I just emerged from a 46-hour encounter (minus a few breaks for sleeping, teaching, writing, riding a city bus with some ex-cons, and eating) with Barabara Demick’s outstanding new book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. On the whole, it’s a masterwork modeled after John Hersey’s Hiroshima, following the lives of six individuals from the death of Kim Il-Sung in 1994 until their present status as North Korean defectors in Suwon or Seoul in 2009.
A live video webcast will be held with the author at the NYC Asia Society tomorrow, January 7, from 6:30-8:00 p.m. EST; the Washington Times reviews the book here.
Of course my favorite part of this text is its North Hamgyong bias: although she interviewed about 100 defectors during her five years as L.A. Times correspondent in Seoul, Demick chose to focus on the city of Chongjin as the anchoring point to her story, meaning that we are given entree into that city in a way that few other works or sources can rival. Sure, we could argue that the author should have spent a month scouring the Good Friends’ reports from Chongjin since the 1990s, but that would be like throwing swine at pearls: gratuitous and unnecessary. This is a great book and a very, very solid addition to the literature on North Korea.
Best of all, beyond the North Hamgyong focus, is that one can learn something new from the text. There are a fair number of bromides about the DPRK, the analysis of the personality cult of the Kims, but they don’t overwhelm the primary storyline and the rich texture of fresh insight and detail. This is, in some ways, an histoire quotidienne, or an Alltagesgeschichte, a history of everyday life in the DPRK. Demick’s long hours of interviews, extended apparently over the period of several months, along with her eight trips to the DPRK and discussions with other defectors and experts, lend this book an exceptional level of detail. With some books, you know that the details were grafted on after the interview, that license was taken. (Russel Spurr’s outstandingly readable prose achievement, Enter the Dragon, is a case in point. Spurr parlays a single interview with a Chinese major into a host of magnificently detailed — and almost certainly unverifiable and speculative — descriptions of CCP cabinet meetings during the Korean War.) Only occasionally does one doubt Demick, asking “how does she know that?”
One example might be when Demick relays how Mi-ran, a female doctor in Chongjin, “remembered seeing a photograph of a famine victim in Somalia with a protruding stomach” (p. 130). Of course the empiricist in me wonders “oh really?” but then I become credulous, wanting only a footnote: I surmise, upon reflection, that North Korean media was busily denouncing the U.S. for military action in Somalia in 1993, and that images of East African famine were flooding into North Korea during the early Clinton administration with ironic prescience. Demick doesn’t spell it out and, for that matter, doesn’t use footnotes or endnotes.
Perhaps there’s a master’s thesis in there somewhere: “North Korean Images of Famine and American Military Intervention in the early 1990s.” I’d read it, gladly.
But much more than any kind of academic nuggets that might be gained is the omnipresence of death during the Great Famine. The slow deterioration of the society, along with the concurrent growth in markets and creation of “reluctant capitalists” is depicted, as is the individual horror of the various characters in seeing death surrounding them. This is gripping and unpleasant reading, but it is important.
Now, having just finished the book on the struggles of the North Korean people, I pick up the Los Angeles Times to read an article by Demick’s successor in the ROK, John Glionna, on how affluent South Koreans are holding mock funerals for themselves as a means of finding purpose in their lives and getting motivated. Talk about culture shock. Of course, we could criticize South Koreans for being self-indulgent, but given that the country has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world, the function of these events shouldn’t be mocked.
(And by the way, should I kick off tomorrow, I request Bach, Bach, and more Bach. Cellist funerals are always sacred things anyway.)
Do consider checking out the webcast tomorrow with Barbara Demick and buying or otherwise obtaining her text. It was certainly worth my time, and I think it will reward repeated readings.