Tag Archives: 38th parallel

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

A great title for a great book. Although the title (presumably) comes from one of the many propaganda signs found ubiquitously around North Korea (세상에 부럼 없어라 – We have nothing to envy in the world.), it could very well be a welcome sign at the “international” airport in Pyongyang, the country’s capital city.

The author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick, does a commendable job of getting six North Korean defectors from in and around the Chongjin (청진) area to open up about their lives, the lives of their family members and friends, and the lives of those around them while they were citizens of the Hermit Kingdom 2.0 and then after they arrive in South Korea. Even the most uninterested non-Koreaphiles will be turning the page and wanting more because it’s no different than reading a (real-life) modern-day version of Orwell’s 1984.

What really sets this book apart is the way the author constructs the narrative of the North Koreans who have escaped the ravages of life under Kim Il-sung and subsequently under Kim Jong-il. The fancy way of putting it is that Demick combines a Greek approach to tragedy through the predicaments these people face and the weaknesses which hold them back from successfully overcoming these challenges with a more modern tradition of making them human, fettered by flaws that are relatable and evoke anguish-filled empathy, with irony dripping over it all at pretty much every turn.

We want to scream out loud as these victims of a state-run campaign to destroy them in every facet of their lives keep telling themselves how great Kim Il-sung is, how great life is in North Korea, and how great everything will be once the rest of the world catches up to them technologically, politically and morally.

Even as people are dropping dead all around them during the Great Famine of the 1990s, it’s “Let’s stay strong on this Arduous March!” Just go! we want to tell these people. Get the hell out of Dodge! Cross the bloody Tumen River and then find a way — any way — to South Korea.

The most memorable revelations in this book are simple everyday moments that make you, the reader, pause for a few heartbreaking seconds and go, Holy shit. There really is a hell on Earth. For me, some of these moments included a woman collapsing as she entered China, falling to the ground, and discovering that the Chinese feed their dogs better, more nutritious food than the North Korean government did its own citizens; a highly educated defector getting to South Korea, reading 1984, and wondering how Orwell nailed it so perfectly years before this nightmare unfolded in North Korea; and hearing Kim Jong-il’s real voice through an illegal TV broadcast and realizing exactly what the Japanese did on August 15, 1945 — that small, tiny, weak voice was what we cowered under for a lifetime?

If you like learning and you enjoy a good ol’ tragedy, you will love this book. It is replete with so many of the most human of traits: through its pages we find first love, we please our parents and strive for the very best, we work hard and have big dreams of success and children and food on the table — and then we have it all obliterated. At the very least, it’s proof that the best of humanity does triumph in the face of unimaginable adversity. And while love may not always conquer every foe — real or imagined — it does propel us to new heights, it does inspire us to achieve the unachievable, and even when it does die a sad, lonely death, we are left with an enduring feeling that we are better people for having loved at all.



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Quote of the Day

Image result for the guest, hwang sok-yong

“As it turns out, the atrocities we suffered were committed by none other than ourselves, and the inner sense of guilt and fear sparked by this incident helped form the roots of the frantic hatred that thrives to this day.”

Hwang Sok-yong, The Guest

I need to start today’s Quote of the Day post by saying that I wish I could write more prolifically on Korean literature, specifically its canon of fiction, but that is made difficult for three reasons: (1) the quality of the English translations tends to be poor to quite poor; (2) the content, in my experience, is not engaging nor is it particularly  groundbreaking in any way; (3) the way in which the majority of Korean authors (I’ve come across) express themselves in narrative and dialogue is not very clear, logical or lyrical much of the time.

I’ll get back to that conversation in a later post, but it’s interesting to note that perhaps the most famous writer to come out of East Asia (in English) in the modern era is the Japanese author Murakami Haruki, who is celebrated and venerated (by foreign readers everywhere) and scorned by some of Japan’s literati (like Nobel Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe) for adopting “fast food American-style writing.”

But I digress. Today’s quote comes from a titan of South Korean letters (to my knowledge there are neither artistic titans nor men/women of letters in North Korea), Hwang Sok-yong, and a book I read years ago called The Guest (2005).

The book is a little like Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life in that we follow an ethnic Korean now settled in the U.S., 40 years on, back to the atrocities of war a lifetime ago. Unlike Lee’s book, however, The Guest revisits one of the many horrific battles that took place during the Korean War (1950-53), the fight between good and evil, Christians and communists, God-fearing and God-loathing people.

The title of the book is a euphemism for smallpox, yet infers unwanted visitors that bring nothing but death and destruction (i.e. foreigners, Bible thumpers, people with big noses, those whose breath smells like milk and cheese, etc.). This is partly aimed at the Americans in the context of the plot – for they were initially blamed for the massacre this novel centres around in the Korean War – and partly at colonialism in general (Korea was an unofficial suzerainty of China for centuries, an official one for about 250 years, a Japanese colony for 35 years, and has since been living under the umbrella of the U.S. 8th Army for the past 72 years).

The quote today, while not terribly memorable for its prose, does capture what is arguably the saddest element of war: a fraternal, incendiary battle that pits brother on brother, parents on children, and families on families. What most people still don’t know today – 64 years on – is that Koreans are one of the most homogenous ethnicities in the world, despite the fact that they are now two countries. From the time Dangun came down from the heavens and founded Korea’s first kingdom, Kochosun (or Gojoseon as it’s now spelled), in 2333 B.C., the Korean peninsula was essentially ruled by one Korean dynasty or another. It was only in 1945 that the Soviets and Americans literally created an imaginary line out of nowhere (today known simply  as the 38th parallel, or the DMZ to tourists) that Korea became two nations, and then, in 1948, two countries.

Two years later, North Korea invaded in the early morning hours of June 25, 1950, and hell on Earth was unleashed. Three years later, 2.5 million civilians were dead on both sides of the border, another 500,000 were killed in battle, and more than a million soldiers and civilians were wounded, “disappeared” or were abducted.

Yet the saddest part to this whole thing is that a formal peace agreement was never signed between South and North Korea. All that fighting, all those deaths, and for what? A stalemate. The most heavily guarded border on our planet. Constant tension in the region. And 25 million people living under the oppressive thumb of a Big Brother figure that even George Orwell couldn’t have imagined in his worst nightmares.

As of 2017, North Korea and South Korea are still technically at war.

On a final – and lighter – note, I happen to know the two translators  who worked on Hwang’s novel, Kyung-Ja Chun (mother) and Maya West (daughter), and can say with confidence they did a great job on the English version. So, if you’re looking to expand your literary horizons to a country few outside of it are familiar with, The Guest is as good a place to start as any.

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