Tag Archives: history

Book review: ‘Nothing to Envy | Ordinary Lives in North Korea’

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Photo courtesy of Spiegel & Grau

Mi-ran and Jun-sang had known each other for 13 years and dated for nine. After three years, they began to cautiously hold hands under the cover of darkness once they’d walked a safe enough distance out of town. After six years, Jun-sang mustered up the courage to give Mi-ran an awkward kiss on the cheek, which she quickly rebuffed out of fear and shock.

When Mi-ran escaped with her family to South Korea, she couldn’t risk saying goodbye to Jun-sang. When he showed up one morning to find her family missing, he realized he’d been too late — too late to share with her the capitalist books he’d secretly been reading at university, the South Korean television signals he could faintly pick up at home and his hidden dream of running away with her to Seoul. She was already gone.

The two young lovers are the heart of Barbara Demick’s book, ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea,’ which profiles six North Korean defectors hailing from an industrial town in the northeastern part of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

‘Nothing to Envy’ is an enthralling read — a kind of novelization that follows its subjects through a fifteen-year period. From the death of Kim Il-sung to the horrific famine of the 1990s, ‘Nothing to Envy’ shows North Korea from the perspective of average citizens, far away from the carefully-constructed capital city Pyongyang and the state’s propaganda-filled press releases.

The book provides a quick but excellent background on how North Korea came to be what it is today. One of the book’s most memorable stories is the biography of Mi-ran’s father, which serves to explain her family’s low social status and “tainted blood.” A once popular and confident young man from a Southern farming area, Tae-woo was taken as a prisoner of war by the North and essentially trapped on the opposite side of the peninsula when a power struggle between the United States and Soviet Union resulted in the drawing of an arbitrary border across the map along the 38th parallel.

“Koreans were infuriated to be partitioned in the same way as the Germans. After all, they had not been aggressors in World War II, but victims. Koreans at the time described themselves with a self-deprecating expression, saying they were ‘shrimp among whales,’ crushed between the rivalries of the superpowers,” Demick writes.

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South Korea on the left and North Korea on the right, as seen from the Korean Demilitarized Zone. SCREAMfmLondon

‘Nothing to Envy’ follows its subjects as Kim Il-sung takes control of the DPRK with promises of an idyllic Communist state and, for the first few years, delivers on them. Then, readers see these people struggle to keep the faith after Kim Jong-il rises to power and the country’s economic crisis begins, resulting in the famine that ultimately killed around 3.5 million North Koreans.

Eventually, each of the subjects experiences a life-altering moment of final disillusionment which leads them to leave their country and, often, many loved ones, established careers and educations behind. For Jun-sang, the epiphany finally came when he was able to configure his television to pick up South Korean signals that told him news of the world and, for the first time, honest coverage of North Korea.

“Listening to South Korean television was like looking in the mirror for the first time in your life and realizing you were unattractive,” Demick writes. “North Koreans were always told theirs was the proudest country in the world, but the rest of the world considered it a pathetic, bankrupt regime.”

However, the defectors’ difficulties don’t end once they reach Seoul. The initial euphoria they experience often is short-lived, as they have to struggle to acclimate to modern society and start their lives over from scratch. Work experience and university degrees from the DPRK are useless, so the North Korean doctors and intellectuals we’ve gotten to know over the course of the book find themselves taking jobs as nannies and fast food delivery drivers.

‘Nothing to Envy’ concludes with an epilogue bringing the reader up-to-date with North Korea, briefly examining the first years of Kim Jong-un’s reign as Supreme Leader.

It’s an amazingly moving book, and it paints such a vivid picture of life inside North Korea for the past few decades. Not only is ‘Nothing to Envy’ a good primer on the Korean War and the politics surrounding it, but the personal stories within are so poignant they will stay with you long after reading.

