Non-fiction – paperback; Granta Books; 314 pages; 2010.
North Korea is one of those intensely secretive countries that most of us know very little about. Media coverage is virtually non-existent, unless it’s something to do with nuclear weapons, George W. Bush’s “Axis-of-evil“, or leader Kim Jong-il, the latter usually covered in a humorous isn’t-he-kooky? kind of way.
But in recent weeks, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has opened its doors to the Western media, albeit in a very controlled way, in order to show the world that Kim Jong-un, the leader’s youngest son, is now the leader-in-waiting. This has provided a brief, but fascinating glimpse of a unique country, where conformity, not individuality, is the guiding principle.
The footage above is the North Korea that the North Korean Government want you to see. But Barbara Demick’s book, Nothing to Envy, which won this year’s BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, is filled with all the stuff they don’t want you to know about.
This is a nation where citizens are encouraged to spy upon one another; where they are forbidden from listening or watching any media other than those run by the state; where every household must keep a portrait of the president on display; where they are so cut off from the rest of the world they truly believe the motto that they have “nothing to envy”.
Demick, an American journalist, was a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, covering both North Korea and South Korea, in 2004. She was based in Soul, but made several trips to the North, and conducted extensive interviews with North Koreans who had defected. It is from these interviews that Demick shapes her book: a non-fiction account of six ordinary citizens living in the world’s most secretive and repressive state.
The book has all the hallmarks of a great literary novel, because Demick uses narrative techniques to interweave the individual stories of six main characters living in Chongjin, the nation’s third largest city.
The following description of the North Korean urban environment sets the scene:
There is almost no signage, few motor vehicles. Private ownership of cars is largely illegal, not that anyone can afford them. You seldom even see tractors, only scraggly oxen dragging plows. The houses are simple, utilitarian and monochromatic. There is little that predates the Korean War. Most of the housing stock was built in the 1960s and 1970s from cement block and limestone, doled out to people based on their job and rank. In the cities there are “pigeon coops”, one-room units in low-rise apartment buildings, while in the countryside, people typically live in single-story buildings called “harmonicas”, rows of one-room houses, stuck together like little boxes that make up the chambers of a harmonica. Occasionally, door frames and window sashes are painted a startling turquoise, but mostly everything is whitewashed or gray.
In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only colour to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea.
The story initially focuses on two young lovers, Mi-ran and Jun-sang, who kept their relationship secret for six years but did not hold hands until three years later. In a society where sexual relationships outside of marriage are frowned upon and sex-education is non-existent, it took another six years before they shared their first kiss. Mi-Ran says when she eventually fled North Korea she was “twenty-six years old and a schoolteacher, but I didn’t know how babies were conceived”.
Further into the story we meet the indomitable Mrs Song, a factory worker, mother of four and model citizen. Two-thirds of the way into the book we are introduced to her oldest daughter, the wayward Oak-hee, who is trapped in a terrible marriage and believes that defection is her only hope of beginning a new life. By this time Mrs Song’s mother-in-law, husband and son have died as a result of the famine that swept through the country in the 1990s.
There are two more characters: Dr Kim, a young medical doctor, and Kim Hyuck, a homeless teenager who grew up in an orphanage when his father abandoned him to marry his second wife. (Hyuck’s mother died unexpectedly when he was just three years old.)
Demick paints each of these characters as incredibly resilient people with strong survival instincts. By tracing their lives over a 20- to 30-year period, she is able to demonstrate how their ingrained behaviour to obey the Communist regime slowly gets worn away, to the point where each comes to realise that the only way out is to flee. Their tales of escape are heart-hammering, and heart-warming, by turn.
Interestingly, Demick explains that defection was very low: only 923 citizens defected from the North to the South in the roughly 50-year period between the end of the Korean War and 1998. But that began to change in the late 1990s, brought about primarily by the famine that swept the country and the growing prosperity of neighbouring China, which became more and more of a temptation to those Koreans grappling to survive with no food, no money and often no employment.
The thing that amazed me most about this book, was less the glimpses of life lived in a Totalitarian society (it’s no exaggeration to say this is George Orwell’s 1984 writ large, the only thing missing seems to be the “two-minutes hate”), but the devastating impact of the nation’s food shortages. According to Demick, this resulted in some 10 per cent of the North Korean population dying of starvation — in 1998 the estimated casualties totalled 600,000 to 2 million.
Demick painstakingly reveals the desperate acts so many people had to carry out to find food. It makes for harrowing reading at times. I particularly felt for schoolteacher Mi-ran, who watches her young students wasting away in front of her eyes, knowing there is nothing she can do to save them from starvation.
The resulting collapse of the socialist food distribution system led to highly illegal business enterprises being set up, mainly in the form of food vendors such as butchers and bakers. Mrs Song, ever-resourceful, set up a flourishing trade in home-baked cookies. It says so much about her undying spirit, and her desire to keep forging ahead despite extremely adverse circumstances, that you begin to wonder if she’s really true and not just figment of Demick’s imagination.
The book is so jam-packed with intriguing facts that I couldn’t even begin to list them all here, although several stick in my mind:
- electricity is in such short supply that the lights are switched off every evening, plunging the whole of North Korea into darkness (this Google image illustrates it perfectly);
- medical doctors are supposed to act selflessly by donating their own blood for transfusions and their own skin for grafts, as well as growing their own cotton to make bandages;
- religion is forbidden because everyone must devote themselves to the cult of Kim Jong-il and the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea; and
- most North Korean clothes are made from a unique fabric called Vinalon, which is made from limestone and anthracite.
Nothing to Envy is a truly astonishing book, and this review cannot do it the justice it deserves. If you’re intrigued by a nation that fell off the map of the developed world and want to know how ordinary citizens have endured extraordinary circumstances, then this book should not be missed. It’s definitely been the highlight of my reading year so far.