Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

REVIEW: Stories from a dark & Secret Land

In R.Richardson, Reviews on April 30, 2010 at 1:26 pm

‘NOTHING TO ENVY: Real Lives in North Korea’
by B. Demick (Granta £14.99)

A satellite photo of Asia by night shows a dark hole where North Korea should be. There is not enough electricity to keep the lights burning.

This compelling new book tells the story of six North Koreans and their families, as told to an American journalist over a period of seven years. All of them have defected to South Korea, and have settled there with varying degrees of success and contentment. The stories are interspersed with an account of the history of this beleaguered country over the last thirty or so years.

DIVIDED BY WAR: After the Korean war of 1950-53, the division of the country was confirmed with South Korea as a capitalist state supported by the USA and North Korea, a hard-line Stalinist regime. In the 1960’s, supported by the Soviet Union, China and other Communist states, North Korea did well. Its leader, Kim Il Sung, created a viable economy with heavy industry flourishing, collective farms providing adequate food, schools and health provision almost universal. Everything, of course, including food distribution was state controlled.

But then came the collapse of the Soviet Union – and, as former Communist countries began to turn to the West, they were less inclined to do specials deals with North Korea for food and fuel. The country was sucked into a vicious spiral. Factories closed and farms which depended on electrically powered irrigation systems and chemical fertilisers could no longer supply the country’s needs. Coal mines depending on electricity for their equipment closed down, further exacerbating the fuel crisis.

FAMINE: The situation was made worse by floods in the mid-nineties and many of the more vulnerable among the population starved to death. The UN Food & Agriculture Organisation estimated that by 2002, 57% of the population were malnourished.

Against this background, the human stories told in Barbara Demick’s book bring the reality of life in North Korea. There is MRs Song, a factory worker and mother of four, a model citizen. Her day-to-day existence, working six days a week, providing for her family and attending ideological training after work is described. She was unwavering in her faith in the system for many decades. “I lived only for Kim Il Sung and for the fatherland,” she told the author. But at last, living conditions spiralling downwards, through the persuasion of her daughter she left her native country behind and with forged papers, escaped to a new life in South Korea, aged 57.

The other lives detailed in the book are equally fascinating. They include that of Dr. Kim who worked  long hours in a hospital, a job which included long treks to the mountains to gather medicinal herbs. When, after years of agonising, she too takes the route to South Korea she finds that her qualifications count for nothing. But in her final conversation with the author she has decided to go back to medical school, aged 40, and qualify all over again.

Another character is Hyuck, one of the Kochebi or ‘wandering swallows’ – homeless children who frequent the station at Chongjin. His journey, finally, to South Korea is particularly arduous, and for some time it is hard for him to find a niche in a very different country.

‘ON THE BRINK’: In 2007 we reviewed the excellent North Korea on the Brink by Glyn Ford, which describes in much more detail the politics of the country, and which suggests ways forward – ways in which the country might be encouraged to engage with the wider world. In particular the country’s programme of nuclear weapon development in put into context.

Efforts must be directed towards ending the isolation of North Korea and giving its people more choices in their lives. This gripping narrative leaves on full of admiration and sympathy for the courage of those who have lived under this harsh regime for so many decades – and for those who still do.

Ruth Richardson

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