In New Book, N. Korea Seen Through Defectors' Eyes

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Barbara Demick's book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea opens with a nighttime satellite image of northeast Asia that shows the bright lights of South Korea and China. In the middle of the photograph is a dark spot — a nation of 23 million people that has little electricity.

"I opened with this image because I thought it conveyed a lot of our thinking about North Korea, a black hole place that we know very little about," Demick tells NPR's Melissa Block.

The book chronicles the accounts of North Koreans who defected to the South and told their stories to Demick, a Los Angeles Times reporter. They describe a country that was relatively developed until the 1980s, but then plunged into desperation when famine struck in the 1990s after the death of President Kim Il Sung. That desperation forced people to eat weeds, grass, bark, frogs and people's pets.

"There was really nothing to eat. ... In a way, it's almost a post-apocalyptic scenario what happened to them," Demick says.

Among the characters in the book are a young couple, Mi-ran and Jun-sang, from the northern city of Chongjin. Demick says that in some ways their love story illustrates what North Korea was like for young people.

The couple had little privacy because of the repressive regime, but they dated for many years, taking advantage of the dark. Demick describes a chaste romance: The couple took three years to hold hands and six more years to kiss.

Eventually, when Jun-sang, who was from a relatively privileged background, went to school in the capital, Pyongyang, the couple wrote letters to each other, which took up to a month to arrive.

"It was a very Victorian romance, except in the Victorian age you had paper," Demick says. "The way [Mi-ran] described it to me, it was an ordeal even to get paper.

"She would try to find a few sheets of paper and it was always made of corn husk or some very poor material, and then the letters were taken by train to Pyongyang, but the train system was broken down and often the letters were lost. People believed that the conductors were so cold on the trains that they would take the letters and burn them to keep warm."

Mi-ran was the first to defect to South Korea, but she didn't tell Jun-sang. What she didn't realize, however, was that he too wanted to defect, but hadn't told her. Their lack of communication ultimately broke up their relationship.

For Jun-sang, the turning point came in 1998, when the country was in the midst of economic disaster and famine. He was at a train station when he heard a homeless boy singing a patriotic song, "Nothing to Envy" — from which Demick took the name for her book. Hearing that song, Demick says, made Jun-sang realize what a lie the system was.

Still, Demick says, she didn't want to portray the country as a living hell. Almost all the people she talked to had moments when they were happy.

And, she says, they all believed in their country and in themselves. She says many of them felt an underlying sadness for what was lost, though they were devastated when they discovered they had been told lies.

Many North Koreans, once they defected to the South, struggled to adjust.

"There are quite a few North Korean defectors who've done poorly after they've defected," Demick says. "There have been suicides. They find it difficult to re-create that meaning in their lives."

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Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.