Friday, July 02, 2010

Nothing to Envy

I just finished reading Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. It is a recounting of oral hisotries given by six North Korean defectors to South Korea. The tales are well-researched, moving, and powerful in their simplicity and horror. What spoke to me the greatest was the description of how the people came to their individual disillusionments of the regime. The stories -- chosen from over one hundred interviews -- interweave the lives of these six people in such a way that, even though, some of them didn't know each other, the reader (by being able to examine each person's life) is able to gain a much greater (and more powerful, harsh, and sad) understanding of life leading up to and following the death of Kim Il-Sung.

The death of Kim Il-Sung in July of 1994 marked the beginning of the utter collapse of the nation's social and physical infrastructure, and this is recounted in the book, as seen through the six sets of eyes, as well as a social interpretation of the greater context befalling the DPRK. Demick never seems to stray into reveling in the details of prison life, torture, executions, and death, as might be so easily done with the subject matter. Instead, the narratives lay out the horrors of the regime and the disintegration of life in a manner that is both starkly painful and yet not intrinsically repulsive. Reading between the lines, however, one can imagine that the descriptions -- as bleak as they are -- are themselves the examples of the silver lining, rather than of the darkness.

I don't know exactly when I became interested in life in North Korea. It might well have been when I was given a small assignment on North Korea when I was doing research for a political science professor. The news clippings from the Los Angeles Times (where Demick works) as well as releases from Amnesty International, the UNHCR, and the US State Department all piqued my interest in this seeming "parallel dimension" that exists on the Korean Peninsula. It was the first time that I read about the devastating famine that killed off so many people, but yet was something that I had never heard about. True, the tragic events in the Balkans during the mid-to-late 1990s was more present in my mind, since I was living at the time in Hungary, just "next door" to the fighting. Still, reading first the pieces I dug up in research, and other works on North Korea, and now Demick's book, I have always felt some sort of strange attraction to this time in history, and I don't really know why.

I had leafed through a copy of Guy Delisle's Pyongyang one day at my local Borders, and was intrigued by the graphical depictions of life in the city. I also watched short videos from North Korea on the History and Discovery channels, as well as on YouTube. A part of me has this strange, moribund interest in visiting the "Hermit Kingdom," so that I can see it "before it collapses" (as Demick notes many tour packages to the country are sold on). However, as of now, I have only books and video on the country, its history, its people, and their conditions. While that curious part of me wishes to visit before the collapse of the regime, a larger part of me, wishes the whole thing to dissolve; to fade eventually into a nightmare that quickly becomes just a hazy memory in the light of day. Of course, as Demick points out in her book, this reunification (if it were to happen), would be several orders of magnitude more monetarily expensive than the reunification of Germany... and since the Koreas have been separated for longer than the Germanies were, the social costs of reunification also continue to trouble the South Korean government as well as cause a greater re-calculation of costs among South Korea's youth.

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