Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy

In the past few years, I have spent a great deal of time reading about wretched societies: Russia under Lenin and Stalin, Cambodia under Pol Pot, and China under Mao, to name just three. After a certain point, the tales of human misery blend together, individual details blur. That’s because whatever twisted talents and proclivities individual despots possess, originality cannot be one of them. Depredation and tyranny look much the same throughout time and place. One of the most infamous of the tales in the Histories of Herodotus recounts the teaching of Thrasybulus of Miletus, whose instruction in tyranny was admirably taciturn: he took his pupil into a field of wheat and systematically cut down the tallest, healthiest stalks. If the 20th and 20th centuries offered improvements on his example, they have merely been technical. North Korea is today distinguished only for the misery its citizens continue to endure, and for the embarrassment it causes – or ought to cause – international organizations now dominated by talk of human rights.

But what of its citizens, those beleaguered souls seldom seen or heard, except when choreographing some elaborate paean to their Dear Leader? Barbara Demick, an American journalist and former Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, conducted interviews with more than 100 defectors from North Korea, who described to her in horrifying details their lives under the consecutive Kim regimes. Nothing To Envy focuses on six such defectors, all of whom originated from the coastal city of Chongjin and endured years and, in some cases, decades of mistreatment before bravely taking flight into the unknown, escaping to China and eventually South Korea, which has a refugee program established specifically for defectors. Their stories are both heartbreaking and enlightening, for even today North Korea is infamously unknowable, a country caught in some parallel time when the Cold War never ended. Their testimony, then, constitutes the best evidence we have for reconstructing North Korea’s history and the experiences of its people, before their sufferings are erased from memory.

Let’s begin with life under the regime. For all the pretensions of communist leaders to create classless societies, the practical result has everywhere been stratification, though always on the basis of proximity to the Party rather than wealth. North Korea is exceptionally only in its zeal:

The North Koreans were methodical to a fault. Each person was put through eight background checks. Your songbun, as the rating was called, took into account the backgrounds of your parents, grandparents, and even second cousins. The loyalty surveys were carried out in various phases with inspiring names. “Intensive Guidance by the Central Party” was the first announced phase. The classifications became more refined in subsequent phases, such as the “Understanding People Project,” between 1972 and 1974.

Your songbun was ineradicable and set hard limits on your life’s trajectory, dictating where you could live, study and work, how high you could rise in your employment, and who you could expect to marry. To the extent that there is any mobility in this system, it is strictly downward: good works will not save you, but the most minor of infractions – a crude joke, an ungrateful comment – can strip you of what meagre status you have. The North Korean government contrived a total of 51 categories across three broad classes – “the core class, the wavering class, and the hostile class” – in descending order of proximity to power. Membership in the core class meant better food, education, healthcare and working conditions, while membership in the hostile class meant permanent surveillance and suspicion, as well as the worst imaginable options for food and housing. The people live in government-provided housing (either dilapidated apartments or attached housing, with walls made deliberately thin to minimize privacy) in organizations known as inminbans (“people’s groups”), whose explicit mission is to keep tabs on one another, rewarding good (read: conformist) behavior and reporting suspicious behavior or seditious comments to the authorities. There is a uniformity to life in North Korea, and I mean that in both a metaphorical and literal sense, for every job and role comes with a uniform: students, teachers, factory workers and bureaucrats all have their own uniforms, and because the North Korean economy has largely been cut off from the rest of the world since the country’s partition in 1945, the colors of these uniforms are drab, limited as they are by the few dyes the country is capable of producing. To survive in North Korea, the citizens had to be as plain and unobtrusive as their uniforms, adopting the mask-like persona of a happy communist among friends and even family members, while suppressing the dissenting thoughts that inevitably arise. One of Demick’s interviewees describes this process as a “hammering down” of the personality, a camouflage defence every bit as necessary to their survival as the striped zebra’s hide. In individualist societies, birthdays are a celebration of the self; in North Korea, the only birthday celebrated is that of the leader, whose portrait hangs in every home, office building and factory – and the applause is mandatory.

The book’s climax comes in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Kim Jong-il had been cleverly playing China and the Soviet Union off against each other, courting one to extract greater concessions and aid benefits from the other, but with the final collapse of the USSR, the favorable relationships ceased:

Moscow decided that North Korea would have to pay prevailing world prices for Soviet imports rather than the lower “friendship” prices charged Communist allies. In the past, the Chinese, who provided three quarters of North Korea’s fuel and two thirds of its food imports, used to say they were close as “lips and teeth” to North Korea; now they wanted cash up front.

The zombie economy of North Korea could not survive this abrupt dose of reality.

Soon the country was sucked into a vicious death spiral. Without cheap fuel oil and raw material, it couldn’t keep the factories running, which meant it had nothing to export. With no exports, there was no hard currency, and without hard currency, fuel imports fell even further and electricity stopped.

In short order, the coal mines shut down, the electricity grid was scaled down to almost nothing, and the farms – reliant on power – ceased to operate. Private grocery stores did not exist in North Korea. Prior to the famine, citizens received chits for the work they did, and for the number of dependents in their household, and could redeem these for precise measurements of grain: more in the case of manual labourers or those with high songbun, and less for children, the elderly, and the out-of-favour. With the near-total collapse of the economy, government food supplies dried up and the people starved. The average North Korean never ate very well – they are, in fact, a few inches shorter, on average, than their South Korean neighbours – but neither did they starve. Black markets for food emerged almost overnight, and inflation hit hard: families sold off their prized possessions for a single meal. Neighborhood pets were killed. The frog population of North Korea was temporarily wiped out. One of the defectors Demick interviewed was a kindergarten teacher, and she described the surreal pain of watching her students – ordinarily growing by the week – shrink before her eyes, and grow so lethargic that they cannot stay awake.

The title itself points to perhaps the cruellest of the regime’s blows. It comes from a son that all of the school children were required to know by heart:

Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.
Our house is within the embrace of the Worker’s Party.
We are all brothers and sisters.
Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children
do not be afraid,
Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy in this world.

North Korea is a prison state, but until the famine of the early 1990s, most of its citizenry truly did not know they were prisoners. They believed the state propaganda: they were the lucky ones, the better off, the beneficiaries of a wide and benevolent leader. By far the most fascinating part of each of the accounts of Demick’s defectors was their ah-ha moment, the moment when their programmatic way of looking at the world and their government no longer suffices to explain the suffering around them. One of these defectors, a gifted student fortunate enough to be enrolled in university, and therefore spared much of the pain and suffering of his compatriots, gradually comes to question what he’s told. A classmate hands him a book smuggled in from Russia, describing the capitalist innovations undertaken there, in response to the stagnation and inefficiencies of the centrally-planned society. Eventually, he finds a way to tune into South Korean television broadcasts, and his lightbulb moment comes from discovering the comparative wealth and abundance of their lives. When he returns to school, he is appalled by the blank conformity of his classmates, their “still and expressionless faces, as blank as mannequins in a department store window.” And then he realizes something truly terrifying: his own face wears the same vacant expression. “‘They know! They all know!’ he nearly screamed.” I cannot imagine an isolation more total or terrifying.