Every time a North Korean escapes, stories leak out of the hermit kingdom. There are now around 14,000 of them in South Korea, and 20-30,000 squatting as refugees in China.
The common theme of their stories? Starvation. And it’s ongoing. As heard from the New Year’s greetings weeks ago, food security has moved up the list of the regime’s priorities.
Mass famine and food shortage in North Korea during the late 90s is now more or less common knowledge. Story after story, the world is beginning to figure out how badly these people were starved all these years.
Barbara Demick’s book shines some more light on it, by stringing the lives of 6 North Koreans whom successfully escaped, over 15 years.
After the country’s leader Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994, famine descended: people stumbled over dead bodies in the street and ate tree bark to survive. Nothing to Envy weaves together the stories of adversity and resilience of six residents of Chongin, North Korea’s third largest city. Two lovers, who dated secretly for a decade, feared to criticise the regime to each other. A loyal factory worker watched her husband and son die of starvation before escaping the country. An orphaned child took to the streets, and a once-idealistic doctor, whose father committed suicide when Kim Il Sung died, took bribes to buy food.
Here’s a great BBC documentary (full version starts here) that follows two groups of North Koreans as they attempt to reach South Korea. The wealthier one flies into Thailand from China with a fake passport, the poorer ones must endure days of fear as they journey across China, Laos, and then finally reach the South Korean embassy in Thailand.
As Demick also described, once they reach their destination, many struggles to adjust.
The sudden onslaught of freedom, whether it be occupation or religious practices, the challenge of matching their skills to those compatible with the society at large, the dizzying speed of South Korean life, guilt towards those they left behind, and deep nostalgia for years of hardship and the absurdity of it all, can be all too much at times. More can be seen here.