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This book is based on seven years of conversations with North Koreans. I have altered only some of the names to protect those still living in North Korea. All of the dialogue is drawn from the accounts of one or more people present.
When outsiders stare into the void that is today’s North Korea, they think of remote villages of Africa or Southeast Asia where the civilizing hand of electricity has not yet reached. But North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world.
North Koreans beyond middle age remember well when they had more electricity (and for that matter food) than their pro-American cousins in South Korea, and that compounds the indignity of spending their nights sitting in the dark.
The night sky in North Korea is a sight to behold. It might be the most brilliant in Northeast Asia, the only place spared the coal dust, Gobi Desert sand, and carbon monoxide choking the rest of the continent. In the old days, North Korean factories contributed their share to the cloud cover, but no longer. No artificial lighting competes with the intensity of the stars etched into its sky.
Whether in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or in the East Asian studies department of a university, people usually analyze North Korea from afar. They don’t stop to think that in the middle of this black hole, in this bleak, dark country where millions have died of starvation, there is also love.
A statistic one often sees quoted is that the economic disparity between the Koreas is at least four times greater than that between East and West Germany at the time of German reunification in 1990.
In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only color to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea. Images of Kim Il-sung are depicted in the vivid poster colors favored by the Socialist Realism style of painting. The Great Leader sits on a bench smiling benevolently at a group of brightly dressed children crowding around him. Rays of yellow and orange emanate from his face: He is the sun.
Before dawn on Sunday morning, June 25, 1950, Kim Il-sung’s troops stormed across the border with Soviet-supplied tanks. They quickly captured Seoul and swept southward until all that was left of South Korea was a pocket around the southeastern coastal city of Pusan. The daring amphibious landing at Incheon of forty thousand U.S. troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur in September reversed the Communist gains. Besides the United States and South Korea, troops of fifteen nations joined a U.N. coalition—among them Britain, Australia, Canada, France, and the Netherlands. They recaptured Seoul and headed north to Pyongyang and beyond. As they approached the Yalu River, however, Chinese Communist forces entered the war and pushed them back. Two more years of fighting produced only frustration and stalemate. By the time an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, nearly three million people were dead and the peninsula lay in ruins. The border remained more or less along the 38th parallel.
North Koreans sleep on mats on the floor in the traditional Asian style, rolling up their bedding during the day and stuffing it into cabinets.
On Wednesday mornings, she had to report to work early for mandatory meetings of the Socialist Women’s Federation. Friday nights she stayed especially late for self-criticism. In these sessions, members of her work unit—the department to which she was assigned—would stand up and reveal to the group anything they had done wrong. It was the Communist version of the Catholic confessional. Mrs. Song would usually say, in all sincerity, that she feared she wasn’t working hard enough.
To a certain extent, all dictatorships are alike. From Stalin’s Soviet Union to Mao’s China, from Ceauşescu’s Romania to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, all these regimes had the same trappings: the statues looming over every town square, the portraits hung in every office, the wristwatches with the dictator’s face on the dial. But Kim Il-sung took the cult of personality to a new level. What distinguished him in the rogues’ gallery of twentieth-century dictators was his ability to harness the power of faith.
Broadcasters would speak of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il breathlessly, in the manner of Pentecostal preachers. North Korean newspapers carried tales of supernatural phenomena. Stormy seas were said to be calmed when sailors clinging to a sinking ship sang songs in praise of Kim Il-sung. When Kim Jong-il went to the DMZ, a mysterious fog descended to protect him from lurking South Korean snipers. He caused trees to bloom and snow to melt. If Kim Il-sung was God, then Kim Jong-il was the son of God. Like Jesus Christ, Kim Jong-il’s birth was said to have been heralded by a radiant star in the sky and the appearance of a beautiful double rainbow. A swallow descended from heaven to sing of the birth of a “general who will rule the world.”
North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people. But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung’s divinity.