The book’s conclusion is realistic and, therefore, inconclusive. The totalitarian regime in North Korea has already endured longer than anyone expected and continues to this day. Although many North Koreans manage to escape, so many are still living lives not unlike those depicted in the book — some are better off and some worse. And their stories are going untold.

‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’
Barbara Demick
Release Date: Sept. 21, 2010
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Politics
Pages: 336
Grade: A

Click here to read about my visit to the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone.

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery

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Trees in full bloom at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Every year, people wait for the perfect few days in April to head out to the best parks in Seoul for viewing blooming cherry trees. Yeouido and Jinhae are particularly popular spots for cherry blossom picnics and photoshoots, but Seoul National Cemetery in Dongjak-dong offers a less crowded, more peaceful alternative.

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Cherry blossoms signal the coming of spring weather in Seoul. SCREAMfmLondon

Seoul National Cemetery is known for its weeping cherry trees, which have flower-covered branches that hang low and swing in the wind. The elegant weeping cherry tree branches fit the tranquil mood of the cemetery.

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Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

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Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

The cemetery is reserved for Korean veterans, including those of the Korean independence movement, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Several former Korean presidents are also buried there. In addition to the cherry trees, there are photo exhibits and memorial monuments to appreciate.

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Although viewing cherry blossoms is so popular in modern-day South Korea, the country’s relationship with the national flower of Japan is actually kind of complicated. Because Yoshino cherry trees were planted on Korean palace grounds during the Japanese occupation of Korea, the continued cherry blossom festivals have been controversial. Some Koreans view the trees as symbols of the occupation, and many trees have been chopped down as a political statement.

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

Regardless of the contentious history of cherry blossoms in Korea, the beautiful and short-lived blossoms still attract huge crowds during the first few weeks of April. This weekend, the weather was warm, but the skies were gray — not with fog but with awful air pollution. Such is spring in 2016.

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Spring! SCREAMfmLondon

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Cherry blossoms at Seoul National Cemetery. SCREAMfmLondon

DMZ: Imjingak, Observatory and Unification Village

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Barbed wire fences lining the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone. SCREAMfmLondon

The Korean Demilitarized Zone is, in fact, the most heavily militarized border in the world. At the end of the Korean War, the DMZ was established to create a barrier (2.5 miles wide) between the Republic of Korea on the south side and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north.

Somehow, though, this area has become a kind of dark tourist attraction where you’ll spot carnival rides, fried food and smiling cartoons on the South Korean side, despite the fact that the countries are still — technically — at war. Just this August, there were two notable incidents at the DMZ: two South Korean soldiers were injured after stepping on landmines allegedly laid on the southern side of the DMZ, and at the end of the month, North and South Korea exchanged artillery fire in response to some disputed audio broadcasts that were being made via loudspeakers across the border.

Regardless, the DMZ remains a huge tourist attraction in South Korea. There are a number of places available for visits if you want to learn more about the relationship between the Koreas. Here is my guide to a few of these spots:

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The Korean DMZ. SCREAMfmLondon

Imjingak

Imjingak is a park located in the city of Paju, north of Seoul. It’s sometimes called Imjingak “resort,” and it’s a little disconcerting.

On one side of the village is a sizeable amusement park where people play on bumper cars and there is continuous pop music blasting from overhead. There are gift shops selling Korean souvenirs, and there are a wide variety of vendors selling delicious street food around every corner. There’s even a pretty thorough soybean museum detailing all the uses of the beans and offering samples. The whole feeling is like being at a state fair.

But the other side of the village is a stark contrast. Barbed wire fences surround the area where the Bridge of Freedom juts out into the distance. The bridge was formerly used by South Korean soldiers returning home from the North and is now decorated with brightly-colored ribbons that are memorials for lost family members or messages to those still living in North Korea. In front of the bridge is the Mangbaedan Alter, which was constructed so that people separated from their families or hometowns in the North could gather on traditional Korean holidays such as New Year’s Day and Chuseok.

