Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
For those informed about the dire situation of the vast majority of people living in North Korea, it’s tough to laugh along with The Interview (2014), a newly released and controversial American comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen. This mediocre film, in which two journalists travel to Pyongyang and are recruited by the CIA to assassinate the dictator Kim Jong Un, has perhaps only one virtue: the publicity it generated brought some much-needed international attention to the plight of the North Korean people.
In reality, however, the situation in North Korea is far from amusing. Most of the country’s 25 million inhabitants live the kinds of lives imagined by George Orwell in his worst fictionalized nightmare, 1984. Divided by castes determined by their “patriotic” ranking; forced into jobs chosen by the government then burdened by indoctrination sessions after work for hours each day; fearing being turned in by friends, colleagues and family members for the slightest negative political remark and being sent to prison or labor camps, North Koreans live in a state of terror reminiscent of Orwell’s communist dystopia.
In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (New York: Spiegel and Grau, Random House, 2009), journalist Barbara Demick offers a penetrating look into this nearly impermeable country. Even from hundreds of miles away, she begins her account, North Korea resembles a black hole: “If you look at satellite photographs of the Far East by night, you’ll see a splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea. Next to this mysterious black hole, South Korea, Japan, and now China fairly gleam with prosperity” (3). Demick follows the lives of six defectors from North Korea over the course of 15 years, offering an overview of the country’s history and a glimpse of its all-pervasive political repression through the optic of beautifully narrated personal interest stories.
Generations of North Koreans have never truly known freedom. In 1910, the Japanese Empire annexed Korea. During WWII, Koreans were subjected to unspeakable cruelty at the hands of their Japanese oppressors. Korean women and girls were forced into sexual slavery in the infamous Japanese “comfort houses,” where they were repeatedly gang raped. Countless Koreans were incarcerated in prison camps, tortured and murdered. When the war ended, Korea was divided into two parts: the North became Communist, falling under the influence of China and the Soviet Union, while the South was controlled by the United States. When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25 1950, it launched the superpowers into the Korean War, a “proxy” military struggle for influence on Korean territory. When the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in July 1953, the country reverted to boundaries very close to the original division between North and South Korea. The 2.5 mile buffer area between the two sides, called the Korean Demilitarized Zone, is, despite its name, the most militarized zone in the world.
Under the totalitarian leader Kim Il Sung, while still accepting Soviet aid, North Korea distanced itself politically from China and the Soviet Union by pursuing “Juche”, an ideology of self-reliance. Most of the country’s resources become channeled into its military, as North Korea observes a “Songun” or militaristic policy. The military absorbs over a third of the population, including nearly 10 million active, reserve and paramilitary personnel. The fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s sealed North Korea’s economic fate. Deprived of Soviet aid, the country sank into poverty, unemployment and widespread famine. As Demick documents, once Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong Un, took over control of the country after his father’s death in 1994, North Korea’s isolation became absolute and the political repression intensified. Nowadays starvation is a commonplace phenomenon. The North Koreans even have a name for the tens of thousands of starving children who resort to begging in the street to survive: “little swallows”.
While the vast majority of the population of North Korea lives in darkness and squalor, their leader enjoys extreme luxury and wealth. In a recent article in The New York Times, “Pyongyang’s Hunger Games”, Joshua Stanton and Sung-Yoon Lee state that Kim Jung-Un is said to have squandered $645,800,000 on luxury goods in 2012, “including cosmetics, handbags, leather products, watches, electronics, cars and top-shelf alcohol. In that same year Mr. Kim also spent 1.3 billion dollars on his ballistic missile program” (March 7, 2014).
Demick’s account personalizes the politics of North Korea by showing how it affects ordinary citizens. She tells the story of Mi-Ran, a young woman who was a teacher by profession. Mi-Ran fell in love like anyone living in a free country. Well, not like exactly like anyone else since, as Demick explains,
“the country doesn’t have a dating culture. Many marriages are still arranged, either by families or by party secretaries or bosses” (80). Mi-Ran may have felt the same emotions for the young man she cared about as do people living in free societies, but she couldn’t be with him because her political dossier was tainted by the fact that her father was a South Korean POW. The young woman may have experienced empathy like most human beings do in normal circumstances, but her situation was far from ordinary. In a country ravaged by hunger, she watched as her students wasted away from starvation, eventually disappearing without a trace from the classroom, one by one. Barely having enough food to survive herself, Mi-Ran couldn’t help them. Her empathy eventually gave way to indifference, a common survival tactic: “What she didn’t realize is that her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring” (130). Mi-Ran regained her humanity and put the political situation of her country in proper perspective only once she immigrated to South Korea.
Even Mrs. Song, a model patriotic citizen, eventually overcome the fear and the brainwashing instilled by her government. Each of the defectors interviewed by Demick eventually saw North Korea for what it is: a totalitarian country ruled by a voracious despot, whose personality cult may be so over-the-top as to become an object of satire for those living in freedom, but who transforms the lives of the people of North Korea into a tragic nightmare.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon