Fascinating insight from defectors into blighted lives in a benighted country


BOOK OF THE DAY: Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North KoreaBy Barbara Demick. Granta. 314 pp. £14.99

TO VIEW a night-time satellite picture of the Korean peninsula is to witness the South bathed in artificial light and the North plunged into darkness. This fact alone became symbolically important for George W Bush on his visit to Korea in 2002. It is a fact that has deeply impressed itself on Barbara Demick. Demick is the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, having spent nearly 10 years as its Korean correspondent.

The author has interviewed more than 100 defectors from North Korea and concentrates on the stories of six such defectors from the north-eastern city of Chongjin. It is a fascinating study in the oral history of Korea in the last decade of the twentieth century.

This work is not for the squeamish with its tales of mass starvation, brutal political repression, gulags, personal betrayal, and a communist regime which seems oblivious to the suffering and hardships it inflicts on its own people.

Demick weaves the testimony of the individuals concerned into the narrative of the salient points of Korea’s modern history, from Japanese imperialist conquest and domination in the period 1910-1945, the partition of the country at the end of the second World War, the Korean War and the decades of partition since.

Until the mid-1960s the South, not fully democratic until 1997, was more economically backward than the North. Kim Il-sung, the North Korean dictator, cleverly manipulated tensions between China and Russia to ensure enormous economic assistance from the rival superpowers. However, since the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe and with the liberalisation of China’s economy, North Korean fortunes have gone into freefall. They reached a low point between 1995 and 1999 in a widespread famine in which, it is estimated, between 600,000 and 2,500,000 people died.

The famine, grotesquely named the “arduous march” by the government, dominates the testimonies of the individuals who are detailed in the book.

The sheer drudgery of scavenging for food, watching loved ones die of starvation, and the indifference to others that suffering brings makes for harrowing reading. Equally at times the witnesses strain the credulity of even the most sympathetic reader. Time and again one feels that these six individuals must have photographic memories and some of the details of the scams they attempt are simply incredible.

There can be no doubting, however, the constant propaganda war that the North carries on in a manner that almost amounts to the brainwashing of an entire nation. Kim had assumed god-like status for his people and his death in 1994 caused quite extraordinary scenes of spontaneous outpourings of grief.

At the same time reading the accounts of how the authorities control every aspect of the lives of North Koreans one is constantly reminded of Orwell’s 1984. Indeed one of the defectors, when reading that novel, could only marvel at how accurately Orwell seemed to predict the operations of what would become the “Korean Workers’ Party” paradise.

Demick does not spare us the details of the difficulties faced by defectors who end up in South Korea. The loneliness, cultural disorientation and inability to integrate can produce social paralysis. Some even defend the repression they have escaped.

Nothing to Envy– the title comes from a piece of propaganda aimed at hoodwinking gullible North Korean citizens – is a fascinating work which highlights in the lives of the individuals concerned the triumph of the human spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Oliver Rafferty SJ teaches church history at Heythrop College, University of London. In 1998 he was visiting professor of European history at Sogang University, Seoul.