I have to admit I was skeptical of this book when I first saw it and I probably wouldn’t have read it if I hadn’t received it as a gift. The top of the cover says “[t]he terrifying memoir of life in North Korea that our nation’s leaders want you to read.” Our nation’s leaders? Whose nation’s leaders? The preface didn’t exactly make it better; the author Kang Chol-hwan says he believes George W. Bush was a divine tool sent to bring justice to North Korea.
Despite these issues I decided to read on, and the book is interesting, even captivating at times. Kang Chol-hwan actually figures in a book earlier reviewed on this blog, “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader,” and his story is not that extraordinary given the current state of North Korea, but he breathes life into it. When I’m new to a place I’m always most fascinated by little details like smells, styles of storefronts, unusual regulations and the like. Kang often goes into these details, sometimes inadvertently, and that alone makes this book worth reading, but it also touches on a larger historical context.
Like in many other parts of the world, political idealists emigrated to communist countries, filled with aspirations of helping build new states free from oppression and exploitation. Often they met their personal demise quickly and were sent to labor camps. Few lived to tell the tale and those who did didn’t always want to tell their stories since they still felt ideologically alienated from the capitalist world. In Kang’s case, his grandparents originally lived in Japan and had a successful business there, but decided they had had enough of xenophobia and were lured back by promises from the North Korean government. After some deliberation they decided to move.
Life was enjoyable at first and as high-ranking officials, his grandparents lived a life better than most. However, a struggle in the leadership put the grandfather on the losing side, and he and the whole family was sent off to the Yodok concentration camp. The author was only nine years old when this happened, and he had to suffer it for a decade. While he didn’t have to do as much work as the adults, he still had to watch beatings, executions and people dying from malnutrition. Food was scarce and most people who survived learned to hunt and scavenge on their own to get what they needed.
One thing that fascinated me, and something I’ve been thinking about at times, is whether there are still positive feelings when you’re under such harsh conditions. The author says that there is. For example, he describes a dish of corn and rice they had at times:
Our favorite dish was a sort of grated corn chowder. (…) I’m still a little nostalgic for that dish – in spite of everything. I’ve had it several times since Yodok, but I’ve never been able to to rediscover the taste it had in the camp. My last attempt was when I bought it in a fancy department store, but the results were disappointing and I haven’t tried it since.
He also once describes the stunning natural beauty of the surroundings and actually remembers feeling joy at seeing it in the spring, even when everything else was so horrible.
A couple of other details that I also noted in other books is the prevalence of rabbit rearing. North Korean work units and schools need the rabbits for the skins, which are provided to the army to make winter clothing. That, and the elaborate and well-protected Kim Il-Sung rooms (usually a collection of images and written works), which are more well-kept than any other part of a complex, shows a society very different from most of the rest of the world.
After getting out of the camp, a disillusioned and brutalized Kang lived for a couple of years in North Korea until he was notified that somebody had ratted on him for listening to South Korean radio. After learning of the possibility that he might have to go back to the camps, he decided to flee the country and arrived one night in Dandong, China, together with a friend. The difference between China and North Korea was so stark that he didn’t know what to believe. This was still in the early 1990s before China and South Korea had diplomatic relationships, and after going around in the country for several months, and even being asked to settle down in Dalian, he decides it’s not safe and finally makes it to South Korea through unofficial channels.
The description of his new life in South Korea, and how he learned to adopt, is a bit too short. It would have been interesting to read more about what the problems were and how he handled them. We do learn that there are cultural issues and that the author feels bitter for the mistrust he meets. Many South Koreans are reluctant to criticize North Korea and believe life there to be much better than their media reports. The author concludes on an optimist note that “reunification is inevitable,” but he gives no supporting arguments as to why. There’s very little to indicate that North Korea is going to change or that the two countries will find any common ground in decades, if North Korea can still manage to keep its act together.
Despite some of the flaws described above, I still heartily recommend this book for its vivid descriptions of what life in a labor camp is like, what it is like to flee a country and how to cope with new circumstances. The author is honest about his own shortcomings and says he thinks the family he had to leave behind is fine. Given what he has describes in the book, I hope he’s right.