“War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.”
― George Orwell, 1984
We see ordinary workers going to their jobs at various factories, that is, until electricity shortages shut down these establishments. Food shortages begin and the population begins to starve. Survivors travel by foot further and further afield to gather grass and weeds in order to attempt to sustain nourishment. Black market become more important than ever, but supply ebbs and flows; capitalism sprang up in this incredibly staunch communist country as goods were sold and traded for food.
Demick also explores the culture. Or rather, what behavior becomes the norm when culture is dictated and strictly enforced? The author takes a look at the dichotomy between North and South Korea after the Korean War in the 1950s. The South becoming much more prosperous and entering modernity, the North basically static in time. Those who defect from North Korea and immigrate to the South are essentially propelled forward half a decade in terms of culture. Technology, of course is notoriously absent in the North; for the most part, the internet, phones, even simple electronics like rice cookers are unheard of. But, even culture standards are behind, ideas on propriety and appropriateness are stuck 50 years in the past. I thought of it in terms of what if my grandparents were plucked out of the 50s in their 20s, and dropped into reality now. What would they think, how would they cope?
I found each new piece of information, from home life to what preoccupies people's thoughts outside of the search for food, to be endlessly fascinating. I devoured page after page wishing this roughly 300 page novel would stretch on, provide more examples, allow me to know even more. The read itself is not difficult and the story is such that you'll immediately be drawn in by the complexity and personalities of the various personas profiled. This is a country that is largely closed off and many of the photos and videos we see about this part of the world are released by the government and therefore staged. But I found the images that Demick creates with her words to be highly memorable, from the orphan children with ill-fitting clothes that linger by the train stations in hopes of procuring food to the many who sit on their haunches on the sides of the road for hours on end, simply waiting. The book creates extremely vivid imagery that will really help to fill the gaps, painting a very visual portrait of life in North Korea.
I would highly recommend this book as an introduction to the situation in North Korea and even to those who know a little bit more. Also, for those wondering, I have not yet read Adam Johnson's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Orphan Master's Son, but I think now, having a bit more background and terminology under my belt I might start in on it. But really, if you're looking for a work of non-fiction and want to learn a little bit this year, I highly recommend adding Demick's book to your queue.