Sunday, January 07, 2018

Six North Korean lives

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a haunting narrative of six North Korean lives -- accounts of daily struggles, delights, loves and pain -- during the late 1980's through the early '00s. Barbara Demick, a Los Angeles Times journalist reporting from Seoul, South Korea, spent seven years interviewing her subjects and confirming as many details as possibly about a place from which she, like all outsiders, was barred. She follows a young couple who could never quite connect within their homeland; an older woman who was a true believer in the Kim family Confucian/Communist project and ends up a successful small entrepreneur; a doctor who saw one too many of her pediatric patients starve to death; and an orphan whose survival skills would probably cause him to be classified as a delinquent in any society. Since her subjects lived to tell their tales in South Korea, the reader knows how each story comes out. Yet Demick narrates the perilous and unexpected accidents of these lives so dramatically that I felt as if I was reading a novel. I cared what happened to these people.

Along the way, this book contains a lot of information and reflection about North Korea that is probably not common knowledge as we, the US people, make an unwilling audience for a couple of cartoon characters, ours and theirs, trading insults.

The division of the Korean peninsula is completely unnatural, an artifact of the messy end of World War II and the Cold War. For seventy years before 1945, this ancient kingdom was an unhappy colony of Japan. Because U.S. mapmakers feared Russian ambitions at the end of the Pacific war, they drew a line across the country, each big power occupying one half of Korea. The Korean war of 1950-1953 didn't lead a redrawing of that line (or, to this day, a peace treaty) but did leave two states, the capitalist South, long a corrupt dictatorship and then a democracy, and the Communist North, led by Kim Il-sung. Older Koreans remember when the North was the more prosperous society, materially bolstered by Soviet and Chinese governments. Kim was the author of his own brand of nationalist communism in a country his regime successfully walled off from the outside. Demick explains:

To a certain extent, all dictatorships are alike. ... all these regimes had the same trappings: the statues looming over every town square, the portraits hung in every office, the wristwatches with the dictator's face on the dial. But Kim Il-sung took the cult of personality to a new level. What distinguished him in the rogues gallery of twentieth-century dictators was his ability to harness the power of faith. Kim Il-sung understood the power of religion. His maternal uncle was a Protestant minister back in the pre-Communist days when Pyongyang had such a vibrant Christian community that it was called the "Jerusalem of the East." Once in power, Kim Il-sung closed the churches, banned the Bible, deported believers to the hinterlands, and appropriated Christian imagery and dogma for the purpose of self promotion.

The resulting nationalist, collective, Confucian/Communist mix, called juche, became the faith of the North. Kim's death in 1994 was a defining trauma for Demick's six protagonists. How to live on without the leader was not an abstract question for North Koreans.

The question was exacerbated by the consequences for North Koreans of the collapse of Soviet Communism and the emergence of Chinese capitalism. The North had never fed itself, always dependent on importing about 40 percent of its food. For its people, "the crowning achievement of the North Korean system was subsidized food." People labored not so much for money as for rations and housing provided to workers by the state. When comradely subsidies ended, North Koreans, especially in disfavored areas, literally starved. The life stories in Demick's book are grueling, tales of foraging for grass and bark, of watching helplessly as loved ones simply wasted away, collapsed and died. Demick's summation is brutal:

In a famine, people don't necessarily starve to death. Often some other ailment gets them first. Chronic malnutrition impairs the body's ability to battle infection and the hungry become increasingly vulnerable to tuberculosis and typhoid. ... normally curable illnesses suddenly become fatal. Wild fluctuations of body chemistry can trigger strokes and heart attacks. People die from eating substitute foods that their bodies can't digest. ...

The killer has a natural progression. It goes first to the most vulnerable -- children under five. They come down with a cold and it turns into pneumonia; diarrhea turns into dysentery. Before the parents even think about getting help, the child is dead. Next the killer turns to the aged, starting with those over seventy, then working its way down the decades to people in their sixties and fifties. These people might have died anyway, but so soon? Then starvation makes its way through people in the prime of their lives. Men, because they have less body fat, usually perish before women. The strong and athletic are especially vulnerable become their metabolisms burn more calories.

Yet another gratuitous cruelty: the killer targets the most innocent, the people who would never steal food, lie, cheat, break the law or betray a friend. ... As Mrs. Song would observe a decade later, when she thought back on all the people she knew who died during those years in Chongjin, it was "the simple and kindhearted people who did what they were told -- they were the first to die."

The famine abated at the end of the 1990s; although some international aid came in, it seems not to have reached the most desperate people.

... the worst of the famine was over, not necessarily because anything had improved but, as Mrs. Song later surmised, because there were fewer mouths to feed. "Everybody who was going to die was already dead."

Some estimates make the toll three million out of a population of 22 million North Koreans; all numbers about things North Korean are disputed and the Kim government isn't telling.

Demick's book relates what her protagonists did to survive the famine, how even such a closed system as North Korea was altered by such a trauma, and the various routes they followed when they left their country. They are all exceptional in having managed to get to South Korea. Most people who leave the North end up on the margins of Chinese society. These people are the almost unimaginably lucky ones. South Korea, for its own political purposes, considers them citizens and makes a significant effort to integrate them into its thriving capitalist society. This is not easy.

The sad truth is that North Korean defectors are often difficult people. Many were pushed into leaving not only because they were starving but because they couldn't fit in at home. And often their problems trailed after them, even after they crossed the border. ...

Though this book is full of political observations, ultimately it is about human individuals. Their stories will fill my bad dreams for a long time.
The quote immediately above exemplifies one of my few quarrels with this book: Demick uses the locution "defector" throughout. I think of that word as signifying some political intent. Yet, though her subjects are certainly disaffected, their departure from North Korea does not really come across as political. I'd call them "escapees" from a society they came to feel was intolerable and unsurvivable.

This was published in 2010 and ought to be in many public libraries. Get ahold of it if you want to know a little more about people our president is threatening with incineration. H/t to Ezra Klein for recommending it.

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