Wednesday, January 01, 2014

review: Nothing to Envy

Before reading Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (hereinafter N2E), a "parallel biography" of several North Korean defectors, I had already read two good books about the ongoing problems above the DMZ: Andrew Natsios's The Great North Korean Famine, for one, and Kang Chol-hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang. I wasn't sure what more I would learn from Demick's book, but I found its premise intriguing. With an interpreter, Demick met and talked with the defectors portrayed in N2E. The defectors' lives are presented as if we had access to their thoughts (which is true, inasmuch as Demick had access to the defectors themselves); some defectors' stories are given more space than others'. I can't say that I learned much that was new to me; the two books I'd mentioned above provided me with plenty of insight into the horrors of living in North Korea.

But what N2E did offer was less of a bird's-eye view of North Korea's deterioration and more of a personal look at what was happening. To the extent that gulags appear in the book, they are largely the stuff of rumor and nightmare. One or two of our protagonists suffer the indignities of detention centers, but this is by no means the same as what Kang Chol-hwan went through. That said, Demick's book makes clear that conditions outside the gulags were (and still are) horrible enough that North Koreans with the means and the gumption would attempt to leave their country. The phrase "nothing to envy," taken from the lyrics of one of the North's propagandistic songs, assumes an ironic meaning: North Koreans take the song to mean that their country is so perfect and self-complete that they sit at the world's pinnacle, thus having nothing to envy. But a South Korean, hearing those same words, will look upon North Korea's poverty and squalor and agree that, because there is nothing in North Korea, there truly is nothing to envy.

Demick's book fails to make clear that North Korea's initial, 1960s-era economic robustness (which she mentions at several points, noting that the North was doing better than the South for a while) is, in part, an artifact of the support that the country received from the Soviet Union and China after the Korean War. North Korea, from its inception and in ironic contrast with its self-reliance ideology (juchae), has always relied on the help of others to thrive. Demick instead seems to be arguing that things actually started well in the North, as if the North truly needed no help at the outset, as if later mismanagement were the problem—which I don't find convincing. It was never the case that the North's government-heavy, centrally planned economy was either well-conceived or healthy.

My other critique of Demick's book is that it may have come out too early: although Demick provides something like an epilogue that follows her escapee protagonists as they adapt to life in South Korea, I don't think the follow-through is quite extensive enough. Her narration leaves these defectors, and us, in medias res, as the defectors are in the midst of making new lives for themselves. It would have been nice to see what sort of successes or failures these people could have become, given time.

All in all, though, I thought Demick's book was an informative and sympathetic read. Her portrayal of these brave North Koreans is gritty yet heartening. The epilogue tells us that life in South Korea hasn't been all roses for the defectors; they're people, like anyone else, which means they're diverse, and they've handled their time in the South differently, each depending on his or her character. Some have continued their schooling, including one North Korean doctor who has had to re-learn everything from scratch. Others have had trouble holding on to even simple jobs because they have trouble submitting to any authority. All of these people, however, carry the scars of their experience with them, and are haunted by their choice to defect, knowing full well the consequences that must befall the loved ones they've abandoned.


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