Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Different World

The big sports summer continues. Last week Serena Williams not only won both the Wimbledon singles (for the 5th time) and doubles, but was, I believe, the first to get the titles as a brunette, a blonde and (her current choice) a redhead.  Meanwhile, Roger Federer's cute twin daughters are now old enough to watch him win, which he did, for the seventh time. Congrats to both.

I have not used this space very much for book reviews, but one I received for Fathers Day turned out to be a winner, and so I'm sending the word on. The name of the book is "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea" by Barbara Demick.
 Ms. Demick was a reporter in South Korea for many years, but she found it hard to report accurately about the North, not only because very few journalists are allowed to visit the secretive country, but the ones who do get permission to visit are constantly supervised in order to only receive the "news" its government wants to share.
She changed her approach to improve the accuracy by interviewing defectors from a particular area of North Korea and concentrating on their individual stories. The time period covered in the book was mainly during the last few years of the life of the North's original dictator, Kim il-sung, who ran the country from the late 1940's to the mid-1990's.
Even in its better days, North Korea was a dangerous place for any type of free expression, even more so than the old Soviet Union or East Germany. News of the outside world was either completely censored, or twisted to put the best possible face on Kim and his regime. People labored in factories for little or no money, paid instead with government-provided food and housing.
A major part of the book is taken up with people's individual reaction to the economic collapse following the end of the Soviet Union and the subsequent decline of North Korean international credit, the diversion of resources to the country's huge standing army.
Smoke stacks stopped emitting, the power grid would function for an uncertain two or three hours per day, and many buildings lost heat altogether. When government-provided food ended, each family had to reassess its situation. What could be sold? What talents could be offered to others? How could family members get to where food might be found unguarded? The government was helpful only in deciding to turn a blind eye to previously prohibited private economic activity such as markets set up in old factory sites. The propaganda signs on walls began to carry new slogans, such as "Let's eat two meals a day." This last practice proved especially harmful to elderly citizens and little children, particularly when things such as grass were added to soups.
Under these circumstances, a spike in plans to defect was inevitable. Doing so directly to South Korea was too dangerous, and so crossing into China, then making plans to go south became the route of choice. One particular story illustrated the nature of totalitarian life. A couple in their twenties, whose romance covered several years, both planned to defect, but did not tell each other of their separate plans for fear of having the plans made known. Both escaped, but under much different circumstances than they could have foreseen.
To the amazement of almost everyone, North Korea continues today, now under the third generation of the Kim family. Defections continue at a rate which keeps a South Korean facility dedicated to the education of refugee Northerners humming. Sixty plus years of separation has resulted in a common people so different in their backgrounds that bringing the newcomers up to date after so much disinformation pumped into their minds for so long is needed to reunite the new citizens to their new surroundings.     


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