Thursday, March 21, 2013

UPDATE: "A Boot Stamping on a Human Face"

Considering the disturbing threats coming out of North Korea lately, I though that this incredible TED Talk by North Korean refugee Hyeonseo Lee is especially timely and moving:

Her account accords perfectly with the story told in Demick's book, which I reviewed last month.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North KoreaNothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A journalist recounts the stories of defectors from North Korea in an attempt to understand what is happening in one of the most oppressive and regressive societies in the world.

The North Korean government stifles every aspect of its people's lives and the result is famine, death, and distrust between neighbors and family members. The Worker's Party rules over every human interaction with a brutal regime of brain-washing (I use the term intentionally), intimidation, and absurd demands that citizens demonstrate unconditional love for their dynasty of Dear Leaders and the communist ideals they claim to uphold. Going into North Korea is like traveling back in time, observers say.

In spite of this, people find a way to survive and connect with each other, and though it seems cliched the stories are a testament to the resilience of human beings. My favorite story--one with a bittersweet ending--is of two young lovers who secretly meet in nights made dark by constant power outages; who send letters through the tortuous mail system; who sneak train rides without travel permits to see each other for a few short hours.

Demick makes it clear that leaving North Korea is not necessarily the happy ending we might take it for. Defectors find that in spite of the wealth and plenty of South Korea, life is still a struggle as they learn to adapt and overcome the damage done to them by their totalitarian homeland. Many still have family members left behind in North Korea, and the grief of separation is difficult to imagine.

More than anything, Demick's final description of North Korea reminds me of the famous quote from 1984: "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever." How long will forever be, in this case? And if eventually the North Korea government does fall (as it has been predicted to for the past twenty years), how will a country as deeply impoverished as North Korea ever catch up to the rest of the world, even with the aid of their neighbors?

Demick leaves us with these questions, but I believe that the answers lie in the survival stories of the defectors she interviews: the strong family ties, willingness to work hard, and the ability to adapt to difficult circumstances will be the greatest assets North Koreans have once they are allowed to make their long march back into the present.


Demick's book ends before the death of Kim Jong Il and the rise of his son Kim Jong Un. Here is a recent article she wrote for the Los Angeles Times, detailing the continued insanity of this brutal dynasty.

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