Books by Demick, Barbara

Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy. New York: Spiegel & Grau, [2009] 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-52391-2.
The last decade or so I lived in California, I spent a good deal of my time being angry—so much so that I didn't really perceive the extent that anger had become part of who I was and how I lived my life. It was only after I'd gotten out of California and the U.S. in 1991 and lived a couple of years in Switzerland that I discovered that the absence of driving on crumbling roads overcrowded with aggressive and incompetent drivers, a government bent on destroying productive enterprise, and a culture collapsing into vulgarity and decadence had changed who I was: in short, only after leaving Marin County California, had I become that thing which its denizens delude themselves into believing they are—mellow.

What, you might be asking yourself, does this have to do with a book about the lives of ordinary people in North Korea? Well, after a couple of decades in Switzerland, it takes quite a bit of provocation to bring back the old hair-on-fire white flash, like passing through a U.S. airport or…reading this book. I do not mean that this book angered me; it is a superb work of reportage on a society so hermetically closed that obtaining even the slightest details on what is really going on there is near-impossible, as tourists and journalists are rarely permitted to travel outside North Korea's capital of Pyongyang, a Stalinist Potemkin village built to deceive them as to the situation in other cities and the countryside. What angered me is the horrible, pointless, and needless waste of the lives of tens of millions of people, generation after generation, at the hands of a tyranny so abject it seems to have read Orwell's 1984 not as a dystopian warning, but an instruction manual. The victims of this tragedy are not just the millions who have died in the famines, ended their lives in the sprawling complex of prisons and forced labour camps, or were executed for “crimes” such as trying to communicate with relatives outside the country; but the tens of millions forced to live in a society which seems to have been engineered to extinguish every single pleasure which makes human life worth living. Stunted due to lack of food, indoctrinated with the fantasy that the horror which is their lives is the best for which they can hope, and deprived of any contact with the human intellectual heritage which does not serve the interests of their rulers, they live in an environment which a medieval serf would view as a huge step down from their lot in life, all while the rulers at the top of the pyramid live in grand style and are treated as legitimate actors on the international stage by diplomatic crapweasels from countries that should be shamed by their behaviour.

In this book the author tackles the formidable task of penetrating the barrier of secrecy and lies which hides the reality of life in North Korea from the rest of the world by recounting the lives of six defectors all of whom originated in Chongjin, the third largest city in North Korea, off limits to almost all foreign visitors. The names of the witnesses to this horror have been changed to protect relatives still within the slave state, but their testimony is quoted at length and provides a chilling view of what faces the 24 million who have so far been unable to escape. Now, clearly, if you're relying exclusively on the testimony of those who have managed to escape an oppressive regime, you're going to get a different picture than if you'd interviewed those who remain—just as you'd get a different view of California and the U.S. from somebody who got out of there twenty years ago compared to a current resident—but the author takes pains to corroborate the accounts of defectors against one another and the sparse information available from international aid workers who have been infrequently allowed to visit Chongjin. The accounts of the culture shock escapees from North Korea experience not just in 21st century South Korea but even in rural China are heartrending: Kim Ji-eun, a medical doctor who escaped to China after seeing the children in her care succumb to starvation without anything she could do, describes her first memory of China as discovering a dog's bowl filled with white rice and bits of meat and realising that dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.

As Lenin asked, “What is to be done?” Taking on board the information in this narrative may cause you to question many of what appear to be sound approaches to bringing an end to this horror. For, according to the accounts of the defectors, tyranny of the North Korean style actually works quite well: escapees are minuscule compared to the population which remains behind, many of whom actually appear to believe the lies of the regime that they are a superior race and have it better than the balance of humanity, even as they see members of their family starve to death or disappear into the gulag. For some years I have been thinking about “freedom flights”. This is where a bunch of liberty-loving philanthropists hire a fleet of cargo aircraft to scatter several million single-shot pistols, each with its own individual parachute and accompanied by a translation of Major von Dach's book, across the territory of tyrannical Hell-holes and “let the people rule”. After reading this book, I'm not sure that would suffice. So effectively has the population been brainwashed that it seems a substantial fraction believe the lies of the regime and accept their sorry lot as the normal state of human existence. Perhaps we'll also need to drop solar-powered or hand-cranked satellite radio receivers to provide a window into the outside world—along with the guns, of course, to take care of snitches who try to turn in those who choose to widen their perspective and the minions of the state who come to arrest them.

By almost any measure, North Korea is an extreme outlier. By comparison, Iran is almost a paradise. Even Zimbabwe, while Hell on earth for those unfortunate enough to live there, is relatively transparent to outsiders who document what is going on and much easier to escape. But studying the end point of trends which seem to be relatively benign when they get going can be enlightening, and this book provides a chilling view of what awaits at the final off-ramp of the road to serfdom.

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