December 21st, 2011 at 12:09 pm
For some time now, long before Kim Jong-il finally kicked it, I have been wrestling with a morbid curiosity of North Korean.
Can you relate?
The reasons for my fixation are probably somewhere between Orwellian Obsession and Despot Envy.
With her book Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick provides an impressive journalistic contribution to history by giving voice to the people of North Korea by telling the awful, modern story of their national cult by interviewing normal, everyday citizens who defected from the misery of the failed state.
Immediately addressing my North Korean compulsion, Demick asserts that, “While the persistence of North Korea is a curiosity for the rest of the world, it is a tragedy for North Koreans.”
Guilty as charged.
Even alongside the modern era’s menagerie of beasts, North Korea still contains plenty to be intrigued and horrified:
1. The recurring global theme of co-opting and perverting religion and exploiting people’s capacity to Believe
“What distinguished him [Kim Il-sung] in the rogues’ gallery of twentieth-century dictators was his ability to harness the power of faith. Kim Il-sung understood the power of religion. His maternal uncle was a Protestant minister back in the pre-Communist days when Pyongyang had such a vibrant Christian community that it was called the “Jerusalem of the East.” Once in power, Kim Il-sung closed the churches, banned the Bible, deported believers to the hinterlands, and appropriated Christian imagery and dogma for the purpose of self-promotion.”
Pyongyang was the Jerusalem of the East??? It is never a good sign when you live in a country with hinterlands.
Demick shares with us matter of factually that during the famine of the ’90s, it was the, “Simple and kindhearted people who did what they were told – they were the first to die.”
2. North Korea is literally covered in shit
“North Korea was chronically short of chemical fertilizer and needed to use human excrement since there were few farm animals…The countryside reeked of the night soil that is still used instead of chemical fertilizer.”
3. There is a name for that creepy material preferred by Bond villains and Dictators alike
“Vinalon, a stiff, shiny synthetic material unique to North Korea.”
4. North Korean Irony
“In 1991, while South Korea was becoming the world’s largest exporter of mobile telephones, few North Koreans had ever used a telephone. You had to go to a post office to make a phone call.”
“An aside here about sex in North Korea…[what] many North Korean defectors…found most surprising about South Korea was that couples kiss in public.”
1991. Few North Koreans had ever used a telephone, much less a mobile phone. Think about that.
And these poor people are so prude, so repressed, so stifled by the mere grim struggle to subsist on a daily basis that they are most surprised by public displays of affection. Affection. Think about that.
5. Grotesque Canopies of Frozen Menstrual Rags
Life in dormitories of North Korean schools was a bit different than the typical cushy American upbringing:
“[Students] were roused by a military-style roll call at 6:00 AM, but instead of marching off like proud soldiers, they shivered into the bathroom and splashed icy water on their faces, under a grotesque canopy of frozen menstrual rags.”
6. Government Healthcare
A “Let’s Eat Two Meals a Day” campaign was cheerily implemented by the North Korean government during the famine of the ’90s.
How’s that for a new diet fad?
“They [North Korean citizens] jumped from the tops of buildings, a favorite method of suicide in North Korea since nobody had sleeping pills and only soldiers had guns with bullets.”
How’s that for actual death panels?
7. Big Brother
One young man featured in Demick’s book used his new life in South Korea to read all the books unobtainable in his homeland.
“His favorite was a translation of 1984. He marveled that George Orwell could have so understood the North Korean brand of totalitarianism.”