“But now she couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.” These are the thoughts of a young Dr. Kim after she defected to China and eventually South Korea from the totalitarian regime of North Korea. Dr. Kim’s story of her life and defection from North Korea is one of the half-dozen narratives recounted by Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara Demick in “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” (2009).
This haunting true story reveals the real human rights violations and tragedies that take place on a daily basis in North Korea. While Western media focuses on the threats of the country’s nuclear program, North Koreans are defecting in search of a better life in countries where they can feel free.
Entry for foreigners, especially Americans, to North Korea is extremely limited and it is difficult to procure visas. Therefore, Demick relies on the stories of defectors to paint a bigger picture of life in North Korea. Demick’s Orwellian accounts depict devout and patriotic citizens among tacit dissenters. For fear of being denounced as unpatriotic, the ones who doubt the ubiquitous benevolence of the Supreme and Dear leaders, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il, must watch their every move.
However, breaking through the fog of totalitarian propaganda, understanding that tyranny abounds and not prosperity, and finally having the courage to flee the country is the greatest challenge of all. Jun-Sang, a student in Pyongyang, had this epiphany while watching a poor, orphan child sing about how Kim Il Sung has protected him.
“He would later credit the boy with pushing him over the edge. He now knew for sure that he didn’t believe. It was an enormous moment of self-revelation, like deciding one was an atheist. It made him feel alone. He was different from everybody else. He was suddenly self-conscious, burdened by a secret he had discovered about himself.”
Demick insightfully wrote, “But North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world.” North Korea was briefly a thriving economy, steps ahead of its southern counterpart. But the long-term effects of a communist and tyrannical elite have driven North Korea into the depths of poverty. This dramatic fall from grace, while still maintaining loyalty for its leaders among the masses, is a testament to the power of propaganda. However, the individuals in this story discuss how they began to see the cracks in the logic, they saw people dying from starvation and their hopelessness, and began to wonder if life could be better somewhere else.
What might surprise many readers are the defectors’ desires to return to their homeland or their regrets for leaving. Not only do they miss their family members, they miss the familiar. South Korea is like a different planet, and some defectors never learn to adjust to being an alien in a new world. North Koreans enter the mighty world of commerce and freedom and don’t know how to adjust. They are shocked by couples holding hands and kissing in public and baffled by paper money and how to make a purchase among the varieties of options. At the same time, other defectors relish in their new found freedom and learn to take advantage of all the opportunities a democratic society offers.
“Nothing to Envy” is a captivating and insightful narrative that depicts the cruel realities of North Korea. To the outside world, North Korea is a forbidden place, and Demick’s book unlocks many of the mysteries of the mysterious kingdom.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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