Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Nothing to Envy (2009)

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a hair-raising peek into the sorrows of North Korea. To write this book, Barbara Demick, Beijiing bureau chief of the L.A. Times, spent five years in Seoul and also did a controlled visit to North Korea. She tells the stories of a handful of North Korean defectors. I have handily summarized below their stories and relevant major themes:

Mi-ran: Born to a family classified in the lowest rung of society because of her father's South Korean background. Was Jun-sang's girl for many, many years. Became elementary school teacher despite bad family background. Watched students die of starvation during the famine of the mid-nineties. Defected with family in 1998. The weight of history: After Japan's defeat in WWII, the US decreed the 38th parallel as the dividing line between the communist North Korea and capitalist South Korea. In 1950, North Korea invaded, leading to the Korean War. Ordinary citizens either fled north or south, or were simply swept in a direction. South Korean prisoners of war in North Korea were eventually granted citizenship, but bore the stigma of "tainted blood." This blood was thought to last for three generations.
Jun-sang: Eldest son of wealthy Koreans from Japan. Captivated by Mi-ran's looks at first sight. Took three years to hold her hand, and then six years to kiss her on the cheek. Lived privileged life as university student and later as researcher. Secretly watched South Korean television using a rigged TV. Defected after discovering that Mi-ran had fled. All your technology are belong to us: The North Korean state disables all but state channels on all televisions and radio. North Koreans citizens are only exposed to public announcements, "films," and "news" manufactured by the communist party. Tragically, no Jersey Shore for North Korea.
Dr. Kim: Tiny perfectionist. Grateful to the state for her medical education. Remained utterly loyal to the party until she snooped in the hospital director's files and discovered that she was on a watch list. Defected after a party official came to warn her not to.  It's hard to be a doctor: North Korean doctors are expected to be selfless. They're also supposed to make their own medicines. They go in teams to the mountains to collect herbs. Due to the lack of supplies after the breakdown of other communist governments, North Korean doctors turned to rough innovations to treat patients, e.g. beer bottles as IV drips. When she escaped, Dr. Kim made the appalling discovery that dogs in China eat better than doctors in North Korea.
Mrs. Song: The ideal citizen. Card-carrying communist housewife who began to sell food items on the black market after her husband's and son's deaths. Defected by accident -- daughter who ran away arranged for her to "visit" China, and then fly to South Korea for a reunion. Communism epic fail: North Korea failed its citizens, who enjoyed a higher standard of living in the sixties and seventies thanks to support from Soviet bloc countries. The worldwide collapse of communism and the famine devastated the economy. In the worst days, there was no electricity, no food rations, no new clothes, and transportation was sporadic and slow. Millions died, many on the streets. The lucky ones got away, either through family connections, or by sheer determination. 
Hyuck: Left in orphanage at age 11. Survived on own wits during the famine. Learned to cross river into China and buy Chinese goods. Set up profitable business selling on the black market until caught and sent to labor camp at age 16. Endured the hunger, beatings, hard labor, crowded sleeping spaces, and deaths during the night. Released in 2000. Defected to South Korea in 2001. The cost of survival: The ones who survived the famine were precisely those who ignored rules of the state (e.g. no private enterprises like selling goods) and codes of morality (e.g. no stealing). Hyuck didn't exactly make out like a bandit -- when he first got to South Korea, his head was too big for his body, because malnutrition stunted his limbs and torso. He spent his first couple of years in South Korea scowling at everyone who tried to interact with him. It took him a while to realize that he would be better off with friends, now that he doesn't have to fight for survival.

The title Nothing to Envy comes from a North Korean song about having "nothing to envy in the world." The irony in this case is not funny. I hope to God something happens to get the crazies out. South Koreans, by the way, are taught that they should want reunification, but they're aware that absorbing millions of their northern brethren will be difficult, to say the least. Their experts are churning away and calculating how much it would cost to clothe, feed, and support an influx of refugees (North Korean defectors get an allowance of about $20,000 to start their new lives. First, they're interrogated to ensure they're not double agents.)

There aren't many North Korean defectors at the moment. Less than 3,000 were documented in 2009. China is kind of a bad cop here; it considers North Koreans illegal economic immigrants and boots them right back. Meanwhile, Mongolia and Thailand will repatriate North Koreans to South Korea, so defectors who head to those countries surrender themselves almost immediately. De Pilipins is a transit point from China, although apparently some North Koreans blend in with our fast-growing South Korean population.

Mostly what this book has taught me is that I've got it good. North Korea may be an outlier, but suffering is never in short supply in our world. I've got a roof over my head, enough to eat, and only one extremely tiny mouth to feed. THANK YOU LORD.

Joguk Tong-il!!! (South-North Reunification!!!)