A tale of illicit romance, cruel famine and dramatic escape from North Korea, the country that fell out of the developed world.
By Barbara Demick
Published: 1:12PM GMT 16 Feb 2010
If you look at satellite photographs of the Far East by night, you’ll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Next to this mysterious black hole, South Korea, Japan and China fairly gleam with prosperity. Even from hundreds of miles above, the billboards, the headlights and streetlights, the neon of the fast food chains appear as tiny white dots signifying people going about their business as 21st-century energy consumers. Then, in the middle of it all, an expanse of blackness nearly as large as England. It is baffling how a nation of 23 million people can appear as vacant as the oceans. North Korea is simply a blank.
North Korea faded to black in the early 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up its old Communist ally with cheap fuel oil, North Korea’s creakily inefficient economy collapsed. Power stations rusted into ruin. The lights went out. Even in parts of the showcase capital of Pyongyang, you can stroll down the middle of a main street at night without being able to see the buildings on either side.
North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world. You can see the evidence of what has been lost dangling overhead alongside any major road – the skeletal wires of the rusted electrical grid that once covered the entire country.
North Koreans beyond middle age remember well when they had more electricity (and for that matter food) than their pro-American cousins in South Korea, and that compounds the indignity of spending their nights sitting in the dark. In the 1990s the United States offered to help North Korea with its energy needs if it gave up its nuclear weapons programme. But the deal fell apart after the Bush administration accused the North Koreans of reneging on their promises. North Koreans complain bitterly about the darkness, which they still blame on the US sanctions.
But the dark has advantages of its own. Especially if you are a teenager dating somebody you can’t be seen with. When adults go to bed, sometimes as early as 7pm in winter, it is easy enough to slip out of the house. The darkness confers measures of privacy and freedom as hard to come by in North Korea as electricity.
I met many North Koreans who told me how much they learnt to love the darkness, but it was the story of one teenage girl and her boyfriend that impressed me most. She was 12 years old when she met a young man three years older from a neighbouring town. Her family was low-ranking in the byzantine system of social controls in place in North Korea. To be seen in public together would damage the boy’s career prospects as well as her reputation as a virtuous young woman. So their dates consisted entirely of long walks in the dark. There was nothing else to do anyway; by the time they started dating in earnest in the early 1990s, none of the restaurants or cinemas was operating because of the lack of power.
They would meet after dinner. The girl had instructed her boyfriend not to knock on the front door and risk questions from her family. The boy found a spot behind a wall where nobody would notice him as the light seeped out of the day. He would wait hours for her, maybe two or three. It didn’t matter. The cadence of life is slower in North Korea. Nobody owned a watch.
The girl would emerge just as soon as she could extricate herself. At first, they would walk in silence, then their voices would gradually rise to whispers and then to normal conversational levels as they left the village and relaxed into the night. They maintained an arm’s-length distance from each other until they were sure they wouldn’t be spotted, talking about their families, their classmates, books they had read – whatever the topic, it was endlessly fascinating. Years later, when I asked the girl about the happiest memories of her life, she told me of those nights.
By the time I met her, in 2004, she was a woman of 31. Mi-ran (not her real name) had defected six years earlier and was living in South Korea. I was writing an article about defectors and had asked Mi-ran to lunch in order to learn more about North Korea’s school system. In the years before her defection, she had worked as a kindergarten teacher in a mining town. It was a serious conversation, at times grim. The food on our table went uneaten as she described watching her five- and-six-year-old pupils die of starvation. As her students were dying, she was supposed to teach them that they were blessed to be North Korean.
There was something about her self-possession and candour that allowed me to ask more personal questions. Did she have a boyfriend there?
‘It’s funny you ask,’ she said. ‘I had a dream about him the other night.’ Mi-ran laughed. ‘It took us three years to hold hands. Another six to kiss. I would never have dreamt of doing anything more. At the time I left North Korea, I was 26 years old and a schoolteacher, but I didn’t know how babies were conceived.’
