North Korea is a totalitarian state straight out of the pages of George Orwell, says John Hinton
Nothing to Envy
BY BARBARA DEMICK GRANTA, £14.99
George Orwell foresaw everything that has happened in North Korea, down to the last detail, says Barbara Demick, Bejing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, in her new study of that benighted country. He forecast that in a modern totalitarian state: “the only colour to be found was in the propaganda posters”. The preposterous slogans, from which there is no escape, are Orwellian, too: “Let’s Live Our Own Way”, and “We Will Do As the Party Tells Us”.
When – as if in a nightmare – you walk down the main avenues of North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang, after dark, you can’t see the other side of the street. And it’s not just because the avenues suffer from Stalinist gigantism. It’s because there are no lights, no electricity. Under Papa Kim and Baby Kim, the country has literally entered a new dark age. A night-time satellite photograph of the Korean peninsula from hundreds of miles up shows the south burning brash and bright. In contrast, the north is as black as the mid-Pacific.
Author Demick – a Pulitzer Prize-winner – has occasionally been to the north, but on visits so strictly controlled by minders as to be worthless as journalistic investigation. Instead, for many years she has been interviewing North Koreans who have courageously defected to the south and has written a gripping account of what life is like in the mysterious country they left behind.
The book gives a harrowing glimpse of what she calls “this hermit kingdom”, which is so secretive and little-known that it is the only country on earth not connected to the internet. And foreign television and radio broadcasts are, of course, jammed.
Meanwhile, leaders Kim il-Sung and his son and successor Kim Jong-il are semi-divine figures. The father “caused trees to bloom and snow to melt”, and the son’s birth “was heralded by a radiant star in the sky”. A swallow descended from heaven to sing of “a general who will rule the world”.
Children don’t celebrate their own birthdays, only those of the two Kims. At school they sing songs about the “American bastards”. When Kim Ilsung died in 1994, many grief-stricken North Koreans killed themselves. No sleeping tablets are available in North Korea so they threw themselves off buildings.
In the 1990s the country was struck by famine. The government started preaching: “Let’s eat only two meals a day!” When food ran short, the regime didn’t try to produce more. It simply told bigger lies.
In schools, children fell asleep at their desks. Instead of going out to play, they lay on the floor and rested. Their hair became brittle. They spoke less and less.
It got worse. By 1995, almost all the frogs in the country had been eaten. The government lied that it was stockpiling food for the “starving” South Koreans in readiness for unification.
Children died first, of dysentery, pneumonia or typhoid, and then the fittest and most muscular died.
The country received $2.4 billion in food aid – much of it from the “American bastards” – but perhaps two million starved to death.
The stories the author has collected are well woven together: young lovers never brave enough to discuss their disillusionment with the system, a proud factory worker who watched his family die of starvation, a doctor forced to take bribes to survive and an orphaned child who relied on his own cunning to stay alive. All spurred on by a suspicion that a better life might be possible beyond the grasp of their Dear Leader and his insistence they have “nothing to envy”.
One light in the darkness is that South Korea is the most Christian country in Asia after the Philippines and spreads the gospel throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Despite the ambivalence most South Koreans show defectors, the missionaries are passionate about the plight of North Koreans and work quietly in northeastern China operating small unregistered churches out of private homes.
“At night, their red crosses glow eerily in the otherwise dark patches of countryside,” the author writes. They must indeed be a welcome sight for North Korean refugees, providing food, shelter – and hope.