North Koreans spend most of their lives in uniform, so that was what the factory churned out—standardized uniforms for students, shop clerks, train conductors, laborers, and of course uniforms for factory workers. They were made out of Vinalon, a stiff, shiny synthetic material unique to North Korea. The North Koreans were so proud of this material, invented by a Korean scientist in 1939, that they called it the juche fiber.
By the 1980s, Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il, who was increasingly assuming his father’s duties, offered “on-the-spot guidance” to address the country’s woes. Father and son were experts in absolutely everything, be it geology or farming. “Kim Jong-il’s on-site instructions and his warm benevolence are bringing about a great advance in goat breeding and output of dairy products,” the Korean Central News Agency opined after Kim Jong-il visited a goat farm near Chongjin. One day he would decree that the country should switch from rice to potatoes for its staple food; the next he would decide that raising ostriches was the cure for North Korea’s food shortage. The country lurched from one harebrained scheme to another.
North Korea was (and remains as of this writing in 2009) the last place on earth where virtually everything is grown on collective farms. The state confiscates the entire harvest and then gives a portion back to the farmer.
Enduring hunger became part of one’s patriotic duty. Billboards went up in Pyongyang touting the new slogan, “Let’s Eat Two Meals a Day.” North Korean television ran a documentary about a man whose stomach burst, it was claimed, from eating too much rice. In any case, the food shortage was temporary—agricultural officials quoted in the newspapers reported that bumper crops of rice were expected in the next harvest.
In 1991, while South Korea was becoming the world’s largest exporter of mobile telephones, few North Koreans had ever used a telephone. You had to go to a post office to make a phone call. But even writing a letter was not a simple undertaking. Writing paper was scarce. People would write in the margins of newspapers. The paper in the state stores was made of corn husk and would crumble easily if you scratched too hard. Mi-ran had to beg her mother for the money to buy a few sheets of imported paper. Rough drafts were out of the question; paper was too precious. The distance from Pyongyang to Chongjin was only 250 miles, but letters took up to a month to be delivered.
All North Koreans can recall with extraordinary clarity where they were and what they were doing when they learned of Kim Il-sung’s death. Over years of interviewing North Koreans, I’ve learned to pose the question “Where were you when you found out?” Invariably the interview subject, no matter how forgetful or recalcitrant, perks up. People who repressed so many of their traumatic memories of the 1990s can suddenly describe with great animation and detail their movements on that day. It was a moment when the ordinary laws of time and perception were frozen by shock.
The histrionics of grief took on a competitive quality. Who could weep the loudest? Who was the most distraught? The mourners were egged on by the TV news, which broadcast hours and hours of people wailing, grown men with tears rolling down their cheeks, banging their heads on trees, sailors banging their heads against the masts of their ships, pilots weeping in the cockpit, and so on. These scenes were interspersed with footage of lightning and pouring rain. It looked like Armageddon.
Over the years the hospital provided less and less. The furnace in the basement went out after it ran out of coal, so the hospital had no heat. When the running water went off, nobody could properly mop the floors. Even during the day it was so dark in the interior of the building that doctors had to stand by windows to write up their reports. Patients brought their own food, their own blankets. Since bandages were scarce, they would cut up bedding to make them. The hospital was still able to manufacture intravenous fluid, but they didn’t have bottles for it. The patients had to bring their own, which were often empty bottles of Chongjin’s most popular beer, Rakwon, or “Paradise.”
By 1995, North Korea’s economy was as stone-cold dead as the Great Leader’s body. Per capita income was plummeting, from $2,460 in 1991 to $719 in 1995. North Korea’s merchandise exports dropped from $2 billion to about $800 million. The collapse of the economy had an organic quality to it, as though a living being were slowly shutting down and dying.
If anything, Kim Il-sung appeared greater in death even than life. Pyongyang ordered that the calendars be changed. Instead of marking time from the birth and death of Christ, the modern era for North Koreans would now begin in 1912 with the birth of Kim Il-sung so that the year 1996 would now be known as Juche 84.
