The famine was brought on by several factors, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea's main benefactor, and a wildly inefficient socialist economy. By 1998, 600,000 to two million North Koreans had died of starvation.
But those were just numbers from economists. What was daily life really like for North Koreans? I had no idea.
Now, thanks to Barbara Demick, we all do.
Demick, a former Los Angeles Times correspondent in Seoul, spent seven years interviewing defectors who lived in the North Korean city of Chongjin at the height of the famine. Relying on their remarkably detailed recollections, she has crafted an oral history of a single city in the darkest days of one of the world's worst regimes.
Now, a confession.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea sat on my shelf for several weeks before I cracked it. I was hesitant to commit to what I was certain would be an unrelentingly bleak narrative. Indeed, Demick details slow–motion starvation and the North Korean regime's reflexive cruelty toward its own people.
But the book is much more than that, at times a page-turner, at others an intimate study in totalitarian psychology. Demick, also a former Inquirer reporter, takes us inside the minds of her subjects, rendering them as complex, often compelling characters - not the brainwashed parodies we see marching in unison in TV reports.
The book focuses on six people, among them a university student, a teacher, a doctor, and a thief. In the famine's early years, most still blindly trust the regime. Given North Korea's wretched conditions - the per capita income was $719 in 1995 - that seems crazy. But the government's control is total, from cradle to grave. Indoctrination begins in 14-hour-a-day, state-run child care centers, and all media - from billboards to movies - deify the leadership.
"Who could possibly resist?" Demick writes.
As food begins to vanish, people drape nets from balconies to catch sparrows or grind up pine-tree bark to replace flour. The kindergarten class of Mi-ran, a teacher, goes from 50 to 15 as the students lose the energy to attend - or die. Death becomes a routine, public affair. Mi-ran settles down to sleep in a public park and notices an emaciated young man curled up around a tree.
People haul him away in an oxcart.
In a chapter entitled, "The Good Die First," Demick points out that those who lie, cheat, and steal for food survive, while those who follow the regime's edicts - don't buy food on the black market - are among the first to die.
Life in Chongjin, an industrial city, is filled with political paradoxes worthy of Orwell. A man is executed by firing squad for cutting copper power lines to sell for food - even though the lines no longer carry electricity. Absenteeism from work is punished with 30 days in a labor camp, even though most jobs no longer pay a salary.
The country's economic collapse has its own perverse benefits.
The electricity shortage provides welcome cover for Mi-ran and her boyfriend, Jun-sang, who use the darkness to hide their politically forbidden relationship from their parents and the state. Just how dark are North Korean nights? Demick says you can only sense someone else walking on a street by the glow of a cigarette. That was the case, at least, when people had tobacco.
By the late 1990s, most of Demick's characters realize their nation is built on a lie. For Jun-sang, a promising college student, the truth emerges through a Sony TV he's rigged to pick up prohibited stations in South Korea. From those broadcasts, he learns the United States is not bent on invading North Korea - as the country's ruling Workers Party claims - but has donated hundred of thousands of tons of rice in humanitarian aid.
Jun-sang's breaking point comes when he hears a young waif, cold and soaked from the rain, singing for money at a train station. It's a patriotic song that gives the book its title: "Our father is here," the child sings, referring to Kim Jong-Il, North Korea's dictator. "We have nothing to envy."
Disgusted by the regime or driven by hunger, the characters individually make their way north to China. They hire smugglers to help them ford frigid rivers along the border at the risk of imprisonment or execution. Oak-hee, a rebellious mother and wife, leaves her family behind in Chongjin. In exchange for help crossing into China, she marries a farmer there, with whom she lives for two years.
Using forged passports, the characters eventually make their way to South Korea, a nation with which they share a language and almost nothing else. After a lifetime under totalitarian rule, early attempts to adapt to a free-wheeling capitalist society are predictably painful.
But they are free to speak at last, and Barbara Demick is there to listen - and bring their stories to us.
Frank Langfitt is a business correspondent for NPR. From 1997 to 2002, he was the Baltimore Sun's Beijing bureau chief and covered South Korea.