The short version is easily told. North Korea is one of the world’s most closed societies, a tightly run police state wedded to a rigid totalitarian ideology. Obedience is enforced by an all-encompassing system of surveillance and control; the merest deviation can land not only the guilty individual but his entire family in a concentration camp. The militarization of life is broad and deep: a population of 23 million supports a 1.2 million–man army, one of the world’s largest, and uniforms are common even for non-military professions. Kim Jong Il, the nation’s ruler, is the object of a surreal personality cult. The message of unquestioning fealty to him is hammered into the population day and night through an array of state media. Radios in the country are manufactured so that they can receive only government-approved stations—just one more way the regime strives to ensure that its subjects know only what it wants them to.
All this has been true for decades, and could well remain true for the foreseeable future. And yet this picture of life in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) leaves out a great deal—and just possibly the most important parts of all. Consider, for the sake of argument, the travails of the eponymous North Korean heroine in Jia, the remarkable novel of Hyejin Kim—a South Korean who spent several years working with humanitarian aid organizations in the Chinese provinces bordering the DPRK. Jia, whose parents were sent off to the camps for some minor transgression, grows up in a Pyongyang orphanage to become a folk dancer, a relatively privileged position that allows her to find a measure of peace with the system. But then she falls victim to an unhappy romance. The boy she loves reveals a depth of fanatical belief in the regime that ultimately destroys their relationship, since she’s afraid to reveal to him her own “tainted” background. It’s a situation that would seem to be emblematic for a society in which every individual has secrets that have to be concealed.
And then comes the news of the death of the country’s founding leader and reigning demigod, Kim Il Sung. (The date isn’t mentioned in the book, but we know that he died in 1994.) His demise is a harbinger of disaster. Floods wash over the countryside. Gross state mismanagement compounds the catastrophe, and soon famine is sweeping the land. As the state-run food distribution system collapses, people realize that the only way to survive is to rely on their own ability to buy and sell things that others want:
On TV and radio, the government told us the nation had recovered from the natural disasters, but the situation only seemed to be worsening. The appearance of the city had changed completely; instead of going to work, people wandered all day. The streets teemed with people carrying big bags on their shoulders, as they went into alleys to sell their belongings. The police couldn’t control the black market. Never had street markets been so popular, nor the goods so various. Groups of people sitting on the sidewalks displaying their belongings had become fixtures in the residential areas. Houses were emptied, and the sellers far outnumbered the buyers.
In short, though you can still get in trouble for uttering a thoughtless word, the economy has slipped out from under the control of the planners. Jia runs into one of her former schoolteachers who has taken to selling food from a makeshift stall in order to earn enough money to stay alive—though not soon enough to save her husband and daughter, who have both died from hunger. It could be worse, though. Jia also hears talk of the public execution of people who have been accused of cannibalism.
Society is breaking down. Street urchins who have lost their families to the mass starvation (and who go by the deceptively poetic name of kkotjebi, or “flower swallows”) will do almost anything to get by. The police, as Jia notes, can’t control the black market, nor do they want to: it’s much easier to shake down its participants for bribes that will enable the policemen to keep their own families fed. Corruption, indeed, has worked its way deep into the system. Fifty American dollars can buy you virtually any document. To be sure, the zealots—like Jia’s misguided boyfriend—blame what they see as the ingratitude of “national traitors” for the ills that have befallen the country, and they are on the prowl, eager to root out enemies real and imagined. But most people—even those who once bought into the official creed— simply succumb to apathy.
One of the reasons for their cynicism is the gradual realization that the laws of existence that apply to Kim Jong Il’s kingdom do not necessarily hold true elsewhere. As the economic situation deteriorates, ordinary people increasingly brave the risk of crossing over into North Korea’s huge neighbor and historical ally, China. The frontier between the two countries is thinly guarded and it is an easy matter to slip across. Even though those who do so without authorization may face punishment if they’re caught, the temptations are simply too great. For those who have managed to see China up close, the result is no less than a profound epistemological shock. A friend of Jia’s who looks across the frontier from the North Korean “ghost town” of Sinu?iju sees “the high buildings and splendid lights” on the far side of the border and wonders: “How would the Chinese have money for all that light unless they were well fed? The loving son couldn’t stand letting his parents grow sicker from starvation.”
Even though the risks are huge, Jia finally decides to make the journey herself. But first she has to get to the border—no easy task in a country where public infrastructure is falling apart after decades of underinvestment. Trains are so rare that you can end up waiting in the station for days until one comes. But finally it’s time to go:
When the train finally arrived, it was as if war broke out. The distant whistle sounded and people jumped up and grabbed their bags, screaming and shouting; suddenly the whole place was alive with noise. The railroad police made us stand in one line, and a policeman made an announcement about civic morality. People who didn’t follow the rules would be punished severely. Nobody listened.
