Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Review: Nothing to Envy – Ordinary Lives in North Korea, and The Hidden People of North Korea – Everyday Life in the Hermit Kingdom

North Korea (officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is at a turning in its history. With the 2008 stroke of dictator Kim Jong-il and the ongoing speculation over who will replace him when he eventually passes, the nation known as the “Hermit Kingdom” has become a mainstay in the international news headlines. With so much talk about succession planning and how it will affect North Korea’s ambition to acquire nuclear weapons, it’s often easy to forget that there are 23 million people who continue to live under the thumb of the Kim regime, who exist in some of the most brutal, ascetic and oppressive conditions of any people on Earth. With so much upheaval expected to happen in North Korea over the coming years, the timing of these two recently published books couldn’t be better.

Both Barbara Demick and the married team of Ralph Hassig and Kongdan Oh claim to offer readers the same thing with their respective books – an inside glimpse at the everyday lives of ordinary North Koreans – but only one is able to truly slip under the fog of the DPRK’s geopolitical circumstances to achieve this. As hard as they try, Hassig and Oh can’t quite shake off their roles as policy analysts/researchers and give us something beyond a macro interpretation of what daily existence in North Korea must be like; there are no flesh-and-blood humans populating their book. On the other hand, Demick, a journalist who spent the better part of a decade covering both Koreas for The Los Angeles Times, goes much deeper by choosing to focus on six defectors, conducting extensive interviews with them and then rendering their stories into a vivid exercise in creative nonfiction. The result is a harrowing and entirely human portrait of what it’s like to live under the most repressive regime in the world. Make no mistake: both books are groundbreaking in what they add to our knowledge of life inside the DPRK; but if you’re looking for the everyday human element, the smarter money is spent on Demick’s book.

Demick gets off to a good start by choosing not to focus on people living in North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang, knowing rightly that their lives aren’t exactly indicative of life in the DPRK as a whole. Only the most highly ranked and politically connected classes of North Korean society get to live in Pyongyang, and consequently its citizens have not experienced the hardships of the last 20 years as acutely as everyone else. Demick instead focuses her attention on the northern industrial city of Chongjin. Her cast of characters include Mi-ran and Jun-sang, two love-struck young people from different castes who need to keep their budding romance a secret; Mrs. Song, a formerly devout communist forced to embrace underground capitalism in order to survive during country’s economic collapse, and her rebellious daughter Oak-hee; a young female physician named Dr. Kim who struggles futilely to save lives during the North Korean famine; and Hyuck, one of North Korea’s infamous kochebi (“wandering swallows”) – orphaned children left to beg and steal in North Korea’s train stations and markets.

Nothing to Envy does an amazing job of capturing the quotidian detail of these people’s tortured lives, and balancing it with analysis of what has been happening in North Korea over the last 20 years. We get to feel the starvation, the deprivation; we see the impact of mass death, the fight for survival, and the government’s relentless, Orwellian propaganda that tries to deny what is happening on the ground. Demick also gives us a window into the everyday interactions and existence of North Koreans – the gossiping of mothers, going to the movies, discovering the bliss of literature, trying to maintain clandestine romances, and the struggles to navigate the insane bureaucracy that runs the country.

The unifying theme that holds these six defectors’ stories together is that they all feel betrayed by the country that they had sworn to protect. Nothing to Envy reveals the harrowing double life that most North Koreans have to live: to be bombarded with messages from the ruling elite about the near-divinity of the country’s founding father Kim Il-sung and the infallibility of his son Kim Jong-il while at the same time facing the everyday reality that their country is economically, socially, philosophically and morally bankrupt. Demick is an astonishing storyteller in the way that she brings all this together and gets her readers fully invested into these six people’s lives.

Hassig and Oh’s The Hidden People of North Korea paints its picture with much broader strokes. To its credit, the book focuses much of its attention on the most trying decade of North Korea’s history – the 1990s. How the DPRK managed to make it to the millennium without imploding is one of the great mysteries of contemporary international politics. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European communism in the early part of the decade crippled the country’s already precarious economy by depriving it of subsidized commodities. The death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 sent the North Korean people into a paralysis of grief that lasted three years. And the floods in the middle and later part of the decade destroyed crop yields that led to widespread famine. Hassig and Oh attempt to show how the combined force of these calamities affected (and continue to affect) the lives of North Koreans.

Unfortunately, the book is never quite able to deliver on the promise of its subtitle; this isn’t really a story about everyday life in the Hermit Kingdom. Hassig and Oh spend nearly a third of their text providing historical and sociopolitical context on North Korea, as well as a detailed description of the opulent lifestyle that Kim Jong-il is known to lead – information that is available from numerous other sources. They claim that these details are important to understanding the rest of the book, but I never really sensed that they nailed the connection. It would have been better to dive right in to life on the ground, to show us the struggles and hardships that North Koreans experience on a day-to-day basis.

I will give them credit: once they get going, Hassig and Oh provide a detailed, bird’s eye analysis of how the North Korean system works (or more accurately, doesn’t). Their sections on the economy, the way the media operates, the propaganda machine, and the Kafkaesque legal system are thorough and engaging. And like Demick, Hassig and Oh go to great lengths to show how ideology and reality are now completely at odds with one another in North Korea. Despite the Kim regime’s best attempts to stop it, there is a grassroots embracing of small-scale capitalism happening in the streets and markets of North Korea; people have lost faith in the idea of a communist paradise.

Ultimately, the stories of North Korea belongs to North Koreans themselves, and its through their eyes that these stories must be told. To that end, Demick does a much better job than Hassig and Oh. Still, as a purveyor and proponent of literature, I can’t help but wonder if we'll get something more than a nonfiction account of the country; I wonder if North Koreans have ever captured their own disastrous circumstances through the art of fiction. Is it possible that North Korea is secretly harbouring its own version of a Mikhail Bulgakov, a Yuri Daniel or an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Perhaps if there is a thaw in the country after the inevitable death of Kim Jong-il, we’ll be lucky enough to find out.


  1. "I wonder if North Koreans have ever captured their own disastrous circumstances through the art of fiction."

    The North Korean defectors are busy trying to forget their pasts and assimilate into their new lives. The North Koreans who still live in the country cannot even eat let alone breathe a word of dissidence, explicit or implicit. They don't have electricity, Internet, proper pen and paper, let alone write about their plights. The ones who have the privilege to write are more interested in protecting their own status and stay in favour with the regime.

    How do you expect them to "captured their own disastrous circumstances through the art of fiction"?

    I have finished the book "Nothing to Envy" yesterday and midst of writing a short review. I agree with you that Demick offers a human face to the NK plight and does a better job than anyone could.

  2. Hi JoV,

    Good points, all. Thanks for the comment.

    I guess I'm not really "expecting" so much as "wondering" if such a thing is/was/could be possible. Much like how the lunacy of Stalin gave birth to the works of Bulgokov, and the hardships of Breznev gave birth to the works of Daniels and Solzhenitsyn, I'm curious if North Korea's insane society has ever spurred a citizen or two to render their plight through an act of literature.

    But your point is well taken - most art in the DPRK is created for the express purpose of propping up the Kim regime, and those interested in creating anything else are probably too busy fighting for their very basic survival.

  3. Hi Mark, You made a good point there! My apologies if I have been harsh. :)

    After reading the book, which paint a picture so bleak, the idea of a citizen or two would render their plight through act of literature seems so remote, remotely remote.... I hope the day will come when the defectors will put out their loud speakers and speak out to the world and mobilise support for the plight of their countrymen.