I just finished reading “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick, who was the Los Angeles Times correspondent for the Koreas at the time of writing. Published in 2009, the book follows the lives of six defectors, all of them from the Northeastern city of Chongjin, as they starve through the famine of ’94-’96, escape to South Korea through China, and struggle to remake their lives in the new country.
The stories are horrifying. It is one thing to read the newspapers and learn that North Korea’s criminally mismanaged economy, propped up almost entirely through assistance from the Soviet Union collapsed when the Soviet Union did. To view the account through the eyes of the people chronicled in the book is another thing entirely.
There is the story of Mrs Song, a loyal party worker who finds that the party can no longer supply the regular rations that provided for her family. Forced to work in the free market she has been taught to despise, she is stymied at every turn by the sheer lack of anything to produce or sell, and has to witness the deaths of her mother-in-law, husband and her only son before she is rescued by the daughter whose loyalty to the party was always suspect.
There is Mi Ran, the daughter of a South Korean POW who works as a kindergarten teacher. She sees her class strength go down from 50 to 15. She also trains herself to walk by children starving to death on her way to work without helping.
There is also Dr Kim who works as a paediatrician at a time when her hospital has run out of medicines to provide, and is reduced to writing prescriptions in the hope that the patients have the foreign currency or contacts to procure the medicines. She eventually has to write prescriptions for her young patients when what they need is food. She has to scavenge for food, and unable to take it anymore, decides to defect. She still retains some loyalty to the regime and tells herself that she is going away only temporarily in order to eat and regain strength. She finds herself in a Chinese village and sees that there is a bowl of rice and meat left on the ground for the dog, and realizes that dogs in China eat better than doctors in North Korea.
As Demick takes pains to point out at the beginning of the book, North Korea was not one of those underdeveloped countries where people live on the margins of survival. It was, till it was afflicted by the Kims, an industrial economy with a literate populace, living lives that would qualify as lower middle-class in present day India. I have noticed that there is something about human nature that makes us sympathize more with the mighty when they fall than with those who have always been at the bottom. But even leaving aside this paradox of human emotions, North Korea’s devastation seems remarkable and incomprehensible to me.
I try to understand it as I do everything – by imagining the mechanics by which such an event might come to pass. I venture out and see the relative affluence around me – the shops, supermarkets, the cars on the roads, and try to imagine them all disappearing.
And the rice. North Koreans love their rice as much as we South Indians do. Its disappearance from the dinner plates of the North Koreans is probably the most important motif in the story. For days after I read “Nothing to envy”, I couldn’t look at the plain rice on my son’s plate without choking.
Rice is the most rigidly controlled substance in North Korea, and the most difficult to sell on the black market. One of Mrs Song’s schemes to feed her family was to smuggle rice into Chongjin and sell it. The train she was travelling in met with an accident, killing 700 people and causing Mrs Song to lose the rice – my attempt to find a parallel with the train accident in Atlas Shrugged was hampered by the fact that the compartments carrying the elite were spared in this accident.
It was the rice that reminded me. India wasn’t always a society of plenty. Back in 75, when I was born, rice was a controlled commodity, to be purchased only in ration shops. We were South Indians in Bombay. How could the central planners who determined rice allocations have figured out that we’d need a lot more rice than the roti eating Maharashtrians? When my mother was pregnant with me, she’d been in Bombay for less than a year. Wheat and rotis were unfamiliar food to her. The lack of rice weakened her. Of course, we weren’t North Korea even then – she wasn’t starving. But my dad and uncle had to smuggle in rice from Vasai. Of course, it was just a local train journey, but there was apparently still a risk of inspectors catching them. Of course, we weren’t North Korea – they weren’t about to be sent a labour camp, but they’d have to pay a bribe.
I don’t think rice was still controlled when I was growing up, but having to smuggle in rice was apparently a common experience – years later, I saw a magic show on the occasion of Independence day. One of the acts involved hiding rice from inspectors who had entered a train – we weren’t North Korea, so unlike them, we had the freedom of speech to make fun of government regulations – on Independence day, no less.