It is axiomatic that one death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic. So it was for Mi-ran. What she didn’t realize is that her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring. In time, Mi-ran would learn how to walk around a dead body on the street without paying much notice. She could pass a five-year-old on the verge of death without feeling obliged to help. If she wasn’t going to share her food with her favorite pupil, she certainly wasn’t going to help a perfect stranger.
The signature dish is Pyongyang naengmyon, cold buckwheat noodles served in a vinegary broth with myriad regional variations, adding hard-boiled eggs, cucumbers, or pears.
In a famine, people don’t necessarily starve to death. Often some other ailment gets them first. Chronic malnutrition impairs the body’s ability to battle infection and the hungry become increasingly susceptible to tuberculosis and typhoid. The starved body is too weak to metabolize antibiotics, even if they are available, and normally curable illnesses suddenly become fatal.
The killer has a natural progression. It goes first for the most vulnerable—children under five. They come down with a cold and it turns into pneumonia; diarrhea turns into dysentery. Before the parents even think about getting help, the child is dead. Next the killer turns to the aged, starting with those over seventy, then working its way down the decades to people in their sixties and fifties. These people might have died anyway, but so soon? Then starvation makes its way through people in the prime of their lives. Men, because they have less body fat, usually perish before women. The strong and athletic are especially vulnerable because their metabolisms burn more calories.
As Mrs. Song would observe a decade later, when she thought back on all the people she knew who died during those years in Chongjin, it was the “simple and kindhearted people who did what they were told—they were the first to die.”
At the end of a fourteen-hour workday, she had about 100 won—50 cents—in her pocket, and a few bags of other goods, sometimes red peppers or a few lumps of coal, that she took in exchange for cookies. It was just enough for her to buy food for dinner and the ingredients for the next batch of cookies. She would trudge home exhausted and drop off to sleep, only to wake in a few hours to start all over again. Only now, she wasn’t going to bed hungry.
It was a crime to accept remuneration for any service—be it sex or bicycle repair. But who cared anymore? Everybody needed a scam to survive.
There was a natural division of labor between the bigger kids—who were faster and stronger—and the little ones, who were less likely to get beaten up or arrested if caught. The big ones would rush at a food stand, toppling everything onto the ground. As they sprinted off with the angry vendor in hot pursuit, the little kids would scoop up the food.
The soldiers around Chongjin were a ragtag bunch with fake leather belts cinching tight the uniforms that no longer fit their skinny frames. Their complexions were sallow from malnutrition and many of them were only five feet tall. (The North Korean army had to lower its height requirement from five feet three in the early 1990s because of the stunting of the younger generation.)
North Koreans joked that they were like “frogs in the well.” The world for them extended no further than the circle of light above their heads.
Listening to South Korean television was like looking in the mirror for the first time in your life and realizing you were unattractive. North Koreans were always told theirs was the proudest country in the world, but the rest of the world considered it a pathetic, bankrupt regime.
North Korean students and intellectuals didn’t dare to stage protests as their counterparts in other Communist countries did. There was no Prague Spring or Tiananmen Square. The level of repression in North Korea was so great that no organized resistance could take root. Any antiregime activity would have terrible consequences for the protester, his immediate family, and all other known relatives. Under a system that sought to stamp out tainted blood for three generations, the punishment would extend to parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins. “A lot of people felt if you had one life to give, you would give it to get rid of this terrible regime, but then you’re not the only one getting punished. Your family would go through hell,” one defector told me.
What an idiot he had been. He hated himself; he had been every inch the indecisive intellectual, weighing every move until it was too late. It had taken him so long to ask her to marry him that she was gone. In truth, he had wanted to ask her to run away with him to South Korea, but didn’t have the courage. Throughout their relationship, he imagined himself as the one in charge. He was the man, he was two years older, he had a university degree. He brought her poems from Pyongyang and told her about books and movies she’d never heard of. But in the end she was the brave one and he was a coward. Nobody knew for sure, but he could feel it in his heart—she was in South Korea.