As the policeman was finishing his announcement, a dozen men rushed the platform and scaled the gate. Hundreds of people pushed madly after them, and the railroad police were overwhelmed. Some thieves made the most of the opportunity, cutting the bottom of one unsuspecting man’s bag with a knife and catching the corn that ran out in their own bag. A flock of kkotjebi rushed to get their share. Finally the man realized what was going on and bawled, “Damn these hoodlums,” kicking the kkotjebi. They didn’t budge until they had collected all the corn.
Railroad inspectors tried to check each passenger’s ticket and travel permit, but it was useless. They beat anyone they found without proper documents, but the crowd pushed past them. They shouted, “You can’t get on the train without a ticket and a card. We’ll inspect you sons of bitches again on the train.”
People dashed for it anyway, some dropping off the train like falling leaves. Those who didn’t have tickets or permits climbed up on the roof. The inspectors didn’t care about them, saying they would all die of cold or electric shock.
Aside from the brutal equanimity of those inspectors, what’s most intriguing about this passage is its portrayal of a populace just doing what comes naturally. “Nobody listened”—an intriguing commentary on the internal strength of the Pyongyang regime. In the end, despite all the obstacles, Jia does make it to China. There she endures a series of typical trials encountered by so many North Korean refugees who enter the country brutalized, desperate, and often victimized by unscrupulous traffickers. Luckily that fate evades Hyejin Kim’s heroine, who finally manages to find unlikely redemption in an ending that carries just a hint of melodramatic release. Jia, after all, is a beautiful (and somewhat beatific) young woman who ultimately makes good.
Jia is perhaps not a great work of literature, but that may be beside the point. Hyejin Kim charts the minutiae of everyday change in a country usually regarded by foreign onlookers as mysteriously immune to the politics and pressures of the outside world— “eternally static North Korea,” in the memorable phrase of one reviewer.1 This story of the North’s quiet yet potentially momentous transformation is clearly worth hearing. Yet there are few out there who seem capable of telling it.
The North Korean authorities refer to the great famine of the second half of the 1990s as the “Arduous March”— as if it were a salutary test of the nation’s moral fiber rather than a policy failure of genocidal proportions.2 As so vividly depicted in Jia, the collapse of the state economy spurred a surge of grassroots entrepreneurship that has left Pyongyang’s central planners scrambling to keep up. In July 2002 Kim Jong Il’s government announced a series of measures that lifted controls on key prices and legalized private markets. Those moves are sometimes described as “economic reforms,” though on closer inspection they look more like a reluctant acknowledgment of an inescapable reality than a Chinese-style strategic plan for change.
This contrast seems especially ironic considering that the same period has been marked by an unprecedented opening to China. The slow-motion disintegration of the North’s economy over the past decade has been mirrored by China’s astonishing growth, and the not entirely surprising result has been a steady flow of North Koreans across the border—with some merely seeking temporary work, others long-term refuge, and still others attempting to use their sojourn in China as a stepping-stone for defection to South Korea.
And yet, according to the scholar Andrei Lankov in North of the DMZ: Essays on Daily Life in North Korea, a few years ago the Pyongyang government began issuing special permits for North Koreans wishing to do business in China—evidence that Kim Jong Il’s regime views China, to a certain extent, as an economic lifeline (despite the harsh penalties still meted out to anyone suspected of attempting or abetting defection). He also points out that the once-all-encompassing system of permits for travel within North Korea (a feature of many Communist countries) has been essentially allowed to lapse since 1997.
It is no accident that we are obliged to Lankov for this insight. A Russian historian associated with the Australian National University and South Korea’s Kookmin University, Lankov is one of the most illuminating North Korea watchers around. His fluency in Chinese and Korean, coupled with his personal experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union and his intricate knowledge of East Asian diplomatic history, makes his reflections on North Korean life uniquely perceptive. As a Russian, a citizen of a country viewed favorably by Pyongyang, he was able to travel relatively freely to the North for years, and he supplemented observations from his trips with data gleaned from written sources, visits to the accessible border areas in China, and interviews with defectors now living in South Korea. Far from being frozen in time, Lankov convincingly argues, North Korean society is actually turbulent and protean. He’s especially good on the details of everyday life, from crime (rampant) to extramarital sex (ditto, if more covert).
Tim Morrison, "Pyongyang Confidential," Time, January 11, 2007. The article, ironically, is a review of James Church's A Corpse in the Koryo.↩
Estimates of the number of deaths range from 500,000 to 2.5 million. For a recent discussion see Marcus Noland, "Famine and Reform in North Korea," Institute for International Economics, July 2003 (available at www.iie.com/ publications/wp/03-5.pdf). It is worth noting that economists and aid organizations have been warning of the possibility of renewed famine in the months to come.↩
Tim Morrison, “Pyongyang Confidential,” Time, January 11, 2007. The article, ironically, is a review of James Church’s A Corpse in the Koryo.↩
Estimates of the number of deaths range from 500,000 to 2.5 million. For a recent discussion see Marcus Noland, “Famine and Reform in North Korea,” Institute for International Economics, July 2003 (available at www.iie.com/ publications/wp/03-5.pdf). It is worth noting that economists and aid organizations have been warning of the possibility of renewed famine in the months to come.↩