Friday, 13 January 2012

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea

I first read about this book in the Daily Telegraph in early 2010 and was instantly hooked. I have long been interested in North Korea, a mysterious, secluded nation with a repressive regime notorious to many.

Yet, apart from the rather pretentious scenes the state wants us to see in Pyongyang, what do we really know about this country and, more importantly, its people? As such, the true stories of the six defectors depicted in the book were highly revealing. It was almost too depressing to read. All the minute details of the lives of ordinary North Korean civilians, which were frequently swept under the carpet by the totalitarian regime, were brought to the surface for the very first time.

The most striking and memorable part of the book was about the death of Kim Il-sung, the Great Marshal of DPRK. It was said that any North Korean would remember the day they learnt of their president’s death, a day of immense significance in the country’s history. On that day and during the subsequent 10-day mourning period, tens of thousands of people flocked to pay tribute to their beloved fatherly-like figure at different symbolic venues and monuments, similar to what we saw on TV following Kim Jong-il’s passing. The book offered an explanation for the flood of massive grieving crowds onto the street – they were organised, or more like “forced”, by their communities, work units, schools etc. to pay their respect to the late leader. According to the defectors, everybody had to “perform their duty” several times a day due to their multiple capacities as habitant of a certain residential community, factory worker, teacher, student etc. In case you still have further doubts, mourners were said to be handed food in return for their commendable loyalty and affection which, if I may add, probably gave them extra incentives to queue and lay flowers at the foot of Kim Il-sung’s statues time and time again given the dire food shortage in North Korea at that time.

In the end, who’s deceiving whom? The government fabricates all sorts of laughable tales regarding the Kims and feeds its people with various brainwashing propaganda every single day. Meanwhile, civilians fool their state with their seemingly unstoppable tears and hysterical sorrow. A kindergarten girl was said to rub saliva all over her face and pretended to wail uncontrollably. It was also mentioned that one of the defectors, a prestigious university student studying in Pyongyang, was so troubled by his inability to produce tears he forced himself not to blink in order to make his eyes water.

In the midst of crises, people at the lowest rung of the society ladder are often hit the hardest. Such was the misery faced by ordinary civilians amid the devastating famine in the 1990s while those with a firm grip on power organised lavish banquets lasted for days. Frogs, rats, tree barks, weeds… the most unimaginable edibles became heavenly delicacies for the poor souls. They begged. They stole. They searched in deserted no man’s land. They traded in the black market. They scrambled whatever they could to fill their stomach and to survive. On crossing the border, Dr. Kim, one of the defectors, saw a bowl of rice lying on the ground in a Chinese village. It had been years since she last saw white rice. Just as she was pondering, a dog appeared and ate from the bowl. It was only then the bitter fact hit home – Chinese dogs were more well-fed than North Korean doctors.

I feel truly sorry for the North Koreans. I really do. The relentless bombardment of newspeak and their dreadful isolation from the outside world have led them to believe that they were not any worse off than their counterparts. In fact, they were taught that they were the elite race, the chosen people with every reasons to be proud. Ignorance is an insidious crime, more so in today’s globalised world driven by rapid dissemination of information. But then, to the North Koreans who are stuck in their fatherland and lead a rather miserable life, perhaps ignorance is, in a way, the best thing that God has bestowed them.

A well-known nursery rhyme in North Korea goes:

“Uri Abogi, our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.
Our house is within the embrace of the Workers' party.
We are all brother and sisters.
Even if a sea of fire comes towards us, sweet children do not need to be afraid.
Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy.”

How ironic. How pitiful.


I own the above two versions and have read the books in 2010 (left) and 2012 (right) respectively. Still, the stories are as shocking and captivating as ever.

More on the book:


  1. //Ignorance is an insidious crime//

    Very well said.

  2. Some North Koreans were punished for not being sincere enough when weeping in Kim Jong-il's funeral.