I took one day out of my paternity leave for pleasure reading. I selected a new Kindle book I bought after hearing the author interviewed on NPR: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. It was utterly fascinating. I devoured it.
Demick weaves a gripping narrative which puts the reader in contact with daily life north of the DMZ. And the story is more than just exciting and interesting: the relationship between Mi-ran and Jun-Sang (not their real names) has to be one of the most romantic stories I’ve ever read.
Demick focuses on people from the area around the North Korean city of Chong-Jin. She can tell such intimate stories about citizens of a closed country under an oppressive regime because she spoke to them personally. They all defected (or, in one case, were tricked into defecting and only then defected!) to South Korea where Demick, the L.A. Times Korea correspondent, was able to interview them.
Not all of the defectors were born dissidents. Several were classic true believers in the regime who only reluctantly gave up their religious faith in the “Fatherly Leader.” Once inside South Korea, most of them expressed some desire (sometimes) to go back northward.
Reading this work gave me a deep sense of righteous anger at Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il. I had already viewed the latter as a ridiculous man: he wears silly jumpsuits and is always followed by fawning military officials in massive caps. Now I view him as culpable for the deaths of millions. Ideas have consequences, and when your economic policies kill your own citizens you need to take responsibility and change the policies. Instead, the North Korean propaganda machine went into overdrive: “Let’s all eat two meals a day!”
Kim Jong-Il appears to believe his own propaganda. If everyone around you agrees with everything you say and proclaims you an expert on everything from industrial glass production to the best bovine fertility practices, perhaps it’s inevitable that your pedestal’s height starts to put you out of touch with the people on the ground.
As I read I was filled with a desire to do something for these people—and then I started to realize what that might mean. South Koreans certainly have realized it, according to the book. Rehabilitating an entire half-nation and bringing them up to the high-tech standards of the other half would be costly and difficult. Add to this the fact that a lifetime of conditioning has influenced the thinking of everyone. Even defectors have a hard time making it in the South. They have to go through a special government deprogramming.
But nonetheless I have prayed that the true King of this world would depose the leader He, for His own purposes, set up decades ago (Psalm 75:7; Romans 13:1). Kim Jong-Il deserves to answer for his crimes, primarily that of defacing the image of God by putting such little stock in the lives of God’s image-bearers.
Buy this book for an education on the politics and history of North Korea, and read and enjoy this book for the many personal stories that you can follow from their beginnings under oppression to their breakthrough to (political, at least) freedom.