Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Yes, we can't

Sartre said that hell is other people. Since the last 65 years, hell for North Koreans was only two people: Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il. At least this is what one would glean after reading Barbara Demick’s superb piece of reportage Nothing To Envy: Real Lives in North Korea. Aided by the tales of six refugees, Demick paints a never-before-seen picture of probably the most secretive nation in the world. Never mind the country’s totalitarian vibes, the largest per capita military, iron-fisted leaders, they’re old hat.

Demick, former Seoul bureau chief of Los Angeles Times, goes much beyond the obvious that North Korea is the darnedest casualty of World War II, which fell in the lap of the Soviets as part of American appeasement. Brace yourself for a peek into lives that are quite Dickensian in the colour and scale and improbability of its unfairness and squalor. While people are starving, they are made to sing paeans to the Dear Leader (as Kim Il-Sung is referred to ). This hubris only went from strength-to-strength: be it the numerous statues of Il-Sung across the country or banning of the Bible or meting out the harshest punishment for a remote jibe at the Dear Leader. This takes the cake: It was mandatory for every household to have glass-framed portraits of Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-il. People were provided with a white cloth and they are supposed to clean the portraits every day, which would be checked on a monthly basis.

While its neighbours South Korea, Japan and China have been scaling new peaks, North Korea never shrugged off its communist leanings or maybe the leaders never wanted to. Lies were peddled as gospel truth, thanks to state-controlled media. While denouncing the neighbouring countries as anti-communists and lackeys of America, propaganda was being fed left, right and centre. It’s almost like a real-life king-size enactment of the 2003 film Good Bye Lenin!.

The six lives that Demick chose to document put the very “harrow” in “harrowing”. A kindergarten teacher recollects that the hardest part of her job was watching her pupils die of starvation. A paediatrician says something similar about her patients. Eating the pickings from human vomit isn’t exactly outlandish here. When the paediatrician fled to China, she saw a dog being fed white rice and healthy slices of meat, and couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: “Dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.”

Barring the lowbrow title, Demick’s prose provides a marvellous insight into a nation that is obsessed with isolating and oppressing its citizens. The euphoria that gripped the nation in July 1994 when Kim Il-Sung died is brilliantly described. It’s as if people lost the reason to live. “Whether it was due to shock or suffering, many older North Koreans suffered heart attacks and strokes during this period of mourning — so much so that there was a marked increase in the death rate in the immediate aftermath. Many others showed their distress by killing themselves. They jumped from the tops of buildings, a favourite method of suicide in North Korea since nobody had sleeping pills and only soldiers had guns with bullets. Others just starved themselves.”

This is the closest anyone can come to understanding the psyche of North Korea. Here’s a nation where people are starving and are earning one dollar a month but its leaders are busy rubbing their “enemies” the wrong way. The presumed North Korean attack in March on the Cheonan, a South Korean warship — and the firing of artillery at a South Korean island in November — is one of the heaviest attacks on its neighbour since the Korean War ended in 1953. Both have been widely condemned. Kim Jong-il is unfazed, though, and recently anointed his son Kim Jong-Un as the new leader.

Barring China, North Korea is not left with any trading partners and is turning into a veritable Zimbabwe or maybe even worse. To think of it, till the late 60s, North Korea was way more prosperous than its southern counterpart. But while South Korea started currying favours from western nations, Kim Il-Sung ensured North Korea remained a relic of the communist past. But the relentless brainwashing continued.

Government newspapers described miracles that were conjured out of thin air. A turbulent sea instantly became calm when sailors sang hymns to Kim Il-Sung. When in the demilitarised zone, a mysterious fog descended that saved him from potential assassination by South Korean snipers. At the birth of Kim Jong-il, a bright star was to be seen in the sky (North Korea is probably the only country on Twitter that spouts propaganda the way lava oozes out of an active volcano).

And the unwitting people never questioned these lies on steroids. To think of it, questioning is ruled out judging by the fact that everyone is a potential traitor and everyone is a potential informer. The lives that Demick chose to narrate are equally heartbreaking but there is an undercurrent of melancholic optimism throughout the book that really makes Demick’s writing sing.

At times the ends appeared too well-tied what with ex-lovers meeting once again and very few teething problems in getting assimilated into South Korea. But that is to quibble. Nothing to Envy is an intelligent Wikileaks: less of a cable and more of a gate.

Barbara Demick
316 pages; Rs 399


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