I readNothing to EnvybyBarbara DemickonMar 15th, 2023


We have nothing to envy in the world.

That is the song all North Korean kids could sing from their hearts, like “twinkle, twinkle little star” in US. They might be entitled to the pride for rebuilding the country from rubbles after the Korean War. And even felt lucky in 60s as the government-controlled distribution center dispatched grains, cooking oils, even meat and dried sea food in special occasions while Chinese suffered from famine from the Great Leap Forward.

But more likely, the North Korean people were locked in the solitary confinement. Most of them could not afford televisions or radios,— even they could, the devices needed to be fixed by the authorities to receive signals for approved channels only. They did not have phones, and the snail mails were just slow as snails, — it was speculated that the railway workers burned mails to keep warm in the winter. Even the newspaper was a luxury in North Korea with contents thoroughly infiltrated to serve the Worker’s Party’s propaganda.

What did ordinary lives look like in North Korea? The author interviewed 6 defectors to shed some lights.1

The tainted blood

Mi-Ran, the daughter of a South Korean prisoner of war, was doomed with a gloomy future for the tainted blood. The “Songbun”, aka “出身” in China or caste in India, was a permanent mark only faded away in the third generation. Jun-sang’s zainichi, aka Korean in Japan, ethnicity did not rule out his chance to join the Worker’s Party and then elevated the whole family out of its inferior social class.

Thus these two must keep their intimate relationship in the dark. They walked long hours and talked about daily lives at night in the pitch darkness. It took them three years to hold hands, and six years for the first kiss.

The cult

Kim Il-Sung, the leader of North Korea, promoted the juche, aka 主体思想, a mixture of extreme nationalism and cult of personality, — the Korean are chosen to pursue the communism under the fatherhood of Kim Il-Sung. The lapel pins and portraits of Kim Il-Sung are distributed to the households. The neighborhood watchdog, inminban would pay a irregular visit to ensure the portraits be dusted and worshipped daily.

Mrs. Song was a pro-regime housewife, also a leader of inminban. She never questioned her loyalty to the party until one day, her husband Chang-bo, a party member mocked up the official narratives of boots production, then was taken into custody for three days of questioning. Bo escaped the punishment to labor camp because of their impeccable backgrounds and being party members. This incident shattered Mrs. Song’s confidence and she realized how vulnerable they were.

The Famine

With Soviet Union collapsed, and China opened up for economic reform in 1990s, North Korea lost the supply of cheap energy and raw material. Exacerbated with a series floods and droughts, the North Korean suffered massive starvation. No food was handed out in the distribution center; and the salary, as small as allowance, was furloughed indefinitely.

The starvation first targeted most vulnerable, the children under five. Dr. Kim felt so helpless to see the sick kids incapable to battle infection with malnutrition. In the kindergarten Mi-ran worked, some children did not bring lunch, then stopped participating activities and slept through classes, eventually dropped off. The headcount of the enrollment dropped from 50 to 15 in 3 years.

The killer would NOT stop. Mrs. Song lost her mother-in-law in 1996, her husband in 1997, and her son in 1998. By 1998, an estimated 600,000 to 2 million North Korean had died as a result of the famine. People hunted, gathered, then became cold-hearted, stole, lied, broke the law, prostituted etc to survive.

The outward world

The Tuman River, which separated dire North Korea and prosper China, is shallow and narrow. The guards were starved and easily bribed to look another way. Mi-ran’s family was ahead of curve, — only 923 North Korean fled between the end of Korean War and 1998 when she defected, partly because of their ties to South Korea.

Tens of thousands of North Korean women were sold to Chinese men facilitated by the human trafficking services. The Chinese government feared the deluge of refugees, then refused to acknowledge their refugee status, — even though the defecters and their family might face severe punishment once deported. The defectors also suffered a prisoner dilemma: the plan must be kept stealthy, and other family members would pay a ultimate price for their wellbeing; and vice versa.

Closing Thoughts

Kim’s regime did not collapse with the tide of Eastern bloc, also managed to survive chronicle famines. The dictators kept their supporters in bay, — 25% adult males in North Korea were drafted, and militaries were awarded corruption, such as siphoning the international humane aid and reselling in the black market for profits.

Equipped with nuclear power, and being leveraged by China to negotiate with US for geopolitical matters, the chance of regime being overturned is slim. I fell sorry for the North Korean people, and hope nobody in the world should live under the totalitarianism.

  1. It was quite literal as North Korea faded into the darkness in the mid 90s due to the short of fuel and grid deterioration.