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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MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Imagine living in a country so desperately poor, so stricken by famine that you were reduced to eating a thin porridge of powdered pine bark extended with sawdust, a country so repressive that it dictates the length of hair on a man's head, a country so cut off from the outside world that the sight of an American-made nail clipper is a thing of total wonder.
This is North Korea, the country described in the accounts of North Koreans who defected to the South and told their stories to Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara Demick. Her new book based on their stories is titled "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea."
And Barbara Demick, welcome to the program.
Ms. BARBARA DEMICK: (Author, "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea"): Thank you.
BLOCK: You open your book by describing a nighttime satellite image of this area, a country of 23 million people, North Korea, completely black.
Ms. DEMICK: Yes. This is a very famous photograph of Northeast Asia. And what it shows is the bright lights of South Korea, increasingly China, Japan, and in the middle of this is a black hole, which is North Korea, because North Korea has very little electricity, and at night, it's almost completely dark. And I opened with this image because I thought it conveyed a lot of our thinking about North Korea, a black hole, a place that we know very little about.
BLOCK: And what we do know of it is of a country that has gone through, as I said, extreme deprivation. Describe, if you could, just the level of desperation at the height of the famine in the 1990s, after the death of Kim Il Sung.
Ms. DEMICK: The desperation was to a point where people were eating weeds, grass, bark. There was really nothing to eat. And the thing that's really different about North Korea than other places where there's acute poverty and starvation is, you know, often that's in the countryside. But this was a relatively developed country through the 1980s, and the people in my book lived in a city, you know, a concrete jungle. So in a way, it's almost a post-apocalyptic scenario, what happened to them.
BLOCK: And you describe in these cities cartloads of corpses being wheeled away from the street, from train stations. You mention a frog population that was entirely wiped out from overhunting, even though people would have never eaten frogs before.
Ms. DEMICK: Yeah. Frog is not part of the North Korean or South Korean diet. And, you know, they found the frogs, they found the grasshoppers, the pigeons, the rats, the dogs, you know, people's pets, you know, everything. Everything was eaten.
BLOCK: You tell the story of modern North Korea through the accounts of some remarkable characters whom you met, defectors to the South. And I want to talk to you about two of them, a young couple, Mi-ran and Jun-sang, who are from the northern city of Chongjin. And I'm tempted to call them young lovers except that really grossly overstates the extent of their relationship, as Mi-ran described it to you.
Ms. DEMICK: Well, they were - yes, it was a very chaste relationship. They didn't hold hands for three years. It took them another six years before they kissed, and I think that was a peck on the cheek. And in some ways, their love story tells the story of what North Korea was like for young people.
The young woman, Mi-ran, came from a very poor family, a low class background. In North Korea, everybody is graded and stratified for their class background. And she and her boyfriend, Jun-sang, who came from a better family, were really unable to be a proper couple. And they had very little privacy because this is a repressive regime. You can't expect privacy. And they dated for many years, taking advantage of the dark. And they used to go out at night, after everybody else had gone to bed, walking in the dark. And that was the nature of their relationship for many years.
North Korea is prudish. Mi-ran has, you know, told me that when she left North Korea, she was 26 years old, and she didn't know where babies came from. She really didn't have a clue. You know, this was a certain age of innocence.
BLOCK: Now, the young man, Jun-sang, because he is of a higher class and has some privilege, goes away to school in Pyongyang, and they're communicating by letter. And it feels like you're going back in time a couple of hundred years. I mean, it would be maybe up to a month before they might hear from each other because that's how the mail service worked.
Ms. DEMICK: That's right. It was a very Victorian romance, except in the Victorian days you had paper. The way she 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 husks 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.
BLOCK: The young woman, Mi-ran, is the first to defect to South Korea with some of her family, and it's so touching in the book because she realizes she cannot tell Jun-sang that she's going. She just leaves, and he has no idea where she's gone.
Ms. DEMICK: Yeah. She decides very suddenly that she wants to leave North Korea, but she can't tell him. But she doesn't realize that he also wants to defect, and he hasn't dared to tell her. So their lack of communication is what ultimately breaks them up.
BLOCK: He, though, does later do the same thing. And you describe the turning point for Jun-sang. He's at a train station, it's 1998, and there are a lot of homeless children on the platform. And he sees and hears a little boy, clearly starving, singing a song to get money for food.
Ms. DEMICK: Yes. The song is called "Nothing to Envy," and this is the song that I used for the title of the book. This is a favorite song of North Korean children, and if I could sing better, I would sing it for you, but basically what it says is, you know, (foreign language spoken). Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world. Our house is within the embrace of the Workers' Party. We are all brothers and sisters. Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid. Our father is here. We have nothing to envy.
This is the favorite song of young children, and this is what they believe. They have nothing to envy in the world. They live in the best country. And Jun-sang has this moment of, I guess his epiphany, when he sees this starving child singing it, and he realizes, you know, what a lie this is.
But, you know, I didn't want to paint North Korea as just a living hell. Almost all the people I've talked to had moments when they were happy. You know, for one, they had this core belief. It may have been a big lie, but they believed it. They believed in their country. They believed in themselves. And there's an underlying sadness for them at what was lost, even if they know it was a lie.
BLOCK: How shattering was it to them when they realized - when they came to the realization of that lie, though?
Ms. DEMICK: Devastating. Devastating. I mean, to imagine that everything you've ever been taught was untrue - it's shattering. There are quite a few North Korean defectors who've done, you know, poorly after they've defected. There have been suicides. They find it difficult to, you know, recreate that meaning in their lives.
BLOCK: Barbara Demick, thanks very much.
Ms. DEMICK: Okay. Thank you, Melissa.
BLOCK: Barbara Demick's book is called "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea." And you can read an excerpt at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.