Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years–a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today–an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors, and through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her subjects fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we witness their profound, life-altering disillusionment with the government and their realization that, rather than providing them with lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them.
One thing the official blurb doesn’t mention is that all 6 of the North Korean escapees Demick interviewed were from the same town of Chongjin. This allowed for her to get multiple perspectives of life in the same town over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. I think this is key because it allowed her to, through their eyes, get a well-rounded sense of what life in Chongjin was like in those decades.
Since I had just read The Girl with Seven Names (review), the extent of the brainwashing North Korean citizens go through their entire lives and how difficult it is to escape (physically and mentally) were not revelatory to me. However, I do think this information is presented quite well by Demick, and there is added value in getting it from 6 different voices, instead of the one in the memoir I started out with.
What struck me the most as new information in this book was actually the famine in North Korea. I hadn’t heard of it, and every single person interviewed by Demick was touched by it. Some more than others. One of the people interviewed was a homeless child during the famine whose growth was permanently stunted by his starvation. For those wondering, the famine was the result of North Korea’s various trade agreements falling through after the fall of the USSR. Humanitarian agencies did send aid, but the North Korean officials intercepted it and either took it or sold it on the black market. Demick speaks at length how this incredibly long-lasting famine impacted not just people’s bodies but their psyche and can lead them to do things they normally wouldn’t for survival.
Her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring. (location 2109)
I already knew of the horrible gulags (prison camps) in North Korea but some of the people Demick interviewed had actually been in some of the less severe ones. They spoke of familial bribery and overcrowding as ways they got out. The crimes they commited to be sent to these concentration camp style prison camps, by the way, were things like smuggling goods and escaping to China. One new fact I learned about these prison camps that will haunt me for a while is this:
North Koreans have multiple words for prison in much the same way the Inuit do for snow. (location 2740)
Demick goes more in-depth into what happens to the North Koreans who do manage to escape to South Korea. How well do they acclimate? What are their lives like? She speaks about how many of them are struggling to save money to pay to have human smugglers help sneak their remaining family members out of North Korea. The most heartbreaking of these stories is the mother who escaped to China and had to leave her two children behind with their father who was still loyal to North Korea. Her children are grown now, and she’s still trying to get in contact with them to help them escape. In addition to the difficulties of trying to save remaining family members there’s the fact that capitalism is new to the North Korean escapees, and that South Korea really has a different culture at this point. There’s a lot of struggles to adapt to both that Demick does a good job demonstrating by letting her interviewees speak for themselves.
Demick did a wonderful job interviewing and assembling the stories of these 6 refugees. She both lets their stories speak for themselves and interjects at appropriate times with astute analysis. Recommended to those with an interest in North Korea who want some narrative story with critical analysis.
4 out of 5 stars
An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.
As a child growing up in North Korea, Hyeonseo Lee was one of millions trapped by a secretive and brutal totalitarian regime. Her home on the border with China gave her some exposure to the world beyond the confines of the Hermit Kingdom and, as the famine of the 1990s struck, she began to wonder, question and to realize that she had been brainwashed her entire life. Given the repression, poverty and starvation she witnessed surely her country could not be, as she had been told “the best on the planet”?
Aged seventeen, she decided to escape North Korea. She could not have imagined that it would be twelve years before she was reunited with her family.
She could not return, since rumors of her escape were spreading, and she and her family could incur the punishments of the government authorities – involving imprisonment, torture, and possible public execution. Hyeonseo instead remained in China and rapidly learned Chinese in an effort to adapt and survive. Twelve years and two lifetimes later, she would return to the North Korean border in a daring mission to spirit her mother and brother to South Korea, on one of the most arduous, costly and dangerous journeys imaginable.
I’ll never forget the first time I learned about North Korea’s terrifying dictatorship. I was discussing the horror of the concentration camps with someone as a young teen, and a person nearby said, “You know those still exist. North Korea calls them gulags.” I looked it up, and one of the first things I found was a child’s drawings of life inside. I later found out that we only have stories from the least bad of the gulags. The worst tier no one has escaped from to tell us what happens inside them. It’s really horrifying. Last fall, I decided it was time I learned more about North Korea, so I went looking and this book spoke to me as a place to start. I like first-hand accounts, it’s from the perspective of an ordinary citizen, and I liked the title. I got more than I had bargained for. While this memoir would be good regardless of the writing style because Hyeonseo’s life is just that interesting, her writing is articulate and insightful.
Hyeonseo does a wonderful job writing realistically and yet with empathy about herself as a child who had been fully fooled by the North Korean government. It can sometimes be difficult to understand how people can believe x, y, z but this book makes it easy to understand how it can happen and amazing that anyone manages to start doubting such an all-encompassing worldview.
One of the more surprising parts of the book to me was that at first Hyeonseo just wanted to see China. She had no intention of leaving North Korea forever. It’s just once she got out and visiting relatives in China she dragged her feet about going back until it was too dangerous for her to go back. (She would have been captured upon return and put in a prison camp for daring to leave at all). She now was in China with a totally different life path than she’d initially imagined. What was originally a vacation was now most likely a lifetime of being a fugitive. I think this part of the book is where Hyeonseo’s practicality and iron will first shine through:
Now that I was to stay indefinitely in China, I had to learn Mandarin. And I had the best teacher – necessity. You can study a language for years at school, but nothing helps you succeed like need, and mine was clear, and urgent. (location 1781)
I learned so much in this book beyond the horrors of what happens in North Korea. Like that China has an extradition agreement with North Korea which means that if any refugees are caught in China they are brought back to North Korea to face certain imprisonment and possibly death. I can’t imagine what it would be like to escape a dictatorship into the neighboring country and know at any moment you could be seized and sent back.
I also learned that South Korea has declared any North Koreans who make it to their land to be South Koreans and actually provide a lot of repatriation assistance but that the divide is growing between North and South Korean cultures the longer the divide is up, and some are concerned about how the two can ever be reunified once the North Koreans are freed from the dictatorship.
Hyeonseo provides a lot of insightful commentary about living under a dictatorship, human nature, brainwashing, and more. My favorite though was this:
There is no dividing line between cruel leaders and oppressed citizens. The Kims rule by making everyone complicit in a brutal system, implicating all, from the highest to the lowest, blurring morals so that no one is blameless. (location 2368)
The only other thing I wish to say is that everyone should read this book.
4 out of 5 stars