Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Nothing to Envy

One benefit to being sick and housebound is the opportunity to catch up on some reading. Over the weekend, I read Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. The book weaves together the oral histories of six North Korean defectors, and through them, we get a glimpse of the surreal daily lives of ordinary citizens under the regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Their stories are thorough, horrifying, and heart-wrenching. A few excerpts:

...consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung's divinity. (p. 46)
In Mrs. Song's home, as in every other, a framed portrait of Kim Il-sung hung on an otherwise bare wall. People were not permitted to put anything else on that wall, not even pictures of their blood relatives. [...] About once a month, inspectors from the Public Standards Police would drop by to check on the cleanliness of the portraits. (p. 46)
The children were never to forget that they owed everything to the national leadership. Like other North Korean children, they didn't celebrate their own birthdays, but those of Kim Il-sung on April 15 and Kim Jong-il on February 16. These days were national holidays and they were often the only days people would get meat in their ration package. (p. 47)
While the other kids were cheerfully singing "Let Us Safeguard Socialism" as they marched, Oak-hee glowered in silence. The absolute worst was when it came to collecting "night soil" from the toilets in the apartment building. North Korea was chronically short of chemical fertilizer and needed to use human excrement since there were few farm animals. (p. 48)
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... (p. 119)
North Koreans learned to swallow their pride and hold their noses. They picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals. (p.134)
The famine not only put prostitution back onto the street, it brought out a new class of prostitute -often young married women desperate to get food for their children. They often asked for nothing more than a bag of noodles or a few sweet potatoes as payment. (p. 153)
North Korea's criminal code limited the death penalty to premeditated murder, treason, terrorism, "antistate activities," and "antipeople activities," but these definitions were loose enough to include any activity that might offend the Workers' Party. North Korean defectors in South Korea told of executions in the 1990s for adultery, prostitution, resisting arrest, disorderly conduct. (p. 184)
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. (p. 185)


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  3. Kari and Aunt Nan~

    Thanks for your your feedback! I accidentally deleted your comments, but I really appreciate what you said.