Saturday, 4 June 2011

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau 2009)

'We have nothing to envy in the world' go the lyrics to a song taught by Mi-Ran (she plays the accordion which is as we learn something that all teachers in North Korea are required to do because they are lightweight, cheap and music is a good tool for indoctrination) to a class of five and six year old children whom starvation has made look three or four and whose attendance numbers have ominously dropped down from fifty to fifteen.

'If you look at a satellite photo of the Far East at night, you'll see a splotch curiously lacking light' this Barbara Demick informs us is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In this darkness Mi-Ran and Jun-Sang can avoid the eyes of nosy neighbours by walking down the pitch-black streets unseen. Mi-Ran is from the lowest caste in North Korean society (beulsun - literally tainted blood) , her father was a soldier from the South taken prisoner by the North during the Korean War and with no hope of repatriation his family are forever condemned to the bottom rung. Jun-Sang is of an impeccable background and his good marks in chemistry mean that he has a future at one of the military universities in Pyongyang, the showtown capital of North Korea and a union with a beulsun would ruin his prospects.

Demick follows the lives of six protagonists from the same town, Chongjin and through them we experience vignettes of life in a country that has become a virtual black hole of information. We hear of infrastructure shutting down as people are no longer paid for their work and where a much more productive use of time is foraging for food, first rations from the government, then dogs and cats in the neighbourhood, then rats and mice and finally whatever plants and roots that can be boiled and made edible. The scale of privation is sometimes overwhelming but the book offers light at the end of the tunnel as the six escape to tell their stories.Although not every escape story is a success and China is all to willing to hand escapees back over to the Pyongyang regime where labour-camps and worse await their return.

North Korea is often in the news for its sabre-rattling nuclear experimentation. What this book so brilliantly does is to pierce the veil of secrecy they have erected and give insight into the lives of everyday people and one has to wonder how life can still exist like this in a world of such plenty.  Very compelling.