The North Korean regime took extraordinary measures to keep its population locked up. Fences were erected along the beaches in Chongjin and other coastal cities in the early 1990s to prevent people from sailing off to Japan. When North Koreans left the country on official business, they had to leave behind spouses and children who were effectively held hostage to assure their return. Defectors had to be able to live with the knowledge that their freedom came at the expense of loved ones who would likely spend the rest of their lives in a labor camp.
A North Korean soldier would later recall a buddy who had been given an American-made nail clipper and was showing it off to his friends. The soldier clipped a few nails, admired the sharp, clean edges, and marveled at the mechanics of this simple item. Then he realized with a sinking heart: If North Korea couldn’t make such a fine nail clipper, how could it compete with American weapons?
On one of her excursions to the market, she ran into an old friend. They had been classmates in high school, both of them the kind of popular, smart girls who might have been voted “most likely to succeed.” Her friend had been a class officer. They made polite small talk, telling each other that they looked well even though they were both sallow and emaciated. Then Dr. Kim inquired about her classmate’s family. Her husband and her two-year-old son had died, just three days apart, she said matter-of-factly. Dr. Kim tried to offer her condolences. “Oh, I’m better off. Fewer mouths to feed,” she told Dr. Kim.
Tens of thousands of North Korean women have been sold to Chinese men. By some estimates, three quarters of the roughly 100,000 North Korean refugees living in China are women and more than half of them live in arranged unions with Chinese men.
In article III of its constitution, South Korea holds itself out as the rightful government of the entire Korean peninsula, which means that all of its people—including North Koreans—are automatically citizens. The right of North Koreans to citizenship was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1996. The reality, however, is more complicated. In order to exercise the right of citizenship, North Koreans must get to South Korea by their own volition. A North Korean cannot demand the right at the South Korean embassy in Beijing or at one of the various consular offices.
While most North Koreans are unaware of the existence of the Internet, South Korea has a higher percentage of homes on broadband than do the United States, Japan, and most of Europe. North Korea has been frozen culturally and economically for the last half century. Their languages are no longer the same; the South Korean version is now peppered with words borrowed from English. Physically, too, the people have grown apart. The average South Korean seventeen-year-old male, fed on milk shakes and hamburgers, is five inches taller than his North Korean counterpart. North Koreans talk and eat like South Koreans did in the 1960s.
During the summer of 1999, about six months after the defecting family members arrived in South Korea, national security police had arrested both sisters almost simultaneously at home. Mi-ran’s oldest sister, Mi-hee, the family beauty who’d married a military official and who had been so generous about providing food during the famine, and her sister Mi-sook had led blameless lives; they were loyal to their parents, their husbands, and their children, and loyal to Kim Jong-il. They were taken away in the middle of the night—the very same scenario of Mi-ran’s recurring nightmare, except that the children were left behind with the husbands, who were instructed to file for divorce. The sisters were presumably taken to one of the labor camps for long-term prisoners. Given the severity of the food shortage in 1999, it was likely they were dead.
Though Jun-sang had been an elite student at one of North Korea’s best universities, he had never used the Internet. His university had decent computers, IBM compatibles running Pentium 4 processors, and he’d been on the North Korean “intranet,” a closed system available only to academics to browse various academic papers and a censored encyclopedia the country had purchased, but the country remained an Internet black hole, one of the few in the world that had chosen to stay offline.
The instant gratification of modern communication killed some of the magic between them. Their relationship was one that thrived in the adverse conditions of North Korea. Emotions somehow meant more when they were handwritten on precious scraps of paper and conveyed on slow trains running out of fuel.
The biggest thing to happen to North Korea in the past decade has been the introduction of the mobile telephone. Service was introduced in 2008 by Orascom, the Egyptian telecommunications firm that has been renovating the Ryugyong Hotel. As of 2013, there were reportedly two million phones in the country. It has also become much easier to get a landline. Although telephones cannot make calls outside the country or connect to the Internet, they have made it possible for citizens to conduct normal business.
Kim Jong-un is trying to pull off the same trick as the Communist Party of China: prying open the economy without loosening the regime’s grip. For all the economic tinkering, freedom of thought and expression remains nil.