Nothing to Envy
- Barbara Demick
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This book is based on seven years of conversations with North Koreans
The Workers’ Party distributed the portraits free of charge along with a white cloth to be stored in a box beneath them. It could be used only to clean the portraits. This was especially important during the rainy season, when specks of mold would creep under the corners of the glass frame. About once a month, inspectors from the Public Standards Police would drop by to check on the cleanliness of the portraits
Making one’s own medicine is an integral part of being a doctor in North Korea. Those living in warmer climates often grow cotton as well to make their own bandages. Doctors are all required to collect the herbs themselves; Dr. Kim’s work unit took off as much as a month in spring and autumn to gather herbs, during which time the doctors slept out in the open and washed only every few days. Each had a quota to fill. They had to bring their haul back to the hospital pharmacy, where it would be weighed, and if the amount was insufficient, they would be sent out again
The school day started at 8:00 A.M. Mi-ran put on her perkiest smile to greet the children as they filed into the classroom. As soon as she got them into their assigned seats, she brought out her accordion. All teachers were required to play the accordion—it had been her final test before graduation. It was often called the “people’s instrument” since it was portable enough to carry along on a march to a construction site or for a day of voluntary hard labor in the fields—nothing like a rousing march played on accordion to motivate workers in the field or on the construction site
Come, darling. Let’s go to a good restaurant and order a nice bottle of wine,” he told his wife one morning when they were stirring on the blankets. They hadn’t eaten in three days. Mrs. Song looked at her husband with alarm, worried that he was hallucinating
the new economy was increasingly female. The men were stuck in the unpaying state jobs; women were making the money. “Men aren’t worth as much as the dog that guards the house,” some of the ajummas would whisper among themselves. Women’s superior earnings couldn’t trump thousands of years of patriarchal culture, but they did confer a certain independence.
From the outside, Chongjin looked unchanged
There was nothing about the boy to distinguish him from hundreds of other children hanging around the train station. North Koreans called them kochebi, “wandering swallows”—children whose parents had died or gone off to find food. Left to fend for themselves, they tended to flock like pigeons scavenging for crumbs at the train station. They were a strange migratory phenomenon in a country that previously had never heard of homelessness.
JUN-SANG WITNESSED A PUBLIC EXECUTION ONE SUMMER WHEN he was home for summer vacation. For days, sound trucks had been driving by announcing the time and date. The head of the inminban had knocked on doors telling people their attendance was expected
In the nearly half a century that elapsed between the end of the Korean War and Mi-ran’s defection in October 1998, only 923 North Koreans had fled to South Korea. It was a minuscule number if you consider that while the Berlin Wall stood an average of 21,000 East Germans fled west every year.
By 2001, it was estimated that 100,000 North Koreans had sneaked into China, a small percentage of whom eventually defected to South Korea.
Tens of thousands of North Korean women have been sold to Chinese men. By some estimates, three quarters of the roughly 100,000 North Korean refugees living in China are women and more than half of them live in arranged unions with Chinese men
Only a small fraction of the 100,000 or more North Koreans in China are able to make it to South Korea. In 1998, there were just 71 North Koreans who requested South Korean citizenship; in 1999, the number rose to 148; in 2000, there were 312 defectors; and in 2001, there were 583. In 2002, 1,139 North Koreans were admitted. Since then, anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 have been arriving steadily each year
The South Koreans studied various historical models. They looked at schools in Israel for newly arrived Jews from the former Soviet Union and North Africa, people who had exercised their right of return to the Jewish state but knew little of its language and culture. They also studied the problems of East Germans adjusting to life in the reunified Germany
Guilt and shame are the common denominators among North Korean defectors; many hate themselves for what they had to do in order to survive.
The World Food Programme, which has the largest presence in North Korea of the various aid agencies, has a grim assessment of the economic situation. A survey of 250 North Korean households conducted in the summer of 2008 found that two thirds were still supplementing their diets by picking grass and weeds in the countryside. Most adults didn’t eat lunch for lack of food. When questioned about where they would get their next meal, those surveyed replied that they didn’t know or offered vague answers such as “I’m hoping my relatives who live on a cooperative farm will deliver some potatoes tonight,” according to de Margerie. Some of the interviewees cried as they were being questioned.
The U.N. agencies