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.

Both Koreas imprison those among their own citizens who are caught trying to cross over to the other, though unsurprisingly, the flow is predominantly from north to south. Until the late 1990s, the number of defectors was very low; and, as Cumings puts it, ‘South Korean intelligence services have bamboozled one US reporter after another by parading their defectors (real and fake), grinding the Pyongyang rumour mill or parlaying fibs that a moment in a good library would expose.’ How we read such accounts is conditioned by what we think we know. We are made suggestible by the prevailing image of North Korea as an international pariah dominated by a bizarre dictator with a permanent bad hair day, guilty of bizarre coastal kidnappings of Japanese citizens, secretive, ridiculous and dangerous, impressive only for the extraordinary spectacle of the mass games that epitomise the subordination of individuality to state kitsch. In such polarised confrontations, the more demonstrably evil one side is, the more virtuous its opponents appear. The reader does well to remember that such accounts come with few guarantees beyond trust in the author’s bona fides and intent. In this case, Demick is aware of the pitfalls and she invites more confidence than most.

Ordinary life continues, even under the most oppressive regimes. Its peculiar character in North Korea is explored here through the lives of six citizens: Kim Hyuck, a young tearaway; Kim Ji-eun, a divorced paediatrician in her thirties; Mi-ran, a kindergarten teacher who defected when she was 26; her former boyfriend, Jun-sang; Song Hee-suk, a lifelong Party loyalist; and her disaffected eldest daughter, Oak-hee. By the time we pick up their stories they are entering a time of extraordinary hardship. For the first three decades after the Korean War, North Korea could lay claim to the material achievements listed by the former CIA analyst Helen-Louise Hunter: compassionate care for children in general and war orphans in particular; ‘radical change’ in the position of women; free housing; free healthcare and preventive medicine; and infant mortality and life expectancy rates comparable to the most advanced countries. North Korea’s standard of living compared favourably with that of the South, itself also a dictatorship until the late 1980s. But the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of its supplies of cheap oil, coupled with catastrophic floods, precipitated a devastating crisis in the North. Energy and food supplies shrank away to nothing. The country subsided into darkness, factories fell silent, wages were not paid, food distribution broke down and people began to starve. As a report on the famine put it in the late 1990s,

North Korea is now into its eighth year of economic decline. It has been facing food shortages at least since the early 1990s, and is experiencing a famine of unknown severity … the economy has collapsed around agriculture … The two primary fertilisers used in North Korea, urea and ammonium sulphate, are both petroleum-based, and shortages of petroleum feedstocks have adversely affected domestic production of fertiliser … Fuel shortages and a lack of spare parts have impeded the use of agricultural machinery, forcing the reintroduction of draught animals. Electrical shortages have interfered with irrigation, which is based heavily on electrically powered water pumps.

  Problems in production have been compounded by difficulties in distribution … Urban areas with high concentrations of Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) members and government officials have received preferential allocations, and it has been claimed that military stockpiling continues.

For those who were not Party members or in the military, the effects of the collapse in food supplies and distribution were disastrous under a regime that regarded its own survival as more important than that of its citizens.

Had it not been for the food crisis, each of Demick’s defectors might still have been living in Chongjin. The famine finally drove them to flee. The case of Mi-ran – with her account of a chaste teenage love affair conducted under cover of the darkness that blanketed North Korea in the crisis – is one of the most appealing. Mi-ran’s father was born in the South and had been conscripted into the South Korean army to fight in the war. He was taken prisoner just three weeks before the truce and wasn’t lucky enough to be included in the prisoner exchanges that followed. Put to work as a miner instead, he was given North Korean citizenship in 1956, which meant he couldn’t go home, but nor could he erase the stain of his origins in the enemy state. His children would live under the shadow of his past, and despite Mi-ran’s college education and her job as a kindergarten teacher, prospective marriage partners would be wary.

But when the lights went out, Mi-ran and her young suitor, Jun-sang, were able to take long walks at night out of sight of disapproving adults. Jun-sang’s father was one of 80,000 ethnic Koreans in Japan who had chosen to return to North Korea, and until the 1990s his grandfather, who had stayed living in Japan, visited almost every year, bringing the hard currency that allowed the family to live well. Times grew harder when they, too, fell under political suspicion; Jun-sang – and the career they dreamed he would make – was their hope of redemption. They would not allow an alliance with Mi-ran’s politically tarnished household to jeopardise their chances.

