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Nothing to Envy: Love, Life and Death in North Korea by Barbara Demick

January 26, 2018


In July, Mark Bowden published a terrifying article in The Atlantic about our options with North Korea (none of them are good). This was long before our President started tweeting like an insecure tenth-grader about the size of his button, and before senators started rattling their sabers, some of them genuinely seeming to delight in the thought of incinerating North Korea in a war, despite the fact that a best-case scenario involves the deaths of millions of North and South Koreans.

I thought maybe I should learn something about the people we may very soon be lobbing missiles at. I heard Barbara Demick when she was a guest on The Ezra Klein Show podcast, and although this book is from 2009, it is still relevant as a look at the hermit kingdom and its citizens.

Most of what we see of North Korea in the media is footage of its chubby leader or the pageantry of its military parades. It’s a country that has increasingly walled itself off from the outside world since its creation after WWII. The three successive members of the Kim family have become increasingly paranoid of outside influence. Their blend of totalitarianism, pseudo-religion and cult of personality, mixed with the country’s isolationism has turned North Korea into a cult.

Demick gives us a look inside the cult, and the picture is bleak. Under Kim Jong Il in the ’90s and 2000s, the country collapsed into poverty and famine. The country was depleted of resources. It’s estimated that as many as three million starved to death, and the stories Demick tells are heartbreaking. The agriculture, already on the decline, was decimated by mismanagement. The power grid went down. People stole food to survive. They stripped the useless copper wires from the walls to sell for food. They killed animals for food. There were rumors of cannibalism, of adults who kidnapped children to butcher for food.

North Korea has always been cloaked in misinformation—the only permitted TV’s and radios were preset to receive only official government channels. Many North Koreans believe there is a better life outside of the country, though many still believe the official propaganda, which blames the outside world, particularly the U.S., for the miserable conditions. Some attempt to escape. Some do. But it is a great risk to do so—many who make it out are never able to contact their families. Some who do escape to South Korea or China and are captured or returned to the North. It is not a good fate that awaits them in the prisons.

The hope for average North Koreans is not war. The long but best shot may be that technology will eventually help information overwhelm the walls. That North Koreans will see the outside world, the possibilities, and somehow in their weakened state, will revolt and topple the communist government. It’s nearly impossible to imagine, but until then North Korea is a country frozen in time, a suspended state of hell, and its people are its prisoners.

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