Hi Lovelies, I hope you’re all well!
It’s been a few weeks since I wrote my last book review, and while I’ve been busy writing about other things, preparing for starting my MA and doing little DIY projects on Lily, I’ve also taken the time to read some fabulously gripping books, strangely, all around the same theme of communism.
I’m already quite fascinated with Russian history, and while I did study some of the history of China at A-Level, I haven’t found it quite as interesting as Mother Russia and its orphan child, North Korea.
When North Korea appears in the news, what do you think of?
A crazy, deluded young dictator (emphasis on the ‘dic’), absurd military processions, badly photoshopped press photos, starving families and miles of scorched farm land.
In some respects you might not be far wrong, but in reality the Western world doesn’t know an awful lot about the country historians call the last Stalinist state. Westerners have to rely on ‘spying’ (take the Panorama North Korea specials for example) and reading accounts from various incredibly brave defectors, keen to raise global awareness of the atrocities North Korean people face at the hands of the malevolent Kim Dynasty.
One such account is that of Yeonmi Park, currently taking the world by storm with her harrowing account of life under such a repressive regime.
I picked up this book on one of my occasional trips into Waterstones (I already have a long list of things to read, I didn’t really need more) I was fascinated by the books blurb, in addition to the fact that Yeonmi is the same age as me; not only would the account be particularly eyeopening (in comparison to my own life) but the account would be pretty up to date, and a good view of what life in North Korea is like at the moment.
I got home and started reading straight away, two hours later I’d got half way through and another day or so later, I had finished reading. Yeonmi tells us of the ways she and her family flew in the face of North Korean and Chinese law through sheer desperation and fear of starvation ‘In Order to Live’.
The novel opens at the beginning of Yeonmi’s life. She describes Hyesan, her home, and recalls the times she spent playing by the Yalu River. I was shocked instantly by how close Hyesan was to the Chinese city of Chaingbai; Yeonmi tells us about how she could smell noodles and dumplings being cooked in kitchens on the other side, and how the Chinese children would taunt her by asking if she was hungry.
You’d think it would be easy for them to make their escape, across a river that seemed like a mere stones-throw away from freedom. Unfortunately, after years of scare-mongering and propaganda, it isn’t quite so easy.
Yeonmi describes a community dependent on each other for food, yet crippled with paranoia and suspicion. Her mother would tell her and her older sister, Eunmi, ‘Watch your mouth’ on a daily basis before heading to school; ‘Remember Yeonmi-ya, even when you think you’re alone, the birds and mice can hear you whisper.’ By teaching them this habit at an early age, Yeonmi’s mother made sure her two girls knew to keep their thoughts to themselves.
That said, the Kims’ propaganda had children (Yeonmi included) believe that their Great Leader Kim Jong Il was so omnipotent, he could even read their minds. Not even your thoughts are safe in North Korea.
Like Pakistan, India and other Middle-Eastern countries, North Koreans also live by a caste system or songbun. It is incredibly difficult to work your way up the caste system, but very easy to come down, one wrong move by you or a member of your family could change your fortune for generations. The Park family experienced this first hand.
Yeonmi’s Grandfather had worked comfortably in the military during the Second World War and the Korean War, this meant her family could go on to serve in the military (a ‘privilege’ reserved for the middle/upper classes) and study finance. Her aunts and uncles were all doing well, studying and working, surviving comfortably, unfortunately everything changed when her Uncle Park Dong Il was accused of raping one of his students and attempting to murder his wife.
While the truth of these events remain unclear, the damage was done. Her Uncle was sentenced to twenty years hard labour (he escaped execution due to her Grandfather’s connections), of which he served 12 before being sent home on sick leave. The rest of the family got by for a little while, despite their poor songbun, however, her grandfather and father lost their jobs suddenly, without being given a reason. It was at that point that the fight for survival really began for Yeonmi’s family.
At this point, I’m struggling to decide exactly how ‘in detail’ I should be. While I don’t want to give away too much for potential readers, it’s difficult not to want to describe exactly how shocking/eyeopening Yeonmi’s story really is. Instead, I’ll talk about the things I’ve learned having read ‘In Order to Live’.
Firstly, this book has thoroughly shaken up my perception of North Korea. It’s very easy for a Westerner such as myself to look at a country like North Korea and laugh. Do the Kim’s ACTUALLY think they could attack the US? Are North Koreans really that brainwashed? Why is the Kim Dynasty so successful?
My initial perception of North Korea was basically that of a medieval people, with scorched fields, the odd broken cart, tumbleweeds, extreme poverty and a deluded elite. It seems my idea wasn’t totally wrong, although in some respects, I think it’s far worse.
What surprised me the most is that North Korea does have an understanding of the western world, or at least, it adopts western technology, medicine, fashion and entertainment as its own. It invests ridiculous sums of money into building fabulous facilities, like water parks, an extravagant new airport and even a church (although no-one in North Korea practices a religion, they are too busy worshipping their ‘Great Leaders’ – it’s purely for the benefit of the occasional Western tourist riding the highly-policed propaganda bus around North Korea).
