Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick’s wonderful account of life in North Korea, is an astounding work of non-fiction, but while reading this collection of stories from inside the last surviving Stalinist dictatorship I had to keep reminding myself I wasn’t engrossed in an incredibly dark and harrowing novel.
Weaving together the stories of six people from the northern city of Chongjin, it offers a disturbing vision of life and death under the totalitarian regime established by Kim Il-sung and continued by his son and heir, Kim Jong-il.
The picture that emerges is horrific. A country of ideological oppression, economic collapse and famine on a scale so devastating that eventually the bodies of the starving homeless on the verge of death are carted from the streets to mass graves with the corpses laying beside them in the gutter.
This vision of North Korea is the one with which we are all familiar. A highly-secretive communist dictatorship, armed with nuclear weapons and antiquated anti-capitalist rhetoric, clinging to a destructive socialist economic policy which has left even the educated classes with no choice but to scavenge for grass and weeds in an attempt to stave off starvation.
But in the same way that many inside the Democratic People’s Republic have little or no idea of life outside the supposed idyll created by the Dear Leader, many beyond its borders have little understanding of what it is like to live in the world’s most closed society.
Satellite images of the Korean peninsula at night show a country swathed in darkness, a nation where the lights have long since gone out as the economy has crashed. The north can seem like a black hole, allowing not even light to escape. The triumph of Demick’s work is to use the stories of these ordinary people to shed light on this most extraordinary of places.
And there is light amid the gloom. One of the reasons Nothing to Envy can feel like a gripping novel rather than a superb piece of reportage is the unfolding narrative as these residents of Chongjin gradually emerge from the fog of a lifetime of indoctrination to see for the first time the regime as it really is.
One moving example of this realisation is the story of Mi-ran, a school teacher who discovers that if she is to survive the famine of the 1990s she must sit back and watch her young pupils die of hunger. Demick, Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, writes:
It is axiomatic that one death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic. So it was for Mi-ran. What she didn’t realise is that her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring.
In time, Mi-ran would learn how to walk around a dead body on the street without paying much notice. She could pass a five-year-old on the verge of death without feeling obliged to help. If she wasn’t going to share her food with her favourite pupil, she certainly wasn’t going to help a perfect stranger.
Like all North Koreans, Mi-ran had always believed she was lucky to have been born in a nation basking in the love and benevolence of the Dear Leader.
But how could she sing the songs of the revolution to her students, words of praise and unquestioning devotion such as Our father, we have nothing to envy on the world; Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party, while she watched those she loved and cared for die of starvation brought about by the regime?
Those whose stories make up this remarkable book, winner of the 2010 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, each found their own path to the discovery that they had been victims of lifelong indoctrination, that all was not what their government wished them to believe.
For some it was turning to the black market to feed their family, finding within them an instinctive capitalist urge which the regime had always suppressed. Others were exposed to outside media, destroying the lie that North Korea was the happiest and most prosperous nation on Earth.
I found these stories immensely uplifting, essential human optimism and the instinct for survival gradually emerging from a situation so dark and depressing that it almost defies belief in the 21st century.
But millions of North Koreans remain trapped in this nightmare, many aware that they are living in what is essentially the world’s largest prison camp. We can only hope that the inevitable fall of this despicable regime comes about sooner rather than later.