Thursday, December 09, 2010

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Chongjin people going to work in early morning - North Korea
Originally uploaded by Eric Lafforgue

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick has left a big impression on me; not only has it left me with a much better understanding of the recent history of north east Asia, but also presents a series of fascinating human stories. It is based on a series of interviews with former North Koreans all of whom managed to escape to the south (usually via China or Mongolia). They came from a town called Chongjin which is near the northern border of Korea, close to where it meets Russia and China. It is engagingly written, and I feel it to be one of the most important books I've read this year.

I looked up Chongjin on Google images to see if there was any footage of this place, and there is a little including this video by Eric Lafforgue. This footage seem to lend substance to the dismal tales told in the book - stories of starvation and a political regime strongly reminiscent of the novel by George Orwell, 1984.

Apart from the staged pictures of children singing in brightly coloured costumes and a disturbing amount of make-up, there is footage of a middle-aged man walking along a grass verge with a plastic bag, stooping now and again to pick whatever he finds there to put it in the bag. It seems an innocent-enough activity; he could, after all, be just a street cleaner - a respectable occupation in any society. But I now realise after reading the accounts in this book that this man was probably foraging for food. He appears to be tearing up handfuls of grass, and this will be used to bulk out whatever else he has managed to find to eat.

The interviewees in Nothing to Envy tell of a state ruled by fear and a system of community spies. This encourages an Orwellian double-talk: the leader was and is 'beloved' even as sons, husbands and parents are starving to death. The blame for the suffering is levelled at the capitalists to the south and their allies, although no one seems quite sure why. This message is first conveyed in infancy, reinforced frequently and is therefore very effective. 'We have nothing to envy...' they are taught to sing, because their beloved father, the Marshall, will look out for them. He assumes the stature of a god, and the rest of the world is the devil. When that god suddenly dies, there was a spontaneous outpouring of grief. A lot of it appears to have been genuine. Some committed suicide. It takes a strong personality to break free and escape.

In the 1960s, buoyed up by aid from Russia, North Korea presented such a successful face to the world that many ethnic Koreans living in China and Japan were enticed to emigrate. North Korea was a Utopian dream, everything provided by the state. Wages were low because there was nothing to buy, every necessity of life distributed on presentation of a token. Any luxuries were shared; if a family managed to acquire a TV they would keep their flat door open when they watched so neighbours could come in and see the state run TV programming too.

But this dream turned out to be a sham. When the Russian aid and subsidies were withdrawn the factories could no longer operate, the workers weren't paid, and it became clear that North Korea couldn't support its people. The rations became smaller then stopped. People died of malnourishment: the elderly and then the rest of the adults who gave what ever food they had to their children; these orphans then became like starlings swooping a in flock to places like stations where they could steal and beg for food.

How quickly things change. How quickly a nation can be brought to its knees from a state of apparent affluence if its economy is based on nothing but promises. As I think about this I wonder how so many parts of the world rely on ethereal deals and loans for their wealth, and produce nothing of substance. It is like building an empire of stone on a cloud, and sometimes, as I look around me now I sometimes think I see trails of glory dissipating in the wind.


Blogger Sue Guiney said...

Thank you for learning all this about Korea and teaching us. I really know so little about it and it is a fascinating and frightening (yes...) place. Your beautiful last line of this post feels like you're already starting to write a book about all this in your head.

Fri Dec 10, 10:36:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

I hugely recommend this book, Sue! Thanks for your kind comment about my last line - but sadly I have to confess that it is not my own, but comes from an ode by Wordsworth and refers to his belief that babies come into this world as innocent beings, trailing clouds of glory. I agree with you - it is beautiful, and I used it as an obscure reference to the world's innocence (or maybe determined ignorance).

Fri Dec 10, 02:21:00 pm  
Blogger Anne S said...

North Korea is certainly a shadow kingdom and scary as hell. Thanks for the elucidation on what it's like behind the scenes.

Sat Dec 11, 04:57:00 am  

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