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.