Sunday, April 10, 2011

Barbara Demick: Nothing to Envy

If it's reasonable to say that the average American knows very little about North Korea due to the American government's lingering resentment against communism and/or dictatorships, and due to the North Korean's unwillingness to share the truth with the outside world, then it's even more reasonable to say that prior to reading "Nothing to Envy," I knew even less than the average American about North Korea. I can honestly say that I didn't know what the Korean War was all about- a major gap in my schooling. In 1948, Korea was arbitrarily divided into two countries along the 38th Parallel by post WWII countries, "giving" the upper half of the peninsula to the communists and the southern half to a democratic-backed government. Demick explains that this arbitrary line was particularly destructive to the Korean peninsula which was historically more segregated along vertical rather than horizontal lines. War ensued after communist North Korea invaded an ill-prepared South Korea. The US and the UN jumped in and drove back North Korea, but the states ended up back where they artificially started, at the 38th Parallel, still in hostilities. Technically, the Koreas are still at war. The colonialism-style division of the country has resulted in a permanent state of war whether a civil war or over a "real" border, and in the resulting tragedy of North Korea.

I had no idea how bad it is. The above picture, taken in 2010, similar to one that opens Demick's book, is a satellite shot of North and South Korea, bordered by China and Russia in the Northwest. North Korea is totally dark, with the exception of the capital city, Pyongyang. North Korea is totally dark because there is no electricity. There is nothing left- no food, no electricity, no industry, no exports, no children. There are no children because they are the first to die of starvation-related diseases as their emaciated bodies cannot fight things like typhoid and pneumonia without nutrition. South Korea, meanwhile, is a thriving part of the global economy. Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, father and son dictators hold the dubious title as the longest standing dictatorship in the modern world at over five decades.

Demick figured out how to bring the truth of North Korea home to her readers, working around the difficulties of accessing North Korea and figuring out how to gain the trust of North Koreans accustomed to punishment for truth-telling. One in four people in an average North Korean neighborhood is known to be a spy, and they will encourage neighbors to talk smack about the country and the Dear Leaders just to get these nay-sayers shipped off to tortuous prisons. Demick modestly earns the trust of defectors, even ones who were previously these cadres- card-carrying believers in the regime. "Nothing to Envy" (a lyric from a North Korean song- North Koreans in fact have much to envy) tells the story of North Korea since the "Korean War" through the eyes of six North Koreans who Demick has met in South Korea. There is nothing "typical" about the defectors- what can be typical about starving and coping with brainwashing?- but the way Demick follows the lives of the six men and women tells much about North Korea and the individuals.

In this short video, you can see that only a few factories remain operating:

You can read a short version of Demick's New Yorker article (which is a short version of the book) and get a feeling for one of the characters, Mrs Song. Mrs Song believed in the regime, like many many North Koreans. Her family starved to death while she herself starved and struggled to avoid doing anything remotely illegal (like buying or trading food on the black market) while feeding her family. Still, she maintained that better times would come if she followed the teachings of her leaders. The terrible situation she lived in, she believed, must be due to the terrible Americans. Eventually, Mrs Song's daughter tricks her into defecting to South Korea.

This is not the happy ending that it sounds: Demick details the difficulty that faces North Koreans have both in getting out of North Korea and in adjusting to South Korean life. South Korea believes that it is the rightful owner of the entire Korean peninsula, so North Koreans have citizenship in North Korea, if they can manage to get there. They can't just walk into an embassy- there aren't any in North Korea- and China will also not accept North Koreans in embassies- they return North Koreans to North Korea. Basically, North Koreans have to get to South Korea on their own- a virtually impossible task on an empty stomach and in a country with worthless money. Once the defectors get to their new country, they're faced with modernity like they've never seen- cars and full time electricity and clothes and things that the majority of the world takes for granted. Forty percent of the population suffers from stunted growth, resulting in out sized heads and short stature. North Koreans even look different. They think differently, as no one is immune to the predominant cultural memes in heir country, and in North Korea, the level of indoctrination is severe.

"Nothing to Envy" is an eye-opening must read. The question left unanswered is how long can this last? How long can an entire country subsist on grass? How many more people can die in prison camps? Andrew Scobell gives some possible answers, but in a less than satisfying manner. About ten years ago, everyone was sure that North Korea would fall- things had to change. Reading "Nothing to Envy," I was sure things had to change, too, but Scobell argues that the country will change, sooner or later, but not now. What will happen to all of the people left in North Korea? What kind of intervention is warranted? With the Cold War over, does the rest of the world have a responsibility to the North Korean people, outside of keeping the world "safe" from communism? Somewhere around 40% of Koreans are in the military, which doesn't keep anyone from starving, or provide heat or electricity, i.e. keep the North Korean people safer. Now what?