Sunday, 4 April 2010

Inside North Korea

Cruising the Nile, I have been reading Barbara Demick's superb and disturbing account of life in North Korea, Nothing to Envy. Demick, an LA Times reporter who has covered Korea and China, uses the stories of six very different defectors to give an extraordinary account inside the world's most secretive country. She describes the brainwashing from birth and the absence of external information that combined to produce a zealous devotion (at least outwardly) to the Dear Leader, with people whose fortitude and reilience was extraordinary. People's lives are regulated in extraordinary detail. There are (at least in the early stages) none of the Soviet queues here as the state provides an allocation of food every fortnight and even haircuts are provided by an assembly line of hairdresssers (men one side, women the other) by the Orwellian Convenience Bureau.

Demick's witnesses move from various degrees of loyalty to varying degrees of disillusion as the Soviet Union's collapse prompts a horrendous famine that drives people to sell their meagre goods to buy from a newly emerging black market (often filled with Western aid produce) or to cook grass instead of rice. One of her witnesses, a doctor, is confronted with the disappearance of basic supplies and an expectation that she add to her 12 hour day with time picking herbs for medicine in the mountains. Electricity - the spread of which was a genuine advance in North Korea - is rationed to an hour a day. Big Brother meanwhile starts a campaign to spread a message extolling the delights of 'two meals a day' instead of three, though getting one is a challenge even for the starving children at the infant school.

All the while the propaganda is strengthened about the evils of South Korea (for whom some rumours suggest the state is stockpiling food to feed its 'starving people' after reunification) and the USA. Some brave souls manage (at huge personal risk - state police can visit at any hour) to listen to South Korean radio, adjusting blocks on their sets to do so. Mrs Song, the once loyal party apparatchik, has her faith in the Leader dimmed by a request to provoke critiques of the regime - something likely to result in years in a labour camp with 200,000 other unfortunates - from her neighbours who turn silent in her presence. Gradually, we see people escaping into China - where they can be turned back by the Chinese - in a bid either to fly to Seoul on a false passport or to go by land to Mongolia where the country is more tolerant and will deport them to South rather than North Korea. Even reaching South Korea has its own difficulties as fraudsters find ways to relieve them of their $20,000 welcome money and adjusting to such a different world is difficult. There is also the guilt of leaving family behind to their unpleasant fate as unwitting relatives of defectors. This is a story that deserves the widest possible airing. Barbara Demick's book is as important in telling the personal story of North Korea as Jung Chang's was in taking us through the Chinese Cultural Revolution. It is a chilling, but essential read.

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