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 …