After reading Guy Delisle’s fascinating, but frustrating graphic memoir Pyongyang, I wanted to learn more about North Korea, and Aarti told me that this book by Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick was great, so I decided to give it a try. (I also have The Orphan Master’s Son out from the library.) Subtitled “Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” this book offers what Delisle’s book lacks: the voices of actual North Koreans.
As a correspondent assigned to Seoul, Demick actually had an advantage over Delisle. She could get into North Korea, but, like Delisle, she was escorted around by “minders” who ensured that she only saw and heard what the government wanted her to see and hear. However, in Seoul, she had access to North Korean defectors who had escaped to China or South Korea. You might think that defectors would be less than reliable sources; they disliked the country enough to leave it, but the people Demick focuses on were not all dissidents who left for political reasons. Some were looking for family, and one even had to be tricked into defecting. Among them were some true believers who, even as famine raged and electricity went out, thought that their government was looking out for them.
But by talking to actual North Koreans, Demick is able to draw a compassionate picture of what it’s like to live in a totalitarian state. This compassion is important. It’s all too easy to point and laugh at some of the ridiculous practices, like the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il that must hang alone on a wall in every home, always kept clean in case of a surprise inspection. Demick sees the danger and avoids it. She writes:
North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people. But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-Sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-Sung’s divinity. Who could possibly resist?
Demick focuses on six people, all of them from the industrial city of Chongjin. Despite being from the same city, these six people did not all have the same experience of North Korean life. Jun-Sang, for example, was a student who eventually earned the privilege of studying in Pyongyang. His secret girlfriend, Mi-Ran, was the daughter of a South Korean POW and therefore had no hope of gaining such status. She was lucky to get a job as a teacher. Dr. Kim felt beholden to the North Korean government for giving her an education. It was only after crossing the border to keep a promise to her father and seeing that dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea that she began to lose her loyalty. Kim Hyuck was an orphan who lived on the streets of Chongjin. Mrs. Song and her daughter Oak-Hee struggled during the famine, but they were each in their own ways wily enough to make money and survive even during the worst of the famine.
Mrs. Song was perhaps my favorite of the defectors. She’s loyal to the government almost to the end, but that doesn’t stop her from starting her own illegal business at age 50 to keep her and her family from starving. She was great—despite being among the most reluctant to leave Chongjin, she took up the freedom of South Korean life with gusto. There’s a photo of her near the end of the book browsing in a Seoul market, and it made me almost unbelievably happy. This is a woman who did everything the North Korean government told her too, only to lose almost everything in a famine. She watched her family members die, one by one, and was left living in a shack that didn’t even have a wall strong enough to hold her pictures of the supreme leaders. When that home was broken into, and everything stolen, including the glass from those portraits, she started another business.
This book spends a lot of time on people’s suffering, but there’s joy too. There’s joy in family and friends and young love. There’s joy in finding that last bit of money or food that enables another day or survival. There’s joy in learning about the world outside and experiencing it firsthand. It’s a fascinating look at the kind of place most of us will never see firsthand, but most of all, it’s a look at the people who managed to survive it. It’s a book about people, real people. And that’s what makes it good.