How to Defect

Isabel Hilton

  • Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
    Granta, 314 pp, £14.99, February 2010, ISBN 978 1 84708 014 1

Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world,
Our house is within the embrace of the
Workers’ Party.
We are all brothers and sisters.
Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid,
Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy in this world.

North Korean children’s song

What do we know about North Korea? The ‘quintessential rogue regime’ in the words of Jasper Becker, the most secretive of states, member of the ‘axis of evil’, run by a crazy dictator who ‘brutalised his own population … murdering or starving to death some four million people’ while he ‘swilled imported French cognac and gifted concubines with Swiss watches’. A notoriously armed and dangerous regime whose collapse has been striven for – and predicted – for many years.

And yet it has not collapsed. Not only did the regime survive the death of its founding dictator, Kim Il-song, in the middle of an acute economic crisis in 1994, but it appears to be preparing for another succession in which the throne of this Communist garrison state will pass to the third generation of the Kim family. US efforts to dismantle North Korea’s nuclear programme (under Clinton) or to bring about the collapse of the regime (under Bush) both failed. And now North Korea’s preference for provocation as a means of gaining attention, funding or, as Pyongyang would see it, respect has been on display following the sinking in March of a South Korean patrol ship. As one US commentator noted, Pyongyang’s diplomats have played a strikingly weak hand with remarkable skill. It may be the country that nobody loves, but it has confounded the predictions of its enemies. Perhaps the first thing we should know about North Korea is that much of what we think we know is wrong, and the rest, at best, is incomplete.

North Korea, as Bruce Cumings observes in North Korea: Another Country (2004), cannot be understood apart from a terrible fratricidal war that has never ended, the guerrilla struggle against Japanese imperialism in the 1930s, its initial emergence as a state in 1945, its fraught relationship with the South, its brittle and defensive reaction to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union and its interminable daily struggle with the United States.

Such understanding may not make us like North Korea any better, but it might allow us to escape from the unhelpful trope of inexplicable ‘evil’. It is, as Barbara Demick explains, a country that presents a reporter with insuperable difficulties. Even if a journalist can get in, itineraries, activities and contacts are heavily restricted and closely watched. Much of the information we get comes from compromised sources – South Korean intelligence, US intelligence and official sources – or, as here, from defectors. Demick’s book had its origins in a series of articles she wrote as the South Korea correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. She had visited North Korea, but found that talking to defectors gave her a picture of ordinary daily life that it was otherwise impossible to get access to. She chose to focus on a single city, the better to cross-check the facts and people’s memories.

Chongjin, the city she chose, is North Korea’s third largest, with a population of some 500,000. It is wedged between the northern mountains and the Sea of Japan, and lies closer to Vladivostok than to Pyongyang, in a province that extends to the Tumen River, which runs along the border with China and Russia. The Japanese, during their occupation of Korea (1910-45), transformed Chongjin from a small fishing village into an important port, with massive steelworks and chemical factories. It has been closed to foreigners since the Korean War and was also, as Demick notes, one of the places hardest hit by the devastating famine of the mid-1990s.

Demick got to know her interviewees well, through conversations that took place over seven years, and though it would be foolish, as she acknowledges, to imagine that she got everything right, her conscientious reconstruction of places she couldn’t visit and events she couldn’t observe has produced a convincing picture of what her interlocutors endured. Defector stories are a well established genre with its own set of problems. The subject’s testimony seems to offer an intimate glimpse of a secret world, but it is no more reliable for that: defectors do not flee for nothing. They have calculated that whatever new dangers they may face are preferable to continuing to suffer; escape may bring a mixture of relief and fresh hardship, of freedom tainted by guilt. They often arrive with little capital beyond their personal story and that story has to bear the weight of all the conflicting emotions of exile. This does not, on the whole, make for nuance.

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