Mi-ran admitted that she frequently thought about her first love and felt some pangs of remorse over the way she left. Jun-sang had been her best friend, the person in whom she confided her dreams and the secrets of her family. But she had none the less withheld from him the biggest secret of her life. She never told him how disgusted she was with North Korea, how she didn’t believe the propaganda she passed on to her pupils. Above all, she never told him that her family was hatching a plan to defect. Not that she didn’t trust him, but you could never be too careful.
Neighbours denounced neighbours, friends denounced friends. If anybody in the secret police had learnt of their plans, her entire family would have been carted away to a labour camp in the mountains.
‘I couldn’t risk it,’ she told me. ‘I couldn’t even say goodbye.’
Mi-ran and Jun-sang lived on the outskirts of Chongjin, one of the industrial cities in the northeast of the peninsula, not far from the border with Russia. The North Korean landscape is strikingly beautiful in places, but somehow devoid of colour. The houses are simple, utilitarian and monochromatic. Most of the housing stock was built in the 1960s and 1970s from cement block and limestone, doled out to people based on their job and rank. In the countryside, people typically live in single-storey buildings called ‘harmonicas’, rows of one-room homes, stuck together like the little boxes that make up the chambers of a harmonica.
In 1984 George Orwell wrote of a world where the only colour to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea. Images of Kim Il-sung are depicted in vivid colours. Rays of yellow and orange emanate from his face: he is the sun. The red letters leap out of the grey landscape with urgency: long live kim il-sung. we will do as the party tells us. we have nothing to envy in the world.
Until her early teens, Mi-ran had no reason not to believe the signs. Her father was a mine worker. Her family was poor, but so was everyone they knew. Since all outside publications, films and broadcasts were banned, Mi-ran assumed that nowhere else in the world were people better off, and that most probably fared far worse. She heard many, many times on the radio and television that South Koreans were miserable, that China’s diluted brand of Communism was less successful than that brought by Kim Il-sung and that millions of Chinese were going hungry. All in all, Mi-ran felt she was quite lucky to have been born in North Korea under the loving care of the fatherly leader.
In fact, the village where Mi-ran grew up was not such a bad place in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a typical North Korean village of about 1,000 people, but its location was fortuitous. The East Sea (the Sea of Japan) was only six miles away, so locals could occasionally eat fresh fish and crab. The village lay just beyond the smokestacks of Chongjin and so had the advantages of proximity to the city as well as open space on which to grow vegetables.
Mi-Ran’s father, Tae-woo, had grown up in South Chungchong province in South Korea. He was 18 when the Communists invaded in 1950, and he had no choice but to enlist. The South Koreans were ill-prepared and needed all the able-bodied men they could get. He was captured as a prisoner of war, and his life as a South Korean was effectively over.
After the armistice, there was a prisoner exchange, but thousands more were never sent home, among them Tae-woo, who was sent to an iron-ore mine in Musan, a gritty town on the North Korean side of the Chinese border. Here he met and married Mi-ran’s mother, and Tae-woo quickly assimilated into North Korean life. It was easy enough for him to blend in. Soon after his marriage, Tae-woo and his new bride were transferred to another mine near Chongjin where he knew nobody. There was no reason for anyone to suspect anything unusual in his background, but it was in the peculiar nature of North Korea that somebody always did know.
After the war, Kim Il-sung made it his first order of business to weed out foe from friend. He disposed of many of his comrades in arms. They had been invaluable during the war; now that they had served their purpose they could be discarded. Kim Il-sung then turned his attention to ordinary people. In 1958 he ordered up an elaborate project to classify all North Koreans by their political reliability. Each person was put through eight background checks. Your songbun, as the rating was called, took into account the backgrounds of your parents, grandparents and even second cousins. As a former South Korean soldier, Tae-woo’s ranking was towards the bottom of the heap. North Koreans of the lower ranks were banned from living in Pyongyang or the nicer patches of countryside towards the south where the soil was more fertile and the weather warmer. Tae-woo couldn’t dream of joining the Workers’ Party, which, like the Communist Party in China and the Soviet Union, controlled the plum jobs.
