Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book #3: Nothing to Envy

I didn't anticipate a nearly three-week absence from writing, but I was busy enough with work that writing felt like a chore than an activity, ironic because I've had three half-written posts sitting around that entire time.

As expected, I bought and finished Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea in a matter of days. One of the few positives of the seemingly never-ending disaster that is North Korea is that a few excellent journalists and excellent writers have taken it upon themselves to tell the story. To tell this overwhelming story well, I think, requires focusing on a mere portion.

Demick, whose full-time job is as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, does just this, focusing on the lives of a group of defectors she met from the northeastern city of Chongjin. Demick goes farther than virtually any writer who focuses on North Korean defectors, noting that they're a particular case because most North Koreans who escape tend to come from the northeast. This produces biases in discussing events such as the famine of the '90s (I learned the North Korean term is 고난의 행군, March of Tribulations), where the obviously catastrophic events are exaggerated by the fact that the famine was worst in the northeastern province of North Hamgyung.

Demick also goes farther in largely avoiding the two issues that Western media focuses on, maybe because they're the only two that can be covered without talking to a North Korean, the issues of the Kim family dynasty and North Korea's nuclear program. Instead, we're left to read about ordinary lives in North Korea in impressive detail.

There were a few things Demick wrote about which I've never seen written about anywhere in English, except maybe in passing. This was impressive considering that although Demick lived in South Korea for a number of years, she refers to gochujang/고추장 as made from red beans instead of red peppers, and considers the Joseon dynasty to have lasted for about a thousand years instead of about five hundred.

First, she described in excellent detail the North Korean caste system, which is only hinted about elsewhere. Families are divided into various levels of loyalty to the state depending on their status during the infancy the North Korean state. Japanese collaborators, those who come from South Korea (and fought for the South during the war), the wealthy and the Christian rank very low, while peasants and those who fought with distinction for the Korean People's Army rank highly.

This might be obvious, but the extent to which this determines the life of North Koreans is impressive. Demick writes about students who were denied admission into teacher's college because their father had fought for the South Koreans decades earlier, and about a couple who could not marry because the caste differences would ruin the life of the man, who ranked as high as the woman ranked low.

Demick also writes about North Hamgyung province, noting its status during the Joseon dynasty as a place to exile troublemakers, a sort of Australia within the Korean peninsula where tigers might well have outnumbered people once upon a time. This might account for its relatively rebellious disposition to this day, she notes. She also notes the inhospitable climate and terrain, making it a harsh and undesirable place but not one without its beauty.

Also interesting about Demick's work is the way it connects the bulk of reporting about North Korea, centred in Pyongyang and centred around the state apparatus, to the real lives of ordinary people. Her interviews show that scenes like this after kim il sung's death, while spontaneous to some degree, were also supervised. North koreans were required to visit local statues of Kim Il-sung with their work group and show the appropriate amount of grief.

It's worth noting, also, that North Koreans feel an attachment to their country like anyone else. Even North Koreans who hated the country feel a certain level of attachment to the country, often against South Korean life, and regret that their lives often came at great expense. One defector made a particularly successful transition to life in South Korea, completing a master's degree and marrying a South Korean army officer. However, she is fairly certain that the sisters she left behind died for her defection. "My sisters died so I can drive a Hyundai," she notes (not the exact wording).

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are the moments North Korean defectors realize as shocking them about the outside world, one I enjoy for the way they illustrate the gulf between North Korea and the outside world, both for information and standards of living.

One North Korean, hearing a radio drama depicting an argument over parking spaces, could not understand a country with so many cars that deciding where to put them all was an issue. Another wrote of seeing white rice and meat on the ground, a virtually unheard-of meal in the North, not realizing that it was food for animals. There was the woman who heard that her daughter was in Hanguk (what South Koreans call their country), and asked "where is that? Shenyang (a regional Chinese city)?"

A North Korean soldier once got his hands on an American-made nail clipper and marveled at how well-made it was, wondering "if North Korea couldn't make such a fine nail clipper, how could it compete with American weapons?" Even propaganda contained little clues, the sort we wouldn't notice, but the sort noticed by people who have been fed lies. A propaganda photograph of a South Korean student on a picket line showed that he "wore a jacket with a zipper and had a ballpoint pen in his pocket, both of which were luxuries at the time."

What makes Demick's book such a great read is that it sets out to accomplish a relatively limited task, and does it well. This is not a book about all ordinary lives in North Korea, but six ordinary lives in North Korea, and six people from a single city at that. It is not meant to be any more, and in its limited scope we can both better understand North Korea, as well as better put into context the small details so often missing from writing on the subject.


Tuttle said...

Sounds like an interesting book, thanks for the write-up. I trust I can get it here.

In Aquariums of Pyongyang, defector Kang Chol-hwan writes movingly of his experience upon encountering the reality of life in the South. Forgive my self-linking, but I transcribed the best part here: http://seoulpatch.blogspot.com/2008/10/book-report-aquariums-of-pyongyang.html

Adeel said...

Thanks, I also read that a few years ago and enjoyed it just as much.

Tip: order online from Kyobo and pick it up an hour later. I saved $7 that way.