Monday, October 30, 2006
This is Paradise! Hyok Kang with Phillipe Grangereau
# Paperback: 176 pages
# Publisher: Little, Brown (7 Jul 2005)
# Language: English (translated by Shaun Whiteside)
# Classification: Autobiography/Non-fiction
North Korea, The Hermit Kingdom, is not exactly welcoming of foreigners and nor does it allow its people out, hence books about daily life in this small and very poor country are scarce, but in recent years owing to a number of defectors willing to tell their stories and publishers willing to give them a platform, there are now a few of North Korean memoirs on the market, but because none of their stories can be corroborated , these books probably don't meet the expected standard of reliability that one has come to expect from other biographies and memoirs (let's pretend we didn't have a James Frey, shall we?)
Hyok Kang was born in North Korea in 1986 and lived there until 1998 which is the year he and his family escaped to China. In this book he recounts the struggles of his family and friends to survive the cruel and hard life that was North Korea. To start with, his family, because they were among numerous North Koreans that were willing to be repatriated from Japan,were favoured by Kim Il-Sung, but when the famine set in 1993, they gradually lost all the wealth they acquired and were reduced to begging (and sometimes stealing) just in order to live.
Famine does terrible things to people. It turns reasonable people into selfish, indifferent people with no conscience "...the misfortune of others, even your own family, leaves you completely indifferent when you have nothing in your belly. Your stomach becomes a thousand times more important than your conscience" For a long time the reader will be haunted by images of people willing to do anything for something to eat, even if it meant prostituting themselves, stealing or maiming others; cannibalism and killing someone to get a meal was not unheard of.
What I find distressing is that the isolated North Korean people are made to believe that despite the food shortages, they have it better than the "Southern Puppets" (South Korea) and the "long-nose imperialists, (USA). Due to intense propaganda and consistent brainwashing, the people genuinely believe that This (North Korea) is Paradise!
When, owing to a disagreement at work, Hyok Kang's father decides to escape to China, he realizes that unlike what they believed, the people in China actually had food to eat and clean clothes to wear and he makes up his mind to take the whole family across the border. Things in China are definitely better than up north, but they are constantly looking over their shoulder and having to change schools and houses for fear of being picked up by the Chinese police and repatriated to North Korea where death for treason is a certain fate.
This book is not for everybody. The content is disturbing,difficult and dark, but very compelling. In my case, it shocked me out of my complacency and has made me want to volunteer with "Host a Newcomer" program here in Canada,so just for that I am going to have to give this book a high rating.
Out of respect for my more sensitive blogger friends, I have deliberately refrained from discussing some of the human right violations that go on in North Korea, however, for the purpose of reference I will be making study notes which I shall post on my LotusReadsBeta blog a few days from today.
For more reading on North Korea try:
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K. Martin (non-fiction)
North Korea Through the Looking Glass by Kongdan Oh and Ralph C. Hessig
Kim II Sung: North Korean Leader by Dae-Sook Suh
Literature from the Axis of Evil and Other Enemy Nations by Alan Mason
The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan, Pierre Rigoulot, Yair Reiner
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (An Illustrated Memoir)
Would welcome any new suggestions.