People of his rank would be closely watched by their neighbours. It was almost impossible for a North Korean of low rank to improve his status. Whatever your original stain, it was permanent and immutable. And family status was hereditary. The sins of the father were the sins of the children and the grandchildren. The North Koreans called these people beulsun – ‘tainted blood’, or impure.
Mi-ran and her four siblings would carry that taint in their blood. Her parents thought it best if they said nothing at all to the children about their father’s roots. What was the point in burdening them with the knowledge that they would be barred from the best schools and the best jobs, that their lives would soon reach a dead end? Why would they bother to study, to practise their musical instruments or compete in sports?
As the children approached adolescence, the obstacles presented by their father’s background began to loom larger. Those not admitted to further education are assigned to a work unit, a factory, a coalmine, or the like. But Mi-ran’s siblings were confident they would be among those chosen to further their education. They were smart, good-looking, athletic, well-liked by teachers and peers. Had they been less talented, rejection might have gone down more easily.
It was Mi-ran’s brother who finally forced the truth to the surface. Sok-ju had spent months cramming for an exam to win admission to the teachers’ college. He knew every answer perfectly. When he was told he had failed, he angrily confronted the judges to demand an explanation.
The truth was devastating. The children had been thoroughly inculcated in the North Korean version of history. The Americans were the incarnation of evil and the South Koreans their pathetic lackeys. To learn that their own father was a South Korean who had fought with the Yankees was too much to bear. Sok-ju got drunk for the first time in his life. He ran away from home. He stayed at a friend’s house for two weeks until the friend convinced him to return. Sok-Ju knew, like any other Korean boy, that he had to revere his father. He went home and fell to his knees, begging for forgiveness. It was the first time he saw his father cry.
Mi-ran was in high school when she first noticed that city people were taking trips to the countryside to scavenge for food. When she bicycled into Chongjin, she would see them, looking like beggars with their burlap sacks, heading toward the orchards that lined both sides of the road. Some would even come as far as the cornfields that stretched for miles south from her village towards the sea.
Where Mi-ran lived, the narrow strips between the harmonica houses were painstakingly cultivated with red peppers, radishes, cabbages and even tobacco, because it was cheaper to roll your own than to buy cigarettes, and virtually all the men smoked. People whose roofs were flat would put pots up there to grow more vegetables. These private agricultural efforts were small enough that they didn’t raise the ire of the Communist authorities. At least in the beginning, before the food shortage grew into a famine, they staved off hunger.
Initially, the relationship between Mi-Ran and Jun-sang took on a 19th-century epistolatory quality. They stayed in touch by letter. In 1991 few North Koreans had ever used a telephone. You had to go to a post office to make a phone call. But even writing a letter was not a simple undertaking. Writing-paper was scarce. People would write in the margins of newspapers. The paper in the state stores was made of corn husk and would crumble easily. And the distance from Pyongyang to Chongjin was only 250 miles, but letters took up to a month to be delivered.
In Pyongyang, Jun-sang could buy proper paper. He owned a ballpoint pen. His letters ran on for pages, long and eloquent. Their correspondence gradually evolved from stilted formalities to full-blown romance. He quoted to her from the novels he read. He wrote love poems.
Jun-sang’s experiences in Pyongyang gave Mi-ran a glimpse into a remote world of privilege. At the same time, it was hard to listen without a trace of jealousy. She was in her final year of high school and she feared it would be the end of her education. Jun-sang sensed her depression and probed more deeply until at last she told him how she felt. ‘Things can change,’ Jun-sang wrote to her. ‘If you want more in life, you must believe in yourself and you can achieve your dreams.’
Mi-ran would later credit Jun-sang’s words of encouragement with changing her life. Once a good student, she had let her grades drop. She hit the books. If she didn’t make it to college, she wouldn’t have herself to blame.
