Review: “Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick

If there was a competition for the “most pointless” country in the world, North Korea would be a strong contender. It has built up a preposterous cult of personality around a political non-entity, and military might on top of a base of impoverished people. It attacks others for no reason, indeed, even when such an action is undeniably detrimental to its own interests. It is a wasteland of blighted lives, stunted hopes, and futile dreams.

The reaction in the West to North Korea’s antics reflects a dilemma: yes, it may be the moral and necessary thing to do something about it, but really, what can be done? All-out war is not the answer. Further sanctions would hurt the average citizen far more than the leadership. Bruce Anderson, a columnist for the Independent, recently expressed the exasperation of many by suggesting the best solution for all concerned would be if China arranged a coup.

Whatever decisions are taken in the capitals of the West or in Beijing, there is one set of victims that should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind: the North Korean people. Barbara Demick’s recent book, “Nothing to Envy” provides a powerful reminder of their continued suffering.

Demick’s study focuses on the industrial city of Chongjin, which is not far from the Chinese border. Rather cleverly, her narrative is not a recitation of cold facts and statistics outlining the stagnation, oppression and decline within North Korea; instead, she focus on individual narratives of those lucky few who have escaped the regime’s clutches.

One of the first revelations is that propaganda, even in our modern, cynical age, still works. A thread of patriotic fervour does run through the North Korean populace, albeit its effect is muted when people are reduced to eating tree bark. With so few sources of outside information, the idea that elsewhere is worse still retains some potency.

Another revelation is the presence of a very rigid class structure: if one has family or origins from south of the border, that immediately makes one suspect, lower class. Anyone from a higher echelon dare not associate with someone from the lower levels. This stuffy hierarchy leads to one of the more touching stories in the book, that of a young lady of a lower caste (named Mi-ran), and a young man from a higher one (called Jun-sang). They could not meet in broad daylight, and the usual awkward fumblings of a blossoming romance were not open to them. Rather, expressions of affection were confined to long walks in the darkness: these sojurns were facilitated by the lack of night time lighting in North Korea, a phenomenon that has been observed from space. They would talk, they felt the pull of love, but the regime’s cultural impositions were so stultifying and blatant that their burgeoning romance was strangled by it.

But even the more-privileged classes have nowhere really useful to go: Jun-sang was admitted to one of the finest universities in the country (described as the North Korean equivalent of MIT), in Pyongyang. He trained in the sciences and technology. However after he defected to the South, he found out that his knowledge was entirely out of date (for example, North Korea doesn’t teach their technologists how to use the internet); his education proved to be utterly pointless. I couldn’t help but think of this as a metaphor for North Korea’s aspirations and efforts.

North Korea’s aspirations for equality were bunk as well. We are presented with the plight of older people; as the economic crisis bit down, factories were closed, and workers told to go home. Many simply starved to death; Demick gives estimates ranging up to 2 million dead due to famine and disease, and we are acquainted with the horrors behind the statistics. Although private enterprise was and is illegal in North Korea, those who wanted to remain alive were forced to become entrepreneurs. Some of the businesses mentioned were stomach churning: I’d rather not think about the faux North Korean version of ice cream which includes bean paste as an ingredient. Another individual whose life is described in detail, a Mrs. Song, sold the North Korean equivalent of cookies, which also sounded less than appetising. Others were forced to become outright criminals; we are also presented with the tale of another young man named Kim Hyuck who was forced to steal in order to live. He was eventually jailed for his offences.

For those with a bit more gumption or perhaps desperation, the Chinese border represented another opportunity: Ms. Demick describes the wonderment of those who are able swim across the Tumen River, even in freezing conditions, only to find that the Chinese are well fed and prosperous. It was via this route that most defected, either alone, or with the assistance of criminal gangs. All in all, however, we are left with the spectacle and travesty of a so-called “workers state” that criminalises its own people in their plight just to remain alive.

One might think that the defectors’ arrival in the South would allow them to pick up the pieces of their lives. Indeed, Jun-sang and Mi-ran, the couple who took long walks in the dark, were reunited: however, their romance was unable to continue in the new setting. Mi-ran had married someone else by the time Jun-sang arrived; the changed circumstances meant that the initial spark was no longer there. Those defectors who were closer to their lives’ sunset than sunrise find it difficult to cope with the sheer din of a truly modern society. At least, however, they now live outside the shadow that threatened them, bullied them, made them enemies merely by existing.

Demick’s book provides an important service: as the international community struggles with North Korea and tries to figure out how best to reconcile with it, we need to be mindful that it is not just other nations which are fighting with the regime, it is its own citizens. The threat to them is far worse than any promises of war that Pyongyang may make. One day, the regime is likely to collapse (to use a Marxist phrase) due to its own contradictions. “Nothing to Envy” reminds us that this moment can’t come soon enough.

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