Nothing to Envy
Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Spiegel & Grau: 320 pp., $26
In her early 20s, Mi-ran became a schoolteacher in a North Korean village not far from where her parents lived. She was lucky: Her father, a southerner taken prisoner by the north during the Korean War and not allowed to repatriate, was politically suspect, which meant that Mi-ran’s family occupied a low rung in the politically defined caste system imposed by Kim Il-sung (postwar head of state and father of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s current leader). That could well have barred Mi-ran’s entry to teacher’s college, for the family was considered beulsun, to have “tainted blood,” a stigma that carries across generations and did thwart her siblings’ entry to schools.
The unlucky -- the ghastly -- part of Mi-ran’s experience was that when she encountered the 5- and 6-year-olds who were to be her classroom charges, she noted that they “looked no bigger to her than three- and four-year-olds” and might have been present only to eat the school’s free lunch, a soup constituted from leaves and salt. Over time, attendance thinned ominously, from 50 children to 15. As Barbara Demick writes in “Nothing to Envy,” a piercing account of the lives of a handful of North Korean refugees, Mi-ran “described watching her five- and six-year-old pupils die of starvation. As her students were dying, she was supposed to teach them that they were blessed to be North Korean.” The Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, Demick takes her title from a song of national pride that teachers commonly had their classes sing, which claimed, “We have nothing to envy in the world.”
Demick has woven together life stories of half a dozen defectors that credibly suggest a human rights tragedy of enormous proportion is taking place relatively out of Western public view, while the news headlines (for good reason) focus on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
The country’s 23 million inhabitants contend not only with extreme privation in a land of rusted train tracks, exceedingly sporadic electricity and chronic, life-threatening food shortages, but also do so under an information blackout in a police state apt to whisk inhabitants off to labor camps or worse at the slightest provocation.
A recent report in the Washington Post noted that the military has recently “grabbed nearly complete command of the nation’s state-run economy,” taking over sale of raw materials to China to replace hard cash lost under U.N. sanctions imposed to block its sale of missiles. Defectors who claim firsthand knowledge report that Kim Jong-il skims from the profits to fund himself, his nuclear program and to ensure the loyalty of elites, and that “the military is also sending trucks to state farms to haul away as much as a quarter of the annual harvest for its soldiers,” as well as posting guards there.
Those recent state actions were almost predictable, judging from “Nothing to Envy,” in which Demick follows her subjects on a trajectory of self-chosen exile that, roughly, extends from the mid-1990s in North Korea to the mid-2000s as expatriates.
Demick characterizes her book as “primarily an oral history,” but it contains strong cultural portraiture as well, including an excellent evocation of the largely idled industrial city of Chongjin, a northern port and the country’s third-largest metropolis, from which some of her refugees hailed or had connections. (Demick’s book originated from reporting she did for the Times as a correspondent based in Seoul.)
In its way, and graphically, this book demonstrates that global issues of nuclear proliferation, free expression and human rights are inextricably intertwined in North Korea, with its cult-of-personality rule and its gulags (Amnesty International estimates some 200,000 people sit in various detention facilities there). A doctor named Kim Ji-eun, another of Demick’s primary sources, dealt with famine victims firsthand and provided testimony eerily paralleling Mi-ran’s: As a 28-year-old pediatrician at a small district hospital, Kim noticed severe wasting (in which the body eats its own muscle tissue) among many of the children. “They would look at me with accusing eyes. Even four-year-olds knew they were dying and that I wasn’t doing anything to help them,” Kim told Demick. “All I was capable of doing was to cry with their mothers over the bodies afterward.” Her hospital became so strapped that it remained unheated, bandages were fashioned from cut-up bedding, and beer bottles substituted for IV pouches.
Some of Demick’s people were longtime supporters of the North Korean regime until disenchantment and anger took hold. Dr. Kim found out accidentally that, despite her years-long volunteer service to the regime’s Worker’s Party, she was on a surveillance watch list, for example; and even a professional like her was forced to scavenge in the countryside for edible weeds to eat. Others became skeptical at an early age. Jun-sang, a relatively privileged youth whose Korean parents had been born in Japan, managed to get into a university in Pyongyang, the capital. His rare access to books of foreign origin (“Gone With the Wind,” “One Hundred Years of Solitude”), plus curiosity enough to rig a television to receive signals other than the preset government station’s, quickly created doubt in him about the worldview put forth by the state-controlled media.
Entering China on foot by wading across the Tumen River is a common path for many who seek escape from North Korea, with a small percentage eventually defecting to South Korea. Missionary efforts and bride-for-order schemes play a part in this process too, and defections have soared since 2001. Yet, as Demick chronicles and as an authoritative 2006 study she cites also points out, China “selectively cooperates with North Korean persecution of its refugees,” allowing North Korean security forces to cross the border while refusing area access to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Many, if not most, defectors would wish to return if there were a regime change, Demick concludes, given adjustment difficulties and the provisional feel that their lives sometimes take on.
As for Mi-ran, which incidentally is a pseudonym intended to protect relatives left behind, she lives in South Korea, but the fate of two sisters remains unknown. After her defection, they were taken away in the night.
Winslow is a former literary and executive editor of the Nation.