Students study for degrees in medicine, science, computer technology and so on at Pyongyang University (there are other establishments, but Pyongyang Uni is the most prestigious). People walk around in the finest fake designer goods China has to offer, even Yeonmi’s mother owned a ‘Chanel’ handbag while living in Hyesan!
Outside Pyongyang is very different, it isn’t quite the scorched land I had first imagined (NK is actually quite lush and green with beautiful landscapes), but it is still rife with extreme poverty. People in the country are dependent on the black market, and markets generally, to earn money and survive.
To Western tourists, tour guides insist that the North Korean government provide its people with food, housing, healthcare, education and clothing, suggesting the wages North Koreans earn are all their own. Yeonmi’s book tells us a very different story. As I type this I’m reminded of how she and her sister had to catch and roast bugs on a fire over the winter in order to survive, not quite the government provisions you would have imagined…
Healthcare is essentially reserved for the wealthy. If you can afford your treatment and the medicine, you’ll probably be fine, if not, you’ll either have to live (or die) without treatment, or somehow find a way of affording your medicine and bribe doctors to treat you. If the money runs out, so does the treatment, which means you’re at risk of catching infection while attempting to recover in hospital.
I think what I’m trying to say is that I was shocked by the fact that North Korea isn’t quite as closed off as I first imagined. It actually has an understanding of the Western world (though it isn’t a particularly great one), it enjoys western technology, fashion and entertainment like any other country. That said, we can’t forget that it’s very much a distraction from the rest of the country, the poorer classes, the prison camps and the ongoing breaches of human rights the government inflicts on its people.
I could go into so much more detail, but I have to move on…
The second thing I have learned having read this book is the issue of human trafficking, from North Korea into China.
I know trafficking goes on everywhere around the world, and it’s horrific to hear about it regardless of where the story has come from, but I feel that because of the secrecy surrounding North Korea anyway, it’s perhaps even more significant that someone has felt brave enough to break from that underworld and speak out about what is still a harrowing, ongoing issue.
When Yeonmi escaped North Korea, all she could think about was having enough food to eat. Traffickers know this and take advantage of it, giving the girls/women all the food they’ve ever dreamt of, promising full bellies and safety providing they did as they were told. For Yeonmi this meant forcibly losing her virginity (at 13 years of age), something she somehow managed to hold on to. Other girls aren’t so fortunate.
Women escape from North Korea hoping for a better life, to be free and to be able to send money across to their families. In reality they are often stuck in China, living in fear of being caught and sent back to North Korea (where they will be sent to a prison camp, or even executed), and also in fear of the traffickers and the new families they’re being sold into.
When they leave North Korea they are forced into this underworld and they have absolutely no idea what is happening.
How could they?
Their lives were secluded, shielded from the outside world thanks to the propaganda they’ve swallowed from birth. They run from their old life of poverty, fear and paranoia and into a new life filled once again with fear, abuse and slavery. They knew nothing of what might happen to them, and while North Korea remains so closed off, many more women will take the life-threatening risk of crossing the border into their new abusive life.
At the moment, China doesn’t accept North Korean refugees, they send them to their deaths instead. What I don’t understand is why China insist on trying to keep Pyongyang happy. The country is dependent on the West to support their economy, North Korea chose to distance itself from Beijing and Moscow (when under Stalin’s rule) a long time ago, surely China could quite happily cut all ties with North Korea and accept it’s refugees?
Or at least attempt to put a stop to the corrupt, violent underworld that dominates the north east.
I suppose China would have to re-address it’s own human-rights laws first.
Regardless of all this, Yeonmi still manages to expose yet another secretive world. I only hope, like her, that something changes soon.
The final thing I have learned is the sometimes quite shocking attitudes South Koreans have towards North Korean refugees.
It’s hardly surprising to find that North Koreans struggle to take in their new surroundings, having escaped such a backwards country.
Yeonmi discusses how after having started attending University, some South Korean students tried telling her that her story was false, the North Korean government weren’t as bad as she claimed and she was wrong to escape.
I, like Yeonmi, expected South Korea to be a lot more welcoming of refugees, surely they understood better than most the hardships and oppression their neighbours (and fellow Koreans) suffered. I think it’s sad that after everything they have been through, they manage to settle in a free country but are still treated like second class citizens.
Having read this book, I can’t help but feel ashamed of the UK and the wider world for not having done more to help these people. It baffles me that people continue to publish these books containing such harrowing stories and yet governments do nothing to try prevent it.
Of course the UN can hand out sanction after sanction but what good does that do help the two young girls eating bugs in the mountains to survive?
How does a sanction stop a young girl from being forced to watch her mother being raped in front of her?
I’m also embarrassed by the fact that even in the UK, we share a similar hostile attitude towards the refugees we take from other middle-eastern countries. Surely we should be helping these people escape to live a safe, free, happy life instead of greeting them with hostility, resentment and discrimination.
Reading this book has not only shocked me deeply, I feel an enormous amount of admiration for Yeonmi for sharing her story with the world, but it has also educated me a great deal about the North Korean regime, its people, and the ways we can put an end to it.
If there is only one book you read this year, I beg you, make it this one.
Till next time,