To Mi-ran’s great surprise, she was accepted into a teachers’ college. In autumn 1991 she moved out of her parents’ house and into the college dormitory. But as winter temperatures plunged Chongjin into a deep freeze, she realised why it was that the school had been able to give her a place. The dormitories had no heating. Mi-ran went to sleep each night in her coat, heavy socks and mittens with a towel draped over her head. When she woke up, the towel would be crusted with frost from the moisture of her breath. In the bathroom, where the girls washed their menstrual rags (nobody had sanitary napkins), it was so cold that the rags would freeze solid within minutes of being hung up to dry.
By the time Mi-ran graduated, in 1994, she was eager to move back home with her parents, as food distribution in Chongjin had stopped entirely. She requested a teaching assignment close to home and was fortunate to be sent to a kindergarten near the mines where her father had worked. The kindergarten was housed in a single-storey concrete building surrounded by an iron fence with colourfully painted sunflowers that formed an archway over the entrance with the slogan we are happy. The classrooms were standard issue with matching father-and-son portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il presiding above the blackboard. There was a large bookcase with only a few books, barely legible because they had been photocopied long ago from the originals.
The village children were visibly poorer than their city counterparts, and came to school in a motley assortment of hand-me-downs, often swathed in many layers since there was little heating in the school. As Mi-ran helped them off with their outerwear, she peeled layer after layer until the tiny body inside was revealed. When she held their hands in her own, their baby fingers squeezed into fists as tiny as walnuts. These children, five and six-year-olds, looked to her no bigger than three and four-year-olds. Mi-ran wondered if some of the children were coming to school mainly for the free lunch the cafeteria served, a thin soup made of salt and dry leaves.
Still, she approached her new job with enthusiasm. To be a teacher, a member of the educated and respectable class, was a big step up for the daughter of a miner. She couldn’t wait to get up in the morning and put on the crisp white blouse that she kept pressed under her bed mat at night.
The school day started at 8am. Mi-ran put on her perkiest smile to greet the children as they filed into the classroom. As soon as she got them into their assigned seats, she brought out her accordion. All teachers were required to play the accordion – it was often called the ‘people’s instrument’ since it was portable enough to carry along on a day of voluntary hard labour in the fields. In the classroom teachers sang, ‘We Have Nothing to Envy in the World,’ which had a singsongy tune as familiar to North Korean children as ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’
Mi-ran soon noticed that things were getting worse. Each child was supposed to bring from home a bundle of firewood for the furnace in the school basement but many had trouble carrying it. Their big heads lolled on top of scrawny necks; their delicate ribcages protruded over waists so small that she could encircle them with her hands. Some of them were starting to swell in the stomach. Mi-ran also noticed that the children’s black hair was getting lighter, more copper-toned.
The school cafeteria had closed for lack of food. The students were instructed to bring a lunchbox from home, but many came empty-handed. When it was only one or two who didn’t have lunch, Mi-ran would take one spoon each from those with to give to those without. But soon the parents who sent lunch came in to complain. Mi-ran heard a rumour that the school might get some biscuits and powdered milk from a foreign humanitarian aid agency. A delegation was visiting another school in the area and the children with the best clothing were brought out, the road leading to the school repaired, the building and courtyards swept clean. But no foreign aid arrived. Instead, the teachers were given a small plot of land nearby on which they were ordered to grow corn. The corn was later scraped off the cob and boiled until it puffed up like popcorn. It was a snack to ease the children’s hunger pangs, but it didn’t provide enough calories to make a difference.
The teachers weren’t supposed to play favourites, but Mi-ran definitely had one. The girl was named Hye-ryung (Shining Benevolence), and even at the age of six she was the class beauty. She had the longest eyelashes Mi-ran had ever seen on a child and bright round eyes. In the beginning, she was a lively, attentive student. Now she was lethargic and sometimes fell asleep in class.
‘Wake up. Wake up,’ Mi-ran called out to her one day when she saw the girl slumped over her desk, her cheek pressed against the wooden desk. Mi-ran cupped her hands under the girl’s chin and held up her face. Her eyes had narrowed to slits sunken beneath swollen lids. She was unfocused. The hair spilling out around Mi-ran’s hands was brittle and unpleasant to the touch.
