Monday, January 24, 2011

Nothing to Envy

Gosh darn it, it just couldn't be nicer here in northern California. I put on a t-shirt and dusted off some hiking shorts and took the dogs out for a walk today. Sun shining; must be in the lower 70's. Joy!

I took a book out of the library the other day: Nothing to Envy, Ordinary Lives In North Korea by Barbara Demick (2009; Spiegel and Grau) . The austere cover got my attention. North Korea is a closed, weird society. It is hard to get good information about this place. The author, who covered the Korean peninsula for the Los Angeles Times, interviews six defectors from North Korea about their lives over the last twenty years.

In case you haven't heard the news (and judging by the socialistic phobia of the Tea Partiers, some haven't): The Soviet Union collapsed in 91, ushering in an era of change within their former satellites. Only Cuba and North Korea attempted to maintain some form of Industrial Socialism--with North Korea being the more Stalinist of the two hold outs. Cuba, I've read about how they made the transition away from having a benevolent host. North Korea, I didn't know so much about.

Oh, back in the 90's, I heard about the famine in North Korea. This book tells the story of what it was like for a common person to live through those awful years. I couldn't put the book down. The characters are every day folks who lived within a crazy regime that makes everyone dust the pictures of the Two Kim's once a day. In fact, you have to have one whole wall of your apartment devoted to the hero worship of the "Great Leader" and the "Dear Leader". Secret police make unannounced visits to your home to make sure your tidiness extends to the photos.

Repressive. And also a bit telling for us should we ever lose access to cheap oil.

When the Soviet Union fell--all the sweetheart deals also went away: no more cheap oil. Industry stopped. Industrial agriculture (North Korea is the last country on earth that still has "collective farms") had vastly reduced production. The weather also took a toll and crops failed.

And the Communist government fiddled their own propaganda as the people starved to death. Estimates range from 600,000 t0 2.5 million people died. One of the people profiled was a teacher, who watched in sorrow as her class was reduced from 55 elementary students to 15. Environmentally, every last bit of wild meat was consumed by a starving population. The frog population was decimated.

Books written about defectors can be shrill propaganda pieces. This book is not. I highly recommend it. The stories rattled me. No amount of commitment to ideological fervor should make a country suffer like North Korea did in the 90's. If it ain't working: change it. I hope the North Korean people, somehow, are able to toss off the yolk of 70 years of brainwashing and totalitarianism, and experience freedom and justice someday.

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