- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 4, 2009



By Barbara Demick

Spiegel & Grau, $26, 336 pages

Reviewed by Barbara Slavin

As North Korea began gingerly to open its doors to Westerners during the terrible famine of the 1990s, a foreign aid worker remarked that when it came to understanding life in that isolated country, many “have snapshots, nobody has seen the movie.”

Barbara Demick, a longtime correspondent in Asia for the Los Angeles Times, has written a book that could be the basis for that movie.

In “Nothing to Envy” - a title taken from a line in a North Korean propaganda song - Ms. Demick has woven together the stories of a half-dozen North Koreans who escaped to South Korea over the past decade. While defector accounts always need to be treated with some skepticism, Ms. Demick interviewed her subjects repeatedly over the course of several years and backs up their stories with other reporting that gives her book the ring of authority as well as the suspense of a novel.

Much of the book takes place in Chongjin, a city in the north of the country that was a center of manufacturing and trade in the 1960s and ‘70s. Ms. Demick depicts the swift collapse of the local economy after the end of the Cold War as North Korea’s former East bloc trading partners stop exchanging equipment and energy for substandard North Korean goods.

Chongjin’s factories stop operating as the supply of electricity and raw materials dries up; factory workers sweep the floors and polish the equipment until managers finally tell them they need to find some other way to provide for their families.

That proves to be an unsurmountable challenge for many of the characters in this book as well as millions of other North Koreans. Ms. Demick writes with great empathy about once-dutiful members of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party as well as children of the nonelite, all caught up in the famine.

She describes how even true believers lost their faith in the system as the government failed to meet its part of a once dependable if distasteful bargain: adequate food and shelter in return for unquestioning loyalty to Kim Il-sung and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il.

One of the most moving chapters describes the daughter of a Chinese Korean who, ironically, fled to North Korea during China’s “Great Leap Forward,” when 30 million people died of starvation because of Mao Zedong’s mad agricultural and industrial policies. The daughter, a Ms. Kim, becomes a doctor in North Korea and thinks of herself as a loyal citizen and success until she finds a police surveillance report about her that describes her as suspect because of her father’s foreign origin.

After her father’s death, she flees to China in search of relatives and sees a bowl of rice and meat on the ground outside a modest farmhouse. “She couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face,” Ms. Demick writes. “Dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.”

Ms. Demick describes the gradual transformation of the North Korean economy as desperate people become “reluctant capitalists” to survive. A Mrs. Song, a former clothing factory worker, bakes and sells ersatz cookies in a quasi-legal private market after her factory shuts down and her mother-in-law, husband and only son die of starvation. She realizes, Ms. Demick writes, that “the simple and kindhearted people who did what they were told … were the first to die.”

A love story plays out between two other characters against the backdrop of the famine. Mi-ran, the daughter of a South Korean prisoner of war, manages to overcome her “tainted blood” and gains admittance to a teachers’ college. The reason: There is no heat and the only “food” in the college cafeteria is a thin soup made of salt, water and dried turnip leaves.

Her boyfriend, Jun-sang, the son of a Japanese Korean who came to North Korea in the 1960s, feels guilty because his family’s overseas connections keep them fed. Admitted to a university in Pyongyang, he has an epiphany when he looks at his fellow students during a political lecture and sees the same blank expression he knows he is wearing. ” ‘They know! They all know!’ … These were supposedly the finest young minds in the nation. Anybody with a functioning brain cannot not know that something is wrong.”

Ms. Demick’s great achievement is that she presents these characters as rounded human beings and lets their stories speak without political hectoring. Still, after reading the book, it is hard not to feel that many if not most North Koreans know that their system is a sham.

Conditions in the north have improved since a decade ago, yet life remains perilous for those without guile and connections. Ms. Demick notes a survey of North Korean households by the U.N. World Food Program last year found that two-thirds were still supplementing their diets with grass and weeds and that most adults eat only two meals a day. With growing connections to China, pirate radios and DVDs of South Korean soap operas circulating widely in their society, many North Koreans must know by now that they have much to envy.

Barbara Slavin is assistant managing editor for world and national security at The Washington Times and has visited North Korea three times.

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