two of the defectors Demick interviewed had known each other since their adolescence, and were each other’s first love. Their romance continued despite the many obstacles, not least the different social status of their respective families, for many years. For the best part of their six-year love affair both were thinking about —and in later stages actively plotting—escaping. Neither however dared to breathe a word of their seditious intentions to the other for the fear that the other might denounce them. As it happened the girl took the plunge first and, together with her mother and one of the sisters, escaped to South Korea via China. The boy followed a few years later; it was, however, too late, and by that time the girl had married a South Korean man and was a mother of two children.
If there is one thing a dictatorship is petrified of, it is the spread of knowledge. Stalin knew this, as did Chairman Mao, who, during the twenty-seven years of his demonic rule over China, went to great lengths to keep the population illiterate and ignorant. The more isolated the population is the more likely it will believe the lies and distortions of the regime. The North Korean people have been drip-fed for decades the standard Communist propaganda of America being the great Satan and South Korea being a willing slave of the Imperialist Western powers. During the decades of relative prosperity, the 1960s and the 1970s, the people must have found it easier to believe in the ‘Great Marshal’, who had the good fortune of dying in the beginning of the economic meltdown, and thus being associated forever in the memories of North Korean ‘hoi poli’ with the good times. When he died suddenly of a heart attack there were hysterical public outpourings of grief. His son, the ‘Dear Leader’, who became the country’s leader during very difficult economic times (made worse by his refusal to countenance any changes to the economic policy of the country), would appear to have had little difficulty in feeding the starving population with lies and exhorting them for further sacrifices. He could do that (and is still doing it) because a whole generation of North Koreans knows no different; they simply cannot imagine that life can be different, isolated as they are from the rest of the world. North Korea remains an Internet blackhole, one of the very few countries in the world that has chosen to stay offline. One of the defectors Demick interviewed was handpicked by the regime to enrol into University in Pyongyang. He had been on the North Korean “internet”, a closed system available only to academics to browse through various academic papers and a censored encyclopaedia the country had purchased. This man had heard of the Internet, and, when he crossed the border into China, he was curious to get on the Net. The problem was this man, who had belonged to the educational elites of North Korea, a graduate of one of the best universities in North Korea, had no idea how to do that. He was shown the ropes by a South Korean exchange student and with every click the world opened up to him. What he had begun to suspect about his country and the regime was confirmed; he also discovered what the rest of the world really thought about his country, and the contempt in which the ‘Dear Leader’ and his despicable regime was held.
The title of Barbara Demick’s book is taken from doggerel the North Korean regime spread to propagate the personality cult of Kim-Il-Sung and later his son, Kim-Jong-il. All the children had to learn by heart and sing in their schools this song. One of the defectors narrated an incidence to Demick. Sometime in the late 1990s, when the North Korean economy was at its worst, this man was on a railway station. By that time, in all parts of the country were swarms of homeless children—in many cases the result of the decision by the parents to leave the food for the children, which meant that the parents perished, leaving the children orphans. As this man waited on the railway platform, a group of homeless children arrived and began begging. A seven or eight year old boy from the group began singing. This little boy, soaking wet, hungry and filthy, his tiny, malnourished body almost completely lost in the adult-size clothes he was wearing, squeezed his eyes tight shut and mustering all his strength belted out the song which, in his surprisingly resonant voice, filled the platform:
Uri Abogi, our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.
Our house is within the embrace of the Worker’s Party.
We are all brothers and sisters.
Even if a sea of fire comes towards us, sweet children do not
need to be afraid.
Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy.
‘Our father’, in Godless North Korea, is of course Kim-Il-Sung and (after his death) Kim-Jong-il.
Years later the defector would recollect that it was this little orphan boy that pushed him over the edge. He found it unconscionable that the boy would be singing a paean to a man who had brought nothing but misery and ruination upon him.
Nothing to Envy is a work of great merit. Through the oral histories of North Korean defectors Barbara Demick has shone a searchlight on a country, which, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma. In the process she has shown that which lies beyond the Potemkin Village of Pyongyang and which the secretive dictatorship has been desperately trying to cover: the silent misery of North Korea’s long-suffering people.