Nothing to Envy – A starving nation

8 Nov

There is almost no intrusion of the writer’s personal opinions, and none at all of her personal ego – which I find quite an achievement for a book in this age.

In the book ‘Nothing to Envy’, Barbara Demick gives detailed accounts of life in The Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) based on interviews with former North Koreans. The particulars of the famine and thought repression, never mind the caste system that the regime imposed, was deeply shocking to me. I was also very impressed by how the collective culture of that society fostered such tolerance to obvious mistreatment and failure of promises by the regime – but the information blockade may have had a great deal to do with that as well.

The societal structure imposed by Kim Il-Sung divided people up into classes. There are three main classes that are then subdivided into 51 subcategories:

  • The Core Class: those who are considered loyal, have a chance of applying for party membership, receive dibs in resources, and may be used to spy on/control the neighborhood.
  • The Wavering Class: A class that is considered less loyal and thus suspect.
  • The Hostile Class: Particularly suspect due to past lineage (parent may have been South Korean, gotten into trouble with the law…etc), children of this class have a lower chance of receiving a respectable higher education.

The class system has implications for educational opportunities, work, housing, resources and frequently, marriage. Families that are considered more loyal, based on a variety of factors, are appointed a higher class, and their higher standing allowed them more leeway in the face of possible legal persecution. It is very difficult to be elevated to a better class, but easy to be demoted.

For more about the DPRK’s class system and its implications, try these articles:

  1. Political Classification and Social Structure in North Korea by Kongdan Oh
  2. North Korea’s Upper Class Flourishes in Contrast to Reports of Impoverished Working Class  from Voice of America –> This article makes me think that there’s something to be said for an economically tiered community – it divides the community enough to make revolutionary thoughts less unifying.

The government also imposed a strict system within the communities – no one was allowed to move house or purchase household electronics without approval, and a minder was imposed for every set number of households who kept a watch on the behavior and talk in the neighborhood. Besides these, there are civilians who are designated to spy on their neighbors, at densities said to be more extensive than the East German Stasi. Any suspicious activities were reported and quickly dealt with, and entire families up to three generations were punished on the grounds of ‘bad blood’. This was also used as a control system to prevent defection of North Koreans who were allowed to travel abroad.

Much of the economic downfall in the DPRK, besides the loss of subsidized merchandize from the Soviet Union, is attributed to the focus on military, particularly the diversion of funds towards the development of nuclear weapons in the late 1980s. A quarter of the national GDP is set aside for military spending – far more than any other nation in the world.

I had previously attended a speech where a Taiwanese reporter had taken a documentary of North Korea. She warned us that the footages were by no means complete – because the tour was strictly regulated, the images taken were heavily censored, and she was not allowed to say anything in the published video that sounded in any way critical of the regime (the studio had to pay a heavy guarantee).  <陳雅琳:直擊世界火藥庫-北韓  the video, however, has been removed from youtube, for no reason that I can discover.>

Last week the DPRK announced that none of the health personnel that were stationed in Libya are allowed entrance back to North Korea. These health personnel were sent there to work in health stations in an agreement with the Gaddafi regime in exchange for much needed hard cash for North Korea.  Now that the Gaddafi regime has collapsed, DPRK is refusing the return of their people, very likely as part of their information control strategy. At first I thought it is a means for this group of North Koreans to leave the abysmal conditions of the DPRK. However, they will be people without a country (though South Korea has pledged to receive all North Koreans within their nation), and they surely have left family back in the DPRK who have been held as collateral. It must be a huge blow to people who have a strong culture of valuing family.

Mike recommended that I watch The Vice Guide to North Korea ( ), which showed footages of a guided tour, somewhat similar to the one I had seen by a Taiwanese reporter, but with an entrance from China.

I wanted to look at footages outside the regulated tour though. In fact, I suggested to Mike that someone should smuggle a high resolution camera into less regulated areas where a local North Korean could be commissioned to take candid footages of everyday life in North Korea.

Apparently somebody else had had a similar idea. A video on the Telegraph shows grainy shots of in North Korea life without tall buildings, monuments and pretty waitresses ( ).

A girl who looks at most 14 hoists a sack of grass to sell as food at the market. She says she is 23. Her face is hallow, her eyes sunken, and she seems about to cry when asked what she had eaten that day.

As of today, North Korea has been going through another massive famine since 2010. A bitter winter and heavy rains have severely curtailed the expected harvest this fall and the government was desperate enough to invite foreign reporters into the country to tour a hospital where malnourished children were dying – a rare look outside the guided tour.

(sorry, this is not an embedded video. To see the video, please go to The Guardian link here: )

Some people hold the viewpoint that giving food aid to North Korea is propping up an evil regime – especially since there is so little transparency in the food distribution system that several NGOs have pulled out of the area in the recent decade due to inability to account for the aid given. The army in North Korea is given priority. However, I feel that a starving people cannot even begin to contemplate rebellion – malnutrition saps the will, and seriously harms the mental development of growing children. We cannot let another generation of North Koreans go without the vital nutrition they need to fight back, and this time there will be no hiding the deficiencies of the DPRK. Already it is said that North Koreans living in certain regions are disgruntled with the system. It’s just a matter of opportunity.


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