If it wasn’t for the sheer misery of most of its luckless inhabitants, wouldn’t the World be a duller place without North Korea? There really is no place quite like it, a surreal time capsule largely devoid of mobile phones, cars and electric light; a land presided over by the World’s first hereditary Communist, Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, whose deceased father remains Eternal President of the place I like to call the “Land of Eternal Happiness.”
Less charitable types have described North Korea as like “Upper Volta with nuclear weapons,” but its strange fascination has drawn me there at least half a dozen times, even if on the first occasion I was arrested at Pyongyang railway station for being in possession of a camera. That same fascination drew Los Angeles Times and Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Barbara Demick to the weird and wonderful World of the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea – or more precisely to the life stories of six residents of the closed Northern city of Chongjin, who had finally managed to defect to South Korea.
I was prepared to be disappointed by her, and anxiously anticipated the inevitable errors and exaggerations, some of which were surely bound to come from the defectors. This was most certainly not because I doubted that the North’s “Arduous March,” Kim Jong Il’s euphemism for the wave of slow starvation that eventually carried off millions of his fellow citizens that followed the collapse of Communism elsewhere and the ending of bartered trade, actually happened. I doubted that a journalist, who by her own estimation made only a couple of fleeting, heavily chaperoned trips to the North’s show piece capital, could really tell us anything new. But Demick to her great credit has, and succeeded in doing so through the eyes of six ordinary North Koreans, who she interviewed at great length. “Nothing to Envy – Real Lives in North Korea,” is in parts intensely moving, detailing as it does the travails of loyal Communists, such as the matronly Mrs Song, block superintendent and model worker, whose tortured account of the gradual mothballing of a whole city as the factories close and the food distribution system seizes up, moves finally to a day in 1993, when there is nothing to eat at all. There are the lovers, one a bright young student, destined for membership of the Workers Party, and therefore a life of comparative privilege, the other a Chongjin girl whose father had once offended the regime and was therefore doomed to a life of drudgery. This is a chaste relationship – for there is no sex before marriage in North Korea – and one conducted largely in the dark, furtive but romantic, an affair that never progresses beyond holding hands, before quickly burning out under the bright neon lights of South Korea where everything and anything is possible and therefore loses its illicit zeal.
It is through these six lives that answers are provided as to how, alone, North Korea survived the collapse of Communism. “Self-Reliance” is the essence of a system based largely on Confucian Emperor worship, and is married to a strict totalitarianism that makes Erich Honnecker’s East Germany look like a holiday camp. Even when the North’s economy was in free fall, when virtually nothing was being produced apart from military hardware, and when sections of the population were forced to eat corn husks, grass and ground down Pine bark, still the system with its honed informants, labour camps and four million strong military, functioned, after a fashion. None of Demick’s defectors had of course any idea of what was happening elsewhere in the World. For theirs was one where transistor radios were disabled and tuned into domestic services only, where there was no Internet, no mobile phones and a rigorous system of internal passes largely forbade internal travel. North Korea – the ‘Hermit State’ – managed, and manages to hermetically seal its inhabitants off from any disruptive outside influences, while at the same time inculcating a belief that North Korea is a paradise.
But as Demick’s defector’s recount, and after the remarkable tales of how they escaped to China, sometimes beyond to Mongolia and then finally to the “Capitalist roaders of South Korea,” not all of them made the transition. For all of the terrible suffering and darkness of the North, some missed the close knit communities, others recalled better times in the Communist North, where rudimentary healthcare had been free, and in the 1970s at least, work and food for all.
“Nothing to Envy” is the first of its kind, an almost photographic description of the near impossibility of keeping a full belly and an inquiring mind during that terrible decade of slow starvation in North Korea. Those who still hang on to the idea that the North stands ready to implode under the weight of its own contradictions, will be disappointed, as will those who think that the country’s neighbours want it to. They don’t, because they fear the waves of desperate migrants that could unleash. The real shock to any reader is that the World Demick’s defectors paint is not taken from the early years of the last century, but from its final decade.
“Nothing to Envy, Real Lives in North Korea,” by Barbara Demick, Granta £14.99