Song Hee-suk, on the other hand, was a model citizen. ‘I lived only for Marshal Kim Il-song and for the fatherland,’ she said. ‘I never had a thought otherwise.’ She was still a child when her father, a mechanic at Chongjin railway station, died in a US bombing raid, and she and her five siblings enjoyed special status as a martyr’s children. She married a Party member, worked in a clothing factory and brought up three daughters and a son.

Kim Ji-eun, a doctor, was also devoted to the Party. Her father had been born in Manchuria and had fled to North Korea in the early 1960s to escape the starvation in China brought about by the Great Leap Forward. He saw in Kim Il-song the great socialist hero of the anti-colonial struggle and his daughter grew up with his beliefs. By the mid 1990s, Ji-eun realised that her young patients were dying of starvation. Even so, father and daughter were distraught when Kim Il-song died in 1994. Her father took to his bed and refused to eat, soon adding to the curious rise in the death rate in North Korea that followed the demise of the Beloved Leader. Before he died, though, he scribbled down the names of relatives in China who would help his daughter.

Kim Hyuck was the youngest of the escapees and hunger had dominated his adolescence. He graduated from stealing fruit as a schoolboy to stealing food to survive as the famine settled in, then to running contraband across the Chinese border, a crime punishable by long years in a labour camp. He was helped by missionaries from a church in Shenyang in north-east China and followed an arduous route to South Korea by train and on foot through Outer Mongolia.

By the mid-1990s, many of Mi-ran’s young pupils were growing lethargic and eventually dropping out of school. Dr Kim’s young patients were dying in their beds. Mrs Song, in perhaps the saddest story of all, lost her mother-in-law, husband and son to the famine, despite heroic efforts on her part to maintain the family through petty trading. Jun-sang, by then a student, lost his faith and began to read forbidden books. Clandestine viewing of South Korean television fed fantasies of another life. Neither he nor Mi-ran, who was making her own plans, dared to reveal to the other what they had in mind. Dr Kim learned that she was under surveillance because it was suspected that she might try to leave. On the edge of starvation herself, she did. Mrs Song’s daughter, Oak-hee, had run away to China but then returned and was caught. Defecting again, she managed to reach South Korea and tricked her mother into defecting too. For all of them, the journey was fraught with danger: the People’s Republic routinely returns refugees to North Korea and prevents them from reaching third party embassies and consulates on Chinese territory. Once they reach the South, though, they are assured of a welcome.

South Korea describes itself as the government of the whole peninsula. All Koreans, therefore, are citizens by right, and North Koreans who manage to get there are entitled to a settlement allowance equivalent to around $20,000. That’s after they’ve been through an interrogation intended to screen out North Korean spies, and then a familiarisation process, to teach them about the complexities of modern life – bank accounts, the internet, how to negotiate life as a citizen of a capitalist state. Some get on better than others; there is ambivalence on both sides. South Koreans have their own opinions both about the US military presence and the division of their country. Defectors may embody the longing for unification that is the foundation of the South’s official ideology, but that does not necessarily generate warmth towards individual North Koreans. Demick points out that they lack the qualities that matter in South Korea: height, fair skin, affluence, good English and designer clothes – non-negotiable status symbols in a country that has its own recent memories of poverty. Like the citizens of the former GDR after the euphoria of 1989 wore off, they are treated with a mixture of guilt, pity, fear and embarrassment, if not worse.

North Koreans are also an easy mark for con men and are more than 40 times more likely to be victims than South Koreans. Dr Kim lost her resettlement money in a scam and her hard-won medical training was not recognised in the South. Hyuck was treated with suspicion as a possible criminal and also lost his resettlement money, in his case to a fraudster who claimed he could find his long-lost brother. Mi-ran was more successful. She married and had a son, though she couldn’t forget Jun-sang and was wracked with guilt that her two blameless sisters had been incarcerated as a result of her defection. She eventually met Jun-sang again, who had escaped through Outer Mongolia, but it was too late for both of them. The redoubtable Mrs Song, on the other hand, managed to put the worst of her story behind her and embraced the pleasures of a life that allowed her to work, eat and travel as she wished.

