Book review: Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea

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Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick Granta, 272pp, £14.99

IT IS not sufficient to describe North Korea as a totalitarian dictatorship. Totalitarian dictatorships normally manage to keep the lights on.

North Korea might be better understood as another kind of polity. It is an incompetent hereditary autocracy flavoured with Confucianism, that most hierarchical of eastern philosophies. Or you could cut to the chase and call it a basket case of a country wholly owned by a family of venal frauds.

Running a tyrannical absolute monarchy in the 21st century is not easy. People generally have greater expectations. They might be prepared to tolerate slum housing, slave labour, thought police and no internet, but they usually expect to eat. Kim Il-Sung and his fat little playboy heir have got away with starving their people by limiting their vision as well as their diet. When North Koreans perished from hunger in their hundreds of thousands they were given to understand that this was the global norm, and that in fact they were probably luckier than most: at least they were starving to death under the benevolent gaze of Kim Jong-Il.

The Kims achieved that feat of propaganda because of their hermetically sealed borders, because of the touching patriotism of their people and because of the paranoia they were able to breed following the Korean War of 50 years ago. North Korea has been on a war footing ever since.

That same paranoia, those same closed borders, the police state and the absence of modern communications (the absence of any communications: you'd have trouble sending a messenger pigeon from Pyongyang to Seoul) make it as difficult for outsiders to report from North Korea as it is for North Koreans to receive reports from outside. Writing a properly researched book on the place seems next to impossible. But in Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick has done it.

Demick moved to Seoul in South Korea in 2001 to become the Los Angeles Times's correspondent for both the Koreas. She quickly discovered that covering one was vastly easier than covering the other. There is only so much reportage you can do north of the demilitarised zone if you're not allowed to talk to anyone or travel without a minder.

She also discovered, however, that it was possible to piece together a human history of North Korea's recent past by speaking to emigrants from the country. It goes without saying that North Koreans are not allowed to leave. But tens of thousands have escaped, chiefly across the long northern border with China, and many made their way to South Korea. She concentrates on the stories of six people from the northern city of Chongjin.

Demick is thorough and fair on the troubled history of Korea. Squeezed for centuries between the imperial giants of China and Japan, the small peninsula enjoyed few periods of peace and stability. Following the Second World War and the defeat of the occupying Japanese, Korea seemed at last to have a chance.

But we, the Allies, partitioned the country. The communist north then invaded the capitalist south. The consequent Korean War of 1950-3 devastated the country. Stalemate was achieved and partition was set in stone. And then the West forgot about Korea for another 40 years, until the nuclear ambitions of the North woke us up again.

The tales of people who lived through those post-war decades in North Korea follow a familiar narrative of hope and despair. At first, supported by aid from the Soviet Union and China, North Korea seemed to perform better than South Korea. In Demick's words, "Kim Il-Sung didn't want to be Joseph Stalin; he wanted to be Santa Claus."

In those years one of Demick's most vivid subjects, "Mrs Song", found her faith in the cult of Kim to be rewarded. She polished his photograph daily. She scolded the doubters in her family. Even after the collapse of western communism 20 years ago, when aid was cancelled and North Korea commenced its ineluctable descent into penury and famine, Mrs Song would not let go. When her husband died of starvation in their marriage bed, she was still able to repeat to herself that her country's ailments were the fault of the American devils.

Her epiphany came later. North Korea literally ran out of money, goods and food. The country's frogs all disappeared into frying pans. Dogs, which are on the Korean menu at the best of times, had even less chance. Half-dead from hunger, Mrs Song saw on sale in the market place rare sacks of rice. The sacks were stamped with the Stars and Stripes. They were of course American food aid. They had been donated free of charge by Bill Clinton's US. They were being sold for personal profit by the North Korean military and bureaucracy.

Like the five other North Koreans in Demick's book, Mrs Song then limped across the border into China. One of the first things she saw was a dog being fed on a bowl of rice and meat. If she and her neighbours back in Chongjin had eaten rice once a month and meat once a year they were lucky. The dogs in China – not Morningside, not Kensington and Chelsea, not the Upper East Side, but rural north-eastern China – ate better than the people of North Korea. All that Mrs Song had known and believed crumbled into dust.

In the Kims' scheme of things, Kim Jong-Il will be replaced by his son, Kim Jong-Un. It is difficult to believe that the youngest Kim will enjoy a long reign. As Demick's survivors' stories make clear, the legacy of his dynasty will be that it took a resourceful country full of hard-working people and turned it into a death camp.

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