Posted by: Ele Quigan | August 25, 2012

Nothing to envy – Barbara Demick

So again I decided to read another greatly depressing book. Notes on a theme right?! I’ve been interested in North Korea since I talked to a couple of friends of mine who had been (thanks Nate, for letting me use a couple of your North Korea trip pics!), and of course there’s a lot of shadow content around the atrocities of North Korea floating around online.

Some of it is apparently incredible – seems that every single time I see a post anywhere on North Korea – I see someone pop up with The Vice Guide or there’s other posts that are more humorous like the sub reddit r/Pyongyang – the Internet has basically given me my entire knowledge about this country, nonetheless in a light hearted way.

But you hear of what are essentially prison camps. The famine. The fact that the gap between North and South is so far apart now, that there would be massive economic implications if reunification was ever to happen, as the North is so far behind.

Electricity doesn’t turn on often in some of the further out regions. While it does sound like the country is mildly better now than it was, but with the lack of electricity, amount of food supplies decreasing (except of course for the army) there was nothing for the country but its propaganda to keep things going. It sounds like things have greatly improved recently – the infamous Ryugyong hotel which laid dormant for years has now been completed. By all accounts I manage to read, power is on more often and the threat of famine reduced.

It’s funny, even with reading about North Korea – I actually find South Korea just as interesting. From Fan Death to an incredibly high suicide rate to “Ulzzang” (probably better to look at google image search on that one) to their phenomenal tech companies and ridiculously high-speed internet. It’s not a place I’m drawn to specifically visit, but interesting definitely.

I didn’t realise that after the war with the North post WWII that people with split families were looked upon as a lower class citizen, dependent on how far removed you were. Or that the americans basically drew a line through the country separating North and South, with no thought to the natural geography of the area or even to consider where towns and cities split.

The defectors within the book crossed through to China and Mongolia – though there are other routes that people take. The most depressing thing for me is the gentlemans agreement with China, that these defectors are often swept up and sent straight back to North Korea.

For those that manage to escape – the difference in life is startling. The funniest comment in the book referred to one of the defectors fitting in – losing her perm and scarlet lipstick that was the norm in the North, and was excited by her plastic surgery which is so prevalent in the South.

I struggle to understand why given the atrocities of the North why the South has not stood up with a white flag, but I guess in a sense the economic impact of that would likely destroy the Souths’ economy – and they do their best to help and support those who manage to defect and make their way back.

The book reminded me of ‘Wild Swans’ which I read at I think about age 12 (thanks mum). These dictatorships that starved their country felt very similar, the cult of personality of the leader, the pressure to conform that was not just to fit in like in a western world, but your life was truly at risk. The class system separating neighbours, school children, people across the board. A society so beaten down they have no ability to mobilise and stand up against it.

I hope some positives come for South Korea soon. That their new leader doesn’t see all the meme’s created by the West taking the absolute piss out of him, as I’m sure he’d want to commence an attack imminently (they are still freaking hilarious tho), I hope they continue with their beautiful looking mass games, and I hope some day, that reunification can happen.


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