In 1949 George Orwell published 1984, a novel depicting a totalitarian world with an over-controlling political system. His incredible vision and analysis of a government which persecutes any free-thinking individual, utilizes the cult of personality to brainwash its citizens, and rewrites history to keep them ignorant, is what some have claimed is happening in North Korea today, sixty-five years after publication.
Nothing to Envy
Nothing to Envy by journalist Barbara Demick, offers evidence of these claims. Mrs. Demick interviewed over one hundred defectors: her in-depth research is supported by all kinds of individual stories she gathered. The title of the book comes from a slogan used by the government to convince its citizens that they have nothing to envy in the world, that everything they could wish for is provided by the "loving generosity" of their leader. In stark contrast, however, the book details how those same defectors were driven to escape to avoid hunger, repression, manipulation, constant secret surveillance, imprisonment and torture.
The Aquariums of Pyongyang
Kang Chol-Hwan was a child of seven when he was imprisoned in the Yodok concentration camp. His book, The Aquariums of Pyongyang, is his harrowing personal testimony of the deprivation and abuse he endured there: just like Camp 14, this world of pain, hunger, violence and corruption is portrayed with terrifying graphic detail. Kang Col-Hwan was released after 10 years, but lived under constant surveillance and threats of being sent back to the camp before he finally escaped to China.
The Orphan Master’s Son
The dystopian novel of Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master's Son (winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize), also accuses the regime of repression and hypocrisy. In the first part of the novel, the intriguing main character Jun Do (John Doe?!) carries out the most dismal orders of the government as a tunnel soldier, then a professional kidnapper and a naval spy. In the second part, he is himself imprisoned and subjected to arbitrary violence, brainwashing and torture. During this epic journey the reader, who meets emblematic characters and discovers a hidden North Korea, should keep in mind that some of the events are based on personal accounts and historical facts.
Escape from Camp 14
Another painful and heart wrenching account of deprivation and abuse endured in North Korean political prisons is found in Escape from Camp 14. Acclaimed journalist Blaine Harden recounts the story of Shin Dong-Hyuk, who was born in a political prison camp and grew up scavenging for food while witnessing and enduring brutality, backbreaking work, and even maiming. He was forced to watch the executions of his mother and brother (for which he was blamed after reporting their attempt to escape in search of food and work). At age 22, he encounters a former high-rank official-rank official who tells him of the outside world, triggering his decision to run away. This story of suffering, courage and survival is an acute analysis of the trauma sustained by a human being scarred forever, who will never truly heal despite the help he received after his escape.
All these books carry the same message but if you can only read one of them, I would recommend this one, not only for the tragedy it portrays, but also its testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.
Photo credit: Denis Concordel
Jocelyne C. is an extra-help Library Assistant. Her recent visit to the DMZ (buffer zone between South and North Korea) made her readings become suddenly very real.