A few days later, the girl stopped coming to school. Since Mi-ran knew her family from the neighbourhood, she thought she should stop by the home to ask after her. But somehow she held back. She knew exactly what was wrong with Hye-ryung. She had no way of fixing it.
Too many others in her class were in the same situation. Always the same progression: first, the family wouldn’t be able to send the quota of firewood; then the lunch bag would disappear; then the child would stop participating in class and would sleep through recess; then, without explanation, the child would stop coming to school. Over three years, enrolment in the kindergarten dropped from 50 students to 15. What happened to those children? Mi-ran didn’t pry too deeply for fear of the answer she didn’t want to hear.
A decade later, when Mi-ran was a mother herself, this period of her life weighed like a stone on her conscience. She often felt sick over what she did and didn’t do to help her young students. How could she have eaten so well herself when they were starving? It is axiomatic that one death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic. So it was for Mi-ran. What she didn’t realise is that her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring. In time, Mi-ran would learn how to walk around a dead body on the street without taking much notice. She could pass a five-year-old on the verge of death without feeling obliged to help. If she wasn’t going to share her food with her favourite pupil, she certainly wasn’t going to help a perfect stranger.
It has been said that people reared in Communist countries cannot fend for themselves because they expect the government to take care of them. This was not true of many of the victims of the North Korean famine. People did not go passively to their deaths. When the public distribution system was cut off, they were forced to tap their deepest wells of creativity to feed themselves. They devised traps out of buckets and string to catch small animals in the field, draped nets over their balconies to snare sparrows. They stripped the sweet inner bark of pine trees to grind into a fine powder that could be used in place of flour. They pounded acorns into a gelatinous paste that could be moulded into cubes that practically melted in your mouth.
North Koreans learnt to swallow their pride and hold their noses. They picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals. Shipyard workers developed a technique by which they scraped the bottoms of the cargo holds where food had been stored, then spread the foul-smelling gunk on the pavement to dry so that they could collect from it tiny grains of uncooked rice and other edibles. On the beaches, people dug out shellfish from the sand and filled buckets with seaweed. When the authorities in 1995 erected fences along the beach (ostensibly to keep out spies, but more likely to prevent people from catching fish the state companies wanted to control), people went out to the unguarded cliffs over the sea and with long rakes tied together hoisted up seaweed.
Nobody told people what to do – the government didn’t want to admit to the extent of the food shortage – so they fended for themselves. All ingenuity was devoted to the gathering and production of food. Ultimately it was not enough.
Mi-ran’s father died in 1997 at the age of 68. In the months before his death, Tae-woo had spoken more lucidly than before about his family. He insisted that his only son memorise the names of their ancestors on the family register, a ledger in which Korean families record their heritage. He had been the only boy himself in the family and so his own son would carry on the family line.
There was another last wish that would be harder to fulfil. Tae-woo wanted his family in South Korea to be notified of his death. There was no postal service between North and South Korea and no telephone service. To contact relatives in South Korea seemed utterly impossible.
The following year Mi-ran’s sister So-hee came rushing into the house. She had just spoken with a friend who had admitted to travelling back and forth to China. He knew people there who could help them get in touch with their father’s family. Once you were inside China, he assured So-hee, you merely had to pick up a telephone to dial South Korea. Maybe they wanted to try?
Mi-ran and So-hee were suspicious at first. You could never trust anybody who wasn’t family. This was exactly the way that the secret police entrapped people. After a few days of deliberation, they decided the friend was sincere. He had relatives in China; he knew somebody with a truck who would drive them to the border, and a border policeman who could bribe the appropriate people to look the other way. It was decided that Mi-ran, So-hee, their brother and their mother would go to China to contact her father’s relatives in South Korea. They had no idea whether they could locate them, and they didn’t dare think about actually going to South Korea.
