starlady: One World, One Dream: Beijing 2008 (more in the breach)
Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010.

This is a harrowing but compulsively readable book, and everyone ought to read it.

Barbara Demick has spent the better part of a decade covering the two Koreas from Seoul, and for most of that time she's been interviewing North Korean defectors, who've made it out of their country at great personal and financial cost. In Nothing to Envy Demick focuses on six particular North Koreans, all living in and around the northeastern industrial city of Chongjin, and through their lives tells the story of the DPRK and in particular the story of the famine of the 1990s, which killed at least one million people, possibly more--it's impossible to know, but most estimates go as high as 20% of the country's population, which would be two million people.

Mass death on this scale simply doesn't happen without state action, or in this case inaction, and Demick and the North Koreans in the book lay the blame for the deaths of their families and countrymen squarely where it belongs, with the totalitarian regime begun by Kim Il-Sung and perpetuated by his son Kim Jong-Il, who is now preparing to hand power over to Kim Jong-Un, his son. Everyone who died in the famine--which hasn't really ever stopped, it's just been alleviated by the deaths of so many people and by the development of a rudimentary market economy--was murdered by their government.

In the United States and in the world at large we have the image of North Korea as a "rogue state," as a member of the "Axis of Evil," but essentially of a pathetic, backward regime whose people are fundamentally deluded at best or laughably ignorant at worst, and Kim Jong-Il is seen as more of a risible figure (cf. Team America: World Police) than as the oppressive dictator that he is. Also, when the famine is mentioned, and for instance I write that "up to two million people died," there are implications of some element of passivity on the part of those people, who naively depended on their government to save them and were betrayed. Nothing to Envy provides an essential corrective to both perspectives; Demick documents the ideological indoctrination that begins literally at birth (the only birthdays celebrated in the DPRK are those of the Kims) and which permeates every aspect of daily life. She also documents the extraordinary measures to which people in North Korea went to save themselves and their families from starvation; that so many failed does not represent their passivity in the face of death, but rather how high the odds were stacked against them.

What will happen in North Korea in the future is a crucial but still unanswerable question--everyone thought the regime was on its last legs in the 1990s, and fifteen years later it's still here. But the "currency revaluation" (aka: the regime stealing cash from its citizens) last fall set off actual public protests of some sort, to the extent that the regime apologized (!) and executed a senior official on whom blame was pinned, and no one has high hopes for Kim Jong-Un; reading Demick's reportage on current conditions, it's hard to believe that the regime can stagger along until 2012, the centenary of Kim Il-Sung's birth. In a way Nothing to Envy leaves it hard to imagine how things could get worse; what already happened is horrible enough.

Further viewing:
  • Dear Pyongyang, a documentary by a zainichi Korean (resident in Japan) filmmaker whose father sent her three older brothers to live in the DPRK;
  • Seoul Train, a documentary about North Korean defectors fleeing to China and trying to get out from there--the PRC claims North Korean refugees are "economic migrants" and deports them back to the DPRK, where leaving the country is high treason, punishable by time in the labor camps.

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