Thursday, February 07, 2013

[Books] Book Look: Nothing to Envy

Book Look: Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick: What stands out about North Korea is not really ideological. There have been plenty of communist dictatorships in the last century, all based on fear and propaganda, but there has never been anything like the total mind control efforts of North Korea. In North Korea a starving man can be told that his belly is full and he gets the gulag if he disagrees. Even without the threat of punishment, the North Korean approach to the world is almost comically false. The only way to visit is with an organized tour, during which you are monitored the entire time by a minimum of two handlers (so they can also keep an eye on each other) and every single person, place, and thing you encounter is carefully orchestrated to create an impression of normalcy. This, even though every visitor knows it is a lie, and every North Korean knows that every visitor knows that it is a lie. It's like a surreal, cinematic Orwellian dystopia come to life.

Of course, we can gawk, but people have to live (and frequently die) in it. In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick provides a truly remarkable look into living and dying in North Korea through deeply personal accounts of the lives of six defectors. All six started as loyal North Koreans (of varying passion) devoted to the image of North Korea as a communist paradise gifted to them by Kim il-Sung, who took on a godlike image. It's important to note that North Korea is not a garden variety communist state of the sort that was rather common in the second half of the 20th century. It is a place under complete lock-down. There is no (legal) source of information other than the word of the leadership, so there is no possibility for a non-conforming view. They could, and effectively do, say that beyond the borders there be dragons and no one has any reason to dispute that.

Of course there are always ways to get information, and desperate people will try ever more desperate ways. In the '50s and early '60s North Korea was actually ahead of South Korea in development. As market forces pushed South Korea ahead, the North still hung in there thanks to supportive assistance from the Soviet Union. The Wall falling was the demarcation point. The fall of the Soviet Union meant an end to aid to North Korea and the beginning of a terrible famine which, arguably, still continues today although the ongoing devastation is less dramatic than it was through the '90s. Desperation drove people across the Tumen River into China in far greater numbers than before. (It is estimated that less than a thousand people had defected from North Korea in the three-plus decades prior to the famine. Since then there are twice that many every year.)

Each of the defectors in this book has a different tale but they are variations on the theme that things got to a point where they could not stomach the charade anymore. For most it was the government's mortal demand that they believe in they were in a workers paradise in the face of all the devastation surrounding them. It is easy to accept a lie when you don't know any better. You can still convince yourself to believe if the consequences of skepticism are dire. But when things can't get any worse, when you are eating grass and tree bark, when everyone you know is dying or dead, faith can't stand.

Demick has woven a terrific narrative from years of interviews with these defectors. Their stories of life in the North and assimilation in the South are varied but uniformly compelling and utterly human. There is storybook romance of sorts -- two of defectors were young lovers in the North who eventually were reacquainted in the South. There is exultation and suffering; redemption and regret. All mixed in with societal background info in the just the right volume. It is an extremely well constructed book.

Should you read Nothing to Envy? Yes, absolutely. Parts are horrific, but told without excess bombast. The prose is clear as a bell and the pace is correct for the subject matter. I cannot imagine anyone not being both affected and fascinated by this book.

Related: Background from a recent trip to North Korea from Sophie Schmidt, who went with her father Eric as part of a delegation from Google. About what you'd expect. And this story from a former diplomat who got perhaps a less controlled, but still extremely limited, view of North Korea. I've read a few accounts such as these and in all cases I think it's good idea to be on guard against gawking and ironic thoughts. This is a truly nasty place, and any sense of entertainment should be tempered.