All the elements of the plan fell into place within a few weeks. Mi-ran had one urgent task in preparation for leaving. The night before their departure she took out a carefully wrapped bundle from her clothing cupboard. It contained every letter she had ever received from Jun-sang. The letters had to be destroyed. She ripped each one into tiny pieces before throwing them out. She didn’t want anybody to learn of the decade she and Jun-sang had spent obsessed with each other. After they were gone, they would be denounced as traitors. She didn’t want her guilt to rub off on Jun-sang. His life could go on as it had before. He could find himself a suitable wife, join the Workers’ Party, and spend the rest of his life in Pyongyang as a scientist. He’ll forgive me, she told herself. It’s in his best interest.
Mi-ran left the next morning on her bicycle, a small backpack slung over her shoulder. She casually waved goodbye to her mother and brother. The plan was for everyone to leave the house separately to avoid attracting attention. Later in the day, her mother would pop her head into a neighbour’s front door to mention she was off to help one of her married daughters with a baby for a week or two. That would buy them a little time before the police were notified that they were missing.
Mi-ran met up with the truck driver who took her to Musan, where Mi-ran’s father had been sent as a prison labourer after the Korean War. It was a ghost town now, its mines and factories closed. But beneath the lifeless exterior, the place was teeming with smugglers. The town is situated near one of the narrower stretches of the Tumen River and was developing into one of the hubs for illegal border crossings into China. It was a growth industry, perhaps the only one in North Korea. The truck driver specialised in bringing people without passports or travel permits to the border.
If anybody spotted the family, they wouldn’t have suspected that they were fleeing their home. They wore their best clothing underneath their everyday clothes, hoping not to look like pathetic North Koreans once they got to China. Their attire also supported their cover story – they were attending a family wedding in Musan. They carried only enough luggage for a weekend excursion. Stuffed inside were a few family photographs and dried seafood, fish, squid and crab, Chongjin’s gastronomic specialities. The food was intended not for their own consumption, but for bribes. There were two checkpoints along the 50-mile route to Musan. A few years earlier, they wouldn’t have dared drive to Musan without permits; but this was 1998 and you could buy almost anything with food.
Mi-ran was travelling alone. Her mother, brother and sister had gone earlier, per the arrangement. A guide escorted her out of Musan, down a dirt road that ran parallel to the river. When the road ended at a cornfield, he left her. He gestured to her to cross the field and keep walking in the direction of the river. ‘Just keep walking straight,’ he said.
By now Mi-ran’s body was trembling from fear and cold. Without light to guide her, it was difficult to just go straight. Where was the river anyway? Then she almost collided with a wall. It loomed high above her head and stretched as far in either direction as she could see. It was white concrete, like the wall around a jail or a military compound. As she edged her way along it with her hands, the wall got lower and lower until it was easy enough to climb over. She understood now. It was a retaining wall for the river embankment. She scrambled down to the water.
Autumn is the dry season in Korea so the river was especially low, reaching only her knees, but it was so cold that her legs turned numb. They felt like they were made of lead as her trainers filled with water. She was sinking into the silt. She lifted one leg, then the other. Step by step she inched forward, trying hard not to slip and topple into the water. Suddenly Mi-ran felt the water receding to her ankles. She pulled herself up to the riverbank and, sopping wet, looked around. She was in China, but she couldn’t see anything. There was nobody there. She was completely alone in the dark. Now she was truly panicked. She looked back behind her at North Korea. If she could find that road, she could walk back to Musan. From there she could catch a train to Chongjin and the next day she would be home. She would go back to her teaching job. Jun-sang would never know she had nearly run away. It would be as though none of this had ever happened.
As she contemplated her options, she heard a rustling in the trees. Then a man’s voice. ‘Nuna, nuna.’
Her brother was calling her, using the Korean word for ‘older sister’.
She reached out for his hand and was gone from North Korea for ever.
This is an edited extract from ‘Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea’ by Barbara Demick (Granta). To order for £12.99 plus £1.25 p&p, call Telegraph Books on 0844-871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
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