Imjingak displays a very strange dichotomy: there are war memorials just outside the doors of a Tony Moly cosmetics store. It’s pretty somber until some laughing children run past you to get on the merry-go-round. But it’s also very hopeful. One of the most poignant spots at Imjingak is a wall of bricks, each representing a country that endured a civil war or other division but was eventually united again.

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South Korea on the left. North Korea on the right. SCREAMfmLondon

Mt. Ohdu Unification Observatory

The Unification Observatory is a five-story museum from which you can look out over the Han and Imjin Rivers and see North Korea up close.

From the roof, powerful binoculars allow you to see all the way from Seoul to Mount Kumgang in North Korea. As I was gazing out across the landscape, I watched a tiny figure riding a bike down a dirt road on the North Korean side. According to the employees at the observatory, most of the visible North Korean buildings are for propaganda purposes — meant to make the area just over the border look more prosperous than it is. I watched the little figure riding his bike for a long time, wondering who he was and what he was doing and if he was thinking about all of the eyes peering at him through binoculars from the other side of the river.

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A depiction of a typical North Korean home. SCREAMfmLondon

Inside, the museum offers a variety of information on North Korea and the DMZ. There are a lot of interesting North Korean artifacts and maps to help illustrate important locations such as the military demarcation line. Two grim dioramas depict typical rooms in a North Korean elementary school and a home. In the classroom, you can walk inside and peruse the books taught in North Korean schools. In both rooms, the portraits of North Korea’s former supreme leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, keep watch over the comings and goings.

In one part of the museum, visitors can leave messages urging for the reunification of the Koreas, and a mock-up of the Berlin Wall crumbling down serves as inspiration.

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A soybean feast in Tongilchon. SCREAMfmLondon

Tongilchon Unification Village

Tongilchon is a very small agricultural village near the DMZ. There are few buildings in the area save for the market where you can pick up Korean souvenirs (again), ginseng, liquor and soybean products. The village is centered on farming, and those living within this area are exempt from paying taxes and from Korea’s mandatory military service.

Tongilchon is located so near the Civilian Control Line that entrance to the village is strictly guarded. Military officers boarded our bus and checked everyone’s identification before letting us continue.

In Tongilchon, we stopped into a fantastic little restaurant to feast upon everything soybean. I have never had tofu so delicious, but everything at the Tongilchon feast was perfect.

The town is a very peaceful spot, and it’s a unique place to stop while exploring the infamous DMZ and its surrounding areas.

Guide to: Seolleung and Jeongneung tombs

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Royal tomb at Seonjeongneung. SCREAMfmLondon

There are 40 royal tombs honoring members of the Korean Joseon Dynasty throughout South Korea. The scenic tombs are scattered in about 18 different clusters — most of which are located near Seoul.

One such cluster, housing Seolleung and Jeongneung, is located in modern-day Gangnam. Seonjeongneung is the burial grounds of two Joseon Dynasty kings and one queen.

An entry fee of 1,000 KRW grants you access to the expansive, gorgeous park.

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The first structure you encounter at most royal tombs is the Jeongjagak shrine — the site where memorial services are held and offerings are presented.

Two paths called “chamro” lead up to the T-shaped shrine building. The sinro path is slightly elevated because this is the spirit road. You are not allowed to walk on the spirit road unless, of course, you are a spirit or a god of some sort. The eoro path runs parallel to the sinro — this is the path of the king, and this is the one you are supposed to take when visiting the tombs.

There are also two sets of separate staircases leading up to the shrine. The spirit stairs are larger and more ornately decorated with stone swirls along the sides. The king’s stairs are simply stacks of bricks (with a helpful little “you may step on” sign guiding the visitors’ way).

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Beyond the first Jeongjagak building at Seonjeongneung are the tombs of King Seongjong and Queen Jeonghyeon. King Seongjong is the ninth king of the Joseon Dynasty, and he ruled from 1469-1494.