While rice wasn’t controlled during the 80s, the Public Distribution System loomed large in our consciousness. We knew them as ration shops, and a if you carried out a word association test on a kid growing at that time, the word most associated with “ration shop” would have been “queue”. Of course, we weren’t North Korea – the ration shops weren’t empty – the grains available were of poor quality, availability was intermittent, and it was understood that most of the time the shopkeeper sold off the grain in the black market. And how could the central planners have known that rice is supposed to be aged for it to be suitable for cooking? It was understood that the rice from the ration shops is suitable only for making dosas.
Eventually, we abandoned the ration shops much before they abandoned us. I remember my mother telling us that the only thing we’d really needed the ration card was for kerosene, because it wasn’t sold in the free market at all, but now that we had the “extra” cylinder, we didn’t need the kerosene stove anymore.
It is a common lament of Sainath and gang that the government has scaled back on the public provision of social services since the 80s. They attribute it to the neo-liberal reforms that have supposedly taken place. I have my theory about what exactly happened – it has to do with neo-liberal reforms, but not in the way Sainath thinks.
My guess is that the decline in social services occurred because the middle-class stopped using them. We no longer use the PDS, send our children to government schools or go to government run hospitals when we are ill. When the middle-class used these services, they had the capacity to lobby the government to ensure that the quality of services didn’t suck very badly – at least for themselves. This resulted in two things. First, it caused an optical illusion – even if the poorest were as badly served then as they are now, the general impression of the quality of a school, hospital or the ration shop would have been formed by the very visible service provided to the urban middle-class. Second, to an extent, the pressure exerted by the middle-class would have resulted in a general improvement in quality. After all, if the poor children go to a school where the middle-class kids are also going, the better quality of the school will benefit the poor as well.
If my theory right, then you aren’t going to get an improvement in the quality of government social services unless the middle-class starts using them, and middle-class isn’t going to start using them except at gun-point. Of course, we aren’t North Korea, so that’s not going to happen.
How could North Korea’s society tolerate such a descent into destitution without revolting? How did the state stay intact through all this? After all, it wasn’t like the North Korean army was well-fed during the famine of the 90s – yes they were relatively better off, but having barely enough to eat as compared to having nothing at all to eat ought not to be enough to prevent the average soldier from shooting their officers. It is all very strange. Especially for an Indian – while the Indian economy is positively affluent compared to the North Korean, the North Korean government ‘s capacity to enforce its will is, when compared to the Indian government’s, is at first world standards. We definitely aren’t North Korea.
We are now set to get the Food Security Bill. The government has an uncanny knack of getting the titles of its schemes right – how can anyone oppose the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme? Or the Right to Education Act? Or the Food Security Bill? As long as the titles sound good, who cares whether the schemes achieve their goals or the exact opposite?
The Food Security Bill will aim to cover 65% of the population in its ambit. This 65% will supposedly be supplied food using the same PDS that has achieved so much for us. There are various ideas like supplying the poor with coarse grains, which experts assure us, will provide them with the nutrition they lack because they are currently buying what they prefer. Of course, we aren’t North Korea. This is nothing like Kim Jong Il’s hare-brained scheme to grow corn in North Korea – this got washed away in the floods, worsening the famine. The ideas that are being tacked on to the FSB have been vetted by the best nutrition and sustainability experts.
Because we aren’t North Korea, our government cannot afford to impose the totalitarian tyranny on its citizens, instead, our unfortunate citizens have to make do with the petty tyranny of an inefficient, corrupt and capricious government. Whenever the government comes up with one of its schemes to censor the internet, we go into a funk and make it sound like it’s another step towards totalitarian tyranny. That’s nonsense. We already have laws on the books that, if enforced honestly, would have reduced India to a totalitarian state long back. What saves us is the fact the corruption and inefficiency of the Indian state makes it useless as an instrument of totalitarianism. Given these constraints however, the achievements of the Indian state in holding us back are considerable.