For all Demick’s gifts this is still a Manichean tale in which North Korea is the dark country of our nightmares, ruled over by a succession of unfeeling dictators. The puzzle that she acknowledges but does not explain is why so many of their citizens appear to hold them in high regard. Was it only propaganda, or Stockholm syndrome, that reduced so much of the population to grief and despair on the death of Kim Il-song? Are there other factors that contributed to their sense of loss?

Other people’s personality cults usually seem incomprehensible. Yet the cult of the Kims has some cultural antecedents. Korea was an independent kingdom for more than a millennium, a conservative monarchy in which the king was revered as semi-divine. Resistance to the Japanese occupation of both Korea and Manchuria was fed by a ferocious nationalism and Kim Il-song’s standing as a renowned guerrilla leader is well established, despite South Korean disinformation. The Kim dynasty deploys an absurdly overblown socialist rhetoric to sing its own praises: at heart it resembles a deeply conservative, authoritarian, Confucian family monarchy, lightly overlaid by the language of a Communist leadership cult.

Had other things been equal, North Korea might have followed a similar trajectory to North Vietnam: national unification followed by a period of absolutist ideology, and then a mellowing. But North Korea has been on a war footing since the Korean War ended, not with a peace treaty but with an armistice – a tense and heavily armed truce in which the right of the North Korean regime to survive was constantly being challenged. The peninsula had been divided, arbitrarily, by Dean Rusk in 1945 along the 38th parallel, which became the boundary between the two new states in 1948. Kim Il-song invaded the South in June 1950 and the war that followed was one of the bloodiest conflicts of the last century. By late August, American B-29 formations were dropping 800 tons of bombs a day on the North and from June to October that year 866,914 gallons of napalm were used. From November 1950, General MacArthur ordered the destruction of ‘every installation, factory, city and village’ between the front and the Chinese border. Pyongyang was hit repeatedly with the aim of ‘burning the city to the ground with incendiary bombs’. A nursery song that calls on the leader to save the children from a ‘sea of fire’ is less mysterious than it might appear.

North Korea’s nuclear programme becomes comprehensible when one considers, first, the collapse of the oil-based economy in the 1990s and, second, the repeated threats from the US during the Korean War to use nuclear weapons. In a posthumously published interview, MacArthur said that his plan in 1950 was to drop ‘30 to 50 atomic bombs … strung across the neck of Manchuria … and … spread behind us – from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea – a belt of radioactive cobalt’. Cobalt 60 has 350 times the radioactivity of radium; Congressman Al Gore, the former vice-president’s father, proposed laying down a radiation belt to make the division of the Korean peninsula permanent. North Korea’s seeming paranoia is a useful tool for the regime, but it is not entirely irrational.

For half a century, the North Korean regime has been under threat and it has responded by building the most militarised society in the world. At the same time, it has repeatedly offered to negotiate the end of its nuclear programme in return for a peace treaty and normalisation. Under Clinton, a deal was struck that might have spared the defectors in this book much of their pain: the US, South Korea and Japan agreed to supply civil nuclear energy in return for North Korea’s abandoning its plutonium enrichment programme and joining the non-proliferation regime. It was a deal premised on verification, not on trust. It offered both Koreas the chance to demilitarise and promised the US an end to the expense and risks of the long-running military confrontation at the 38th parallel.

But when Bush won the election in 2000, the US position flipped and North Korea was listed as a target for pre-emptive attack in what Condoleezza Rice termed ‘anticipatory self-defence’. As one US official said to Seymour Hersh: ‘Don’t be distracted by all this talk of negotiations … they have a plan and they are going to get this guy after Iraq. He’s their version of Hitler.’ Such rhetoric may play well at home, but it did little for the citizens of North Korea. The regime is still in place, the military is stronger than ever and the threat of proliferation is undiminished. North Korea still wants what it was asking for under Clinton, but in his State of the Union address Obama threatened more isolation and stronger sanctions. With each new US administration, the policy seems fated to return to zero and the lessons of previous failures are forgotten. Besides, there is always the problem of China: last month, after the sinking of the South Korean corvette but before the international media pinned the blame on his submarines, the Dear Leader was received in Beijing with the rare honour of a meeting with all nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee. In Beijing, analysts complain that China has little more leverage than the US has over its disobliging neighbour, and there is little appetite to move beyond the current war of words. For Demick’s defectors, sitting in South Korea and thinking of their lost families, it looks like a long wait.