Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Book Review: Real Lives in North Korea - nothing to envy

Since interning at Granta Books last year I’ve been enjoying articles and books that bring across the story of how people are living in tough places. One such book is Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea – which won the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction 2010 and which I highly recommend.
Based on accounts of those who managed to escape North Korea, the book gives a sense of what it was like living during different stages of the rigidly controlled Communist regime which continues there to this day. It is incredible to read how fully indoctrinated people were (and I guess, still are) into at times ludicrously harsh or downright unhealthy rules and routines, and the “informing” culture, believed to be essential to “North Korean security”, as well as the personality cult around the leader Kim Il-sung, which had men and women finding their worth in the leader more than in any other relationship. It’s revealing to read about the impact of Kim Il-sung’s death on different groups of people – a patriotic house-wife, broken by the news, whose husband descends into deep depression, a teacher from a lower-class background, a student struggling to bear the weight of the mourning which was expected of him.

This is a well-written history of the last 2 decades, as much as the author, a reporter based in South Korea, has been able to find out, containing surprising detail of the way people saw the world outside through a veil of widely accepted lies, as well as how they saw each other and how they provided for each other in tougher times.

Particularly touching in the midst of all the carefully recorded information about rations and hardworking routines is the story of a young couple, Mi-ran and Jun-sung, secretly visiting each other at night to go walking and talk. A complex and highly restrictive class system prevented them meeting in daylight. It’s revealing and rather sad that despite these episodes one fled the country without trusting the secret to the other.

Another moving episode tells of how Mi-ran, at this point a teacher, watches her children coming to classes exhausted due to starvation in the famine which lasted for many long years in the nineties there. As she notes the missing pupils in her class, she sees her favourite pupil stops coming in and she presumes this is because the child is now dead.

In fact some of the details here and about the hospital in the province made me so sad I stopped reading this book for a while. When I returned, my outrage only increased as I learned of a 16-year-old whose home was taken by other occupants when his father became a beggar, and who was caught trading across the border for food and tortured and imprisoned along with adult inmates! The details here reveal a world of injustice, courage and despair, and above all left me feeling: something must be done.

If like me you feel this way – find out more. Today I was reading a shocking magazine from Release International which talks about the problems facing Christians in North Korea. When it is discovered there is a Christian or a Bible in a household, it’s not unknown for the whole family to be taken to away to brutal labour camps. One man who was in a camp for 5 years tells of how he was treated, at one point tortured by being made to sit on burning coals. Even fleeing North Korea can cause new problems as you are then illegal members of China. Escaping women particularly are preyed on and sold into prostitution and trafficked illegally – your heart just breaks to hear of things like this.

Release International are just at the beginning of their campaign to call for justice and release for imprisoned Christians in the country. Sadly there isn’t that much to read on their website yet – but you can sign their petition at this link. Do it! And do more than this. Find some way of telling someone who could make a difference. Ask leaders. Ask God. Seek more for the people there.

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