Barbara Demick, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times assigned to Peking and Seoul, pierced that veil by interviewing over a hundred North Korean defectors. The result is her Samuel Johnson prize-winning book Nothing to Envy - ordinary lives in North Korea.
The book begins in the 1990s and follows six people who lived in Chongjin, a city in on the Sea of Japan and near the Chinese boarder. The six are a pair of young and chaste lovers - a boy who is eventually selected to learn science in a prestigious University in Pyognyang and a low caste girl with 'tainted' blood who becomes a school teacher, a women who is a factory worker devoted to the regime and her rebellious daughter, a woman doctor, and an orphaned street urchin. It follows their lives through the death of Kin Il Sung and the fall of the Soviet Union which lead to the economic collapse of North Korea and the dreadful famine that followed.
In the beginning, due to relentless propaganda and isolation they count themselves lucky to be born North Koreans. Many of the characters in the book compare their lot to the Chinese under the chaos and hunger of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, or the South Koreans under the boot
heels of the ghastly Americans, and consider themselves blessed. None the less, they are immersed in a sea of paranoia, trusting neither friends nor family, since the slightest slip-up in revolutionary ardor, or any disrespect - no matter how trifling - of Kim Il Jung can land one in a labor camp.
The economic and social collapse comes slowly and relentlessly. Salaries are reduced until they are no longer paid, factories and offices close, food ration dwindle to nothing. As starvation sets in the young teacher sees her elementary-aged students die one by one, the Doctor's hospital runs out of supplies and Mrs Song, the lady so faithful to the Party, is forced to make her living in the growing black markets. Soon they are all reduced to searching for grass and bark to eat as friends and family members die of hunger.
In the end each, following their own paths, cross the Tumen River into China and eventually on to South Korea. They don't do it for political reasons, in fact it could be argued that in the tightly regimented system they lived in politics has no real meaning to them, rather they do it for economic and emotional reasons. Day by day the famine slowly strips them of the illusions about their government until they have no choice but to abandon their homes (and some of their relatives they've left behind suffer grievously for their actions).
One of the most affecting scenes is when Dr Kim has just crossed into China, uncertain how long she'll stay, and she swings open gate of a house she hopes she'll find charity in. On the ground she sees a bowl of white rice with bits of meat in it. Puzzled, she hasn't eaten either in months, she wonders why it is there until a dog barks and with shock she realizes that Chinese dogs are fed better than North Korean doctors.
And that is ultimately the strength of the book. It gives a look into lives of the people of North Korea, and the six characters we follow are all compelling and interesting people. One gets to know them, to be horrified at the suffering the experience, and to hope the best for them. One wishes them well.
Altogether it is a fascinating and engaging book. I certainly recommend it for anybody's reading list. Below is an except from the book.
On one trip in 1998, when the North Korean economy was at its worst, Jun-sang was stuck at a small town in South Hamgyong province where he usually switched from the eastbound trains to the northbound line up the coast. The tracks were flooded and a cold, driving rain drenched the waiting passengers. Jun-sang took what shelter he could find on the platform. As he waited, his attention was drawn to a group of homeless children, the kochebi, who were performing to get money for food. Some of them did magic tricks, some danced. One boy, about seven or eight years old, sang. His tiny body was lost in the folds of an adult-sized factory uniform, but his voice had the resonance of a much older person. He squeezed his eyes shut, mustered all his emotion, and belted out the song, filling the platform with its power.
Uri Abogi, our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.Jun-sang knew the song by heart from his childhood, except the lyrics had been updated. In the verse "Our father, Kim Il-sung," the child had substituted the name of Kim Jong-il. It was beyond reason that this small child should be singing a paean to the father who protected him when his circumstances so clearly belied the song. There he was on the platform, soaking wet, filthy, no doubt hungry.
Our house is within the embrace of the Workers' party.
We are all brother 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.
Jun-sang reached into his pocket and gave the boy 10 won, a generous tip for a street performer. It was less an act of charity than gratitude for the education the boy had given him.
He would later credit the boy with pushing him over the edge. He know knew for sure that he didn't believe. It was an enormous moment of self-revelation, like deciding one was an atheist. It made him feel alone. He was different from everybody else. He was suddenly self-conscious, burdened by a secret he had discovered about himself.