By the entrance to the British Museum’s Korea gallery is a case displaying a stone dagger dating from 1000-300 BC and a collection of stone arrow heads from 6000-2000 BC.
Next to these artefacts is a razor dating from the Koryo Dynasty of the 12th-13th century. The razor, used by Buddhist monks to shave their heads, was forged in the closing years of the Koryos — a ruling line from which the name “Korea” is derived.
Contrast the social, economic and technological dynamism of the besieged Koryo Dynasty — where the world’s first moveable metal type was developed — with the decrepit, kitsch-Stalinist, pseudo-monarchical disarray of North Korea today. Where Kim Jong-il’s one-party state relies on razor blade imports from neighbouring China, the Koryos engaged in expansive trade and probably exported them. Where the Kims preside over a hermetic kingdom where social and economic development are in sympathetic decline, the Koryo’s and their immediate successors — tyrannical and despotic in their own ways, no doubt — faced forwards.
Barbara Demick’s harrowing chronicle of life in North Korea, Nothing to Envy, details the trials, despair, poverty and brutality meted out to a small selection of “defectors” from North to South. It reveals more than just the personal motivations of a few very brave souls. Demick traces the totalising structure of the Kim regime and describes the consequences of even the most banal fracturing in the façade. Her interviews and investigation will turn the stomach but also offer great hope.
The sinking of the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan in April this year sparked fears that relations between North and South were tilting to the edge of war. Characteristically denying knowledge and responsibility for the attack, the North Korean military offered assistance to the South in its salvage and investigation of the attack. Together with the robotic pageantry of official celebrations and the diplomatic brinkmanship over nuclear weapons testing, the only high-profile news from North Korea comes from rogue or seemingly inexplicable events such as the Cheonan attack. Such events and responses are in fact rational manifestations of the dynamics of North Korean society. The regime lends itself to satire but a form of logic is at work.
These outward convulsions have been matched by internal changes, about-turns, concessions and periods of “loosening up” and “clamping down”. Until the fall of the Russian and East European Stalinist states, North Korean leaders maintained an almost total control over their subjects. From Kim Il-sung’s Russian and Chinese-backed assumption of power in 1949 up until the early 1990s, society was tightly controlled, socially and economically “stable”. Through the period of Sino-Soviet splits, “revisionism” and “anti-revisionism”, Kim Il-sung maintained relations with his Chinese neighbours and the Russian Stalinists, ensuring inward and outward commodity flows. For much of this period, the North outstripped South in economic development even in the face of US aid and support to the South before and after the Korean war. Everything changed with the fall of European and Russian Stalinism.
By the mid-90s North Korea was wracked by a largely state engineered famine that killed 2-10 percent of the population. In the past North Koreans depended on a state-wide rationing and token system; now the state couldn’t meet even basic needs. The system began to crack in the face of creeping economic crisis. The regime’s solution was to tolerate an improvised internal market and individual profit-making. Along with the food shortages, North Korea’s industry ground to a halt. Millions of workers were flung onto the streets, removed from the suffocating routine of work-ideological training-eat-sleep-work-… Once removed, even the most ardent regime-patriots could no longer ignore the new realities: their homeless, starving, decaying, rotting fellow humans.
The vast majority of the population survived the famine by improvisation. Whether illegally growing food, trading across the North Korean/Chinese border, producing and selling commodities in cottage industries, or selling themselves for sex, people did what was necessary to ward off death. Many of them even made a profit. In purely economic terms, these moves were progressive — a big step forward from the normal economic functioning. They were not tolerated for long.
The accumulation of private wealth could not be squared with a totalising but money-starved state accustomed to a steady command-economy. Kim Jong-il called a halt to accumulation by having his prime minister announce a re-valuation of currency. The process would involve people handing in their cash in return for fewer, lower-denomination notes. As such, the state would boost its bank account and rein in the market.
Very few people were fooled. Rather than hand money to a government that had nearly starved them to death, some North Koreans simply burned their money in the street! Others, disgruntled by the move, stopped trading for a day or two at a time which led to something akin to a “general strike” of traders. This was serious business in a country where such moves were not only unprecedented but where people lived and fed themselves on a day-to-day basis. The state capitulated, raised the amount of money that could be traded in, and had the bureaucrat in charge of the changes shot.
Demick’s interviews with defectors from the North chart the impact of the crisis on individuals and their families.
“Dr Kim felt fortunate to have been born in North Korea and was especially grateful that the government had allowed her, the daughter of a humble construction worker, to go to medical school for free. She felt that she owed her education and her life to her country. It was her greatest ambition to join the Workers’ Party and repay the debt she owed her nation.”
Dr Kim was a patriot. Even in the depths of the famine — where her work as a paediatrician brought her into intimate contact with the dying and dead — she did not question the basic patriotic assumptions taught to her from the earliest years. When she found her work too emotionally draining, she switched to another medical field without considering the bigger picture. Dr Kim was a strict adherent to party teachings and philosophy, an aspirant party member and eager gofer for local apparatchiks.
Whilst undertaking cleaning duties in the hospital party offices, Kim discovered that she would never be able to join the Workers’ Party because she was racially “suspect”. Kim was devastated: the party, country, “idea” that she loved more than anything else had nothing but utter contempt for her. It had all been a lie. Stripped of illusions, the terrible reality of the famine became clear. Kim fled to the South via China.
Jun-sang was a privileged young party member. A science student chosen for training at a university in Pyongyang, Jun-sang did not suffer the deprivations of the famine and neither did his family. He lived in a relatively isolated world inside the capital city. He had access to foreign books, newspapers and journals and read voraciously. In bizarre conditions the most bizarre texts can offer inspiration. One such instance was Jun-sang’s reading of a Russian Stalinist pamphlet on economic reform from the 1980s! The pamphlet’s argument planted a seed of doubt in his mind.
“On one trip in 1998, when the North Korean economy was at its worst, Jun-sang was stuck in a small town in South Hamgyong province where he usually switched from the eastbound trains to the northbound line up the coast… As he waited, his attention was drawn to a group of homeless children… One boy, about seven or eight years old, sang. His tiny body was lost in the folds of an adult-size factory uniform, but his voice had the resonance of a much older person. He squeezed his eyes shut, mustering all his emotion, and belted out the song, filling the platform with its power.
“Uri Abogi, 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.”