For an impoverished country about the size of Pennsylvania, North Korea spends a lot of time in the headlines. That's little wonder, given its strategic position at the intersection of the world's biggest economies, its historic significance as the first and last battleground of the Cold War, and its spoiler role in the global nuclear nonproliferation regime.
Yet, for all the media attention it receives, what are we shown, over and over, of this intractable, inscrutable nation? Kim Jong Il, secretive dictator of a hereditary Stalinist state; Pyongyang, Potemkin capital city of a few million with neither traffic during the day nor electricity at night.
The narrow boundaries of our knowledge have expanded radically with the publication of Los Angeles Times correspondent Barbara Demick's Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.
As the reader learns, there is nothing ordinary, never mind enviable, about the lives Demick painstakingly reconstructed from years interviewing North Koreans who escaped to South Korea. But Demick does everything in her powers to capture their ordinariness, their recognizable and mundane humanity. Elegantly structured and written, Nothing To Envy is a groundbreaking work of literary nonfiction.
She wisely focuses her story on six men and women from Chongjin, a grimy industrial port city of 500,000 on the eastern coast. They fall in and out of love; they marry and divorce. They study hard, work hard, succeed, and fail. They start businesses and struggle to make ends meet. They protect their families, love their country, and question their government. They flee their native land and want to go back.
They are shocked when they see booming China and dynamic South Korea and yet retain an ambivalence about the wider world. Their ordinary experiences fill in the grand narrative of North Korea since the end of the Cold War and raise new questions about North Korea's place in the world.
Nothing To Envy documents the lived experience of the lost decade when North Korea "fell out of the developed world." By the mid 1980s, the country lapsed into a state of sovereign bankruptcy from which it still has not emerged. By 1996, North Korea was in the grip of one of the deadliest famines in modern times. Much of Demick's book is devoted to chronicling the "vicious death cycle" that consumed what had been a "viable, if Spartan, economy."
A closed, secure, immobile, stratified, totalitarian country was transformed into a place of vagabond children stealing fruit and hunting frogs; middle-aged women haggling over cheap Chinese-made goods in black markets; college-educated women wading half-naked across the Tumen River to sell themselves into arranged marriages with Chinese farmers; family patriarchs wasting away as the food rations ran out, often going raving mad before a quiet, hideous death from starvation. Demick's interviewees describe, firsthand, the harrowing toll of mass hunger on the basic institutions and infrastructure of North Korean life.
The ordinary people in Nothing To Envy survived their country's precipitous demodernization by adopting family survival strategies. Demick calls it "a brutal triage" in which parents and grandparents starved first to try to save the young. More than once in Demick's book, a dying grandparent passes on information about relatives in China or South Korea as the blueprint for escape. North Koreans are tightly bonded in family units, a powerful and enduring legacy of Korean Confucian culture.
The scale of North Korean population movement has expanded dramatically in the past decade. Fewer than 1,000 North Koreans defected to the South in more than 50 years after the Korean War. But since 1998, hundreds of thousands have crossed the river into China, with a smaller number making it as far as Seoul.
New technologies intensify the impact of these population flows, in spite of North Korea's isolation. The old North Korean propaganda system is intact: state-run newspapers; single-frequency radios and single-channel televisions; state broadcasts direct into every home in the country; no Internet access.
But the total information monopoly has broken down. Demick's subjects wire their radios to pick up Radio Free Asia and televisions to pick up "subversive" soap operas from South Korea. VCRs, DVDs, VCDs, laptops, CDs, and USB flash drives are increasingly commonplace, even outside Pyongyang.
To judge by Demick's book, this underground globalization of their country is having an impact, and the North Koreans are very aware of it. They call themselves "frogs in a well," alluding to a parable from third-century-BC Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, in which a frog brags to a sea turtle about the glories of life in his dank, muddy well. After hearing from the sea turtle about the wonders of the vast oceans, the frog is devastated by the recognition of the limits of his world. The problem for all of us on the outside is: How to give North Koreans, ordinary and elite, not something merely to envy but instead a way back into modernity. As Demick's book suggests, the exile community is a catalyst for transforming life back in North Korea that shouldn't be underestimated.
This June marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. How much longer is the world prepared to wait?
John Delury is associate director of Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations in New York and co-authored North Korea Inside Out: The Case for Economic Engagement.