Archive for June, 2012

The first chapter of Nothing to Envy begins with this mind-boggling picture.

Days after finishing this book, I am still captivated by this image, as well as the descriptions of daily life that Barbara Demick gleaned from North Koreans who have escaped to the South. Stories of the brain-washing of a nation by Kim Il-sung and then his son Kim Jong-il. It is not over-the-top to say that they presented themselves as Father and Son figures…and somehow got a nation to buy into it. Stories of malnutrition to the point that grammar school children have the stature of a 3 year old. Stories from the late-1990’s famine that “the good die first” because they would not steal or get involved in the ‘evil, capitalistic black market.’ Stories of cornmeal being ‘extended’ by grinding the husks and cob along with the kernels, sometimes sawdust thrown in as well.

Barbara Demick weaves her book around the lives of 6 North Korean citizens who escaped and live in South Korea. Somehow she makes their dreary lives in the North riveting, I suppose because so much of it is so alien and inhumane. NtE does not deal much with the politics of North v. South, and touches on communism v. capitalism mostly from the vantage of slogans fed to the North Koreans. The details of daily life carry the narrative.

The book builds to the climax of the famine in the late 1990’s. Oddly enough when the famine hit and foreign aid arrived, capitalism gained a toe-hold. The NK army confiscated the foreign aid and sold it. A black market sprung up overnight. Though illegal, citizens didn’t care; what are you going to do? Kill me? I’m dying already.

For me, this paragraph about the black market is the snapshot-memory of the book:

Every time she went to the market,  Mrs. Song saw something that astonished her. Peaches. Grapes. Bananas. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a banana–may twenty years ago, when Chang-bo brought some home as a treat for the children. One day she saw oranges, real oranges! Mrs. Song had never tasted an orange–she only recognized it from pictures. Another day, she saw a mottled yellow-brown fruit with green spikes growing from the top.

“What is that thing?” she asked a friend, who told her it was a pineapple.

As the famine progressed, people looked for any means of relief-even escaping to China. Most of those who escaped initially intended only to get food in China and then return, but one taste of freedom led to an appetite that could not be satiated by the husks of dull security. Interestingly, house churches in China play a key role in the underground railroad that funnels escapees to freedom in the south.

Why read this book? The North Korean regime will collapse soon. It cannot sustain its own sinful incompetence. What will we as a free people do to alleviate the needs? How will we train the North Koreans to live as free people? Most importantly, what will the church do? The better we know how they have lived, the better able to help them.


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