Defector Stories

North Korean defector accounts always make a gripping read. Steve Feldman reviews two standouts to get on your reading list.

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Book Review
The Aquariums of Pyongyang (2000), by Chol-hwan Kang and Pierre Rigoulot
Nothing to Envy:  Real Lives in North Korea (2009), by Barbara Demick


There are a lot of North Korean defectors’ accounts floating around these days. It’s become a bit of a cottage industry. There are books, lecture tours, even South Korean TV interview shows featuring North Korean women who (huge surprise) are all quite attractive. It’s both truly unfortunate and totally predictable that some defectors have been accused of embellishing or falsifying their accounts in order to create a more dramatic and hence more lucrative sob story for the TV cameras, publishers, and U.N. subcommittees. Of course, Pyongyang would have you believe that ALL defectors are doing this, so it bothers me when Korean leftists seem a little too quick to seize on defector claims that have been shown to be all or partially bogus.  It reminds me of how conservatives bring up “welfare queen” stories during any discussion of poverty and racism in America. What are you really trying to say, man?

“Aquariums” starts with probably the worst family decision in the history of family decisions.

Of course, any journalist dealing with defectors should exercise proper skepticism and due diligence and try as much as possible to verify stories (which can range from extremely difficult to totally impossible). However, it’s long been clear that these defectors’ tales link up, reference and corroborate each other, creating an undeniable picture of fear, starvation, brutality, and repression. Two such books are The Aquariums of Pyongyang and Nothing to Envy, which remain as arguably the two best defector books that you can read.

Aquariums starts with probably the worst family decision in the history of family decisions. Kang, whose family story makes up the entirety of the book, was actually born in Japan and part of a prosperous zainichi Korean family. The grandmother became a devoted communist, and convinced the grandfather to move the whole family back to North Korea, believing that it was their patriotic duty. To be fair, the regime misled at best, and completely lied at worst, regarding how these Korean-Japanese would be treated and how much of their wealth they would be allowed to keep, which turned out to be approximately zero. The harshness of everyday life, the lack of freedom, and what soon became brutal discrimination due to their Japanese background crushed the spirits of the grandparents, who realized before long that they had brought their family to total ruination.

Much of the book is an account of life inside the Yodok concentration camp, where the whole family was sent due to the ideological crimes of the grandfather. Vivid depictions of torture, public executions, disease and starvation abound. Eventually, after the grandfather’s death, the family was released, and Kang was eventually able to escape to China and come to South Korea, free to tell one of the first detailed accounts of life inside the notorious prison camps of the North.

Nothing to Envy is different from Aquariums in that it follows the lives of six separate defectors, who all tell their stories mostly in their own voices, with occasional commentary from the author Barbara Demick, a former L.A. Times reporter. These six were not members of Pyongyang’s elite, but all former residents of the smaller city of Chongjin, a place Demick decided to focus on for this project as she felt these defectors’ lives would be more representative of the average North Korean.

While the stories about the repression and misery that forced them to flee are certainly compelling, what stands out are the quiet moments of beauty, human connection and compassion. One vivid scene involves Mi-ran and Jun-sang, a young couple who find that the pitch blackness of the electricity-less North Korean night perfect for rendezvous beyond the watchful eyes of parents as well as the authorities. Moments like this call to mind flowers springing up between the cracks in the pavement of empty parking lots for abandoned strip malls—hope amidst the bleakness.

As far as bleakness, nothing tops the story of Dr. Jong, a female doctor who finally flees at the height of the mid 90s famine after watching scores of people starve to death and facing starvation herself (when, it bears reminding, that the government was spending millions, if not billions, of dollars and their nascent nuclear weapons program). Reaching China, one of her first encounters with people on the other side of the Yalu comes when she comes upon a house with a dog chained up in the yard. Staring into the dog’s food bowl, she sees scraps of meat—and realizes the shattering truth that a dog in China is fed better than a doctor in North Korea.

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