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The tomb of King Seongjong. SCREAMfmLondon

Queen Jeonghyeon was his second wife who outlived him by 35 years. She is most notable for her interest in reviving Korean Buddhism. In 1498, she had the nearby Gyeonseongsa Temple refurbished and renamed as Bongeunsa.

The grave mounds are protected on three sides by walls and are flanked by great stone statues of scholars, soldiers, horses and other animals that watch over the tombs.

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Tomb guardians. SCREAMfmLondon

In addition to the tombs, the grounds offer a very beautiful chance to escape the bustle of Seoul to stroll through thickets of trees, see wild pheasants and fall down in the mud. Trust me: I did all three. The air smells fresh and woodsy, and there are apricots and grapes growing around every corner.

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Full disclosure: I fell down these stairs. SCREAMfmLondon

But, don’t worry; you’re not really, really in nature. I am such a sucker for that silvery city skyline visible just above the groves of red pine trees.

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View from the top. SCREAMfmLondon

On the other side of the site is the Jeongneung tomb — the burial ground of King Jungjong. He was the 11th king of the Joseon Dynasty and King Seongjong’s second son. King Jungjong is known for succeeding his tyrannical half-brother, Yeonsangun, to the throne after the latter was overthrown in a coup in 1506.

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Modern-day Gangnam encroaching upon the Joseon-era buildings. SCREAMfmLondon

Guide to: Bukchon Hanok Village

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Traditional Korean architecture in Bukchon Hanok Village. SCREAMfmLondon

Bukchon Hanok Village is one of those must-see spots in Seoul where the traditional (a village that has been preserved for about 600 years) is beautifully juxtaposed with the modern (the streets are jam-packed with tourists holding Instagram photoshoots 24/7).

The hanok village is located pretty centrally between Gyeongbok Palace and Changdeok Palace. The neighborhood was where high-ranking government officials and nobility lived during the Joseon Dynasty (a Korean kingdom that reigned from 1392-1897).

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It’s a bit like the Hollywood Hills of the Joseon Dynasty — especially with its ornately-decorated, exclusive exteriors and the steep, narrow and winding streets showing off an expansive view of the greenery and busy city life below. On the way up and scattered throughout are ritzy restaurants, clothing boutiques, art galleries and cafés. And in between the groupings of traditional houses are ultra-modern apartments that some poor souls currently pay a lot of money to live in, although it must be miserable having so many strange people milling around outside every time you’re trying to drive the car out of the garage.

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Kkoktu museum in Bukchon Hanok Village. SCREAMfmLondon

One of my favorite parts of Bukchon is the miniature kkoktu museum hidden inside one of the hanoks. Kkoktu are small, wooden funerary figures used to decorate funeral biers during the Joseon Dynasty. Basically, they are colorful little buddies that accompany your spirit on its journey to the afterlife.

Kkoktu come in a variety of styles and, together, form a complete little gang. Some are guides that ensure the spirit doesn’t get lost. Some are fierce guardians carrying weapons to fight off any evil spirits the group might encounter. Some are mother figures that provide comfort in case your spirit feels scared or sad about having left the mortal realm. And some are entertainers who play music or perform acrobatic tricks to keep the mood from getting too somber as the procession makes its way to the hereafter.

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Inside a hanok in Samcheong-dong. SCREAMfmLondon

The kkoktu museum itself is pretty tiny, but the figures (and the stories behind them) are so neat. The museum also offers the unique chance to walk around and check out the inside of a hanok. It’s a win-win. I love this place.

Everything in Samcheong-dong is pretty delightfully scenic, from the street artists to the architecture (both modern and historical, really). Nothing beats the view of those tiled roofs in front of great, silvery skyscrapers and the Namsan Tower in the distance. At Bukchon Hanok Village, you can do it all: drink some coffee, study some history, buy some expensive jewelry, photobomb some selfies.

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I thought about cropping out the random dude, but it gives a more accurate representation of the area to depict all the camera-flashing that goes on here. SCREAMfmLondon