When North Korea Fell Out of the World

Can underground globalization bring real change?

For an impoverished country about the size of Pennsylvania, North Korea spends a lot of time in the headlines. That’s little wonder, given its strategic position at the intersection of the world’s biggest economies, its historic significance as the first and last battleground of the Cold War, and its spoiler role in the global nuclear nonproliferation regime. And yet, for all the media attention it receives, what are we shown, over and over, of this intractable, inscrutable nation? Kim Jong-il, secretive dictator of a hereditary Stalinist state; Pyongyang, Potemkin capital city of a few million with neither traffic during the day nor electricity at night; Yongbyon nuclear plant, the bane of three successive American presidents’ national security teams. 

The narrow boundaries of our knowledge have expanded radically with the publication of Los Angeles Times correspondent Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. As the reader quickly learns, there is nothing ordinary, never mind enviable, about the lives Demick painstakingly reconstructed from years interviewing North Koreans who escaped to South Korea. But Demick does everything in her powers to capture their ordinariness, their recognizable and mundane humanity. Elegantly structured and written, Nothing To Envy is a groundbreaking work of literary nonfiction.

Finally here are North Koreans who have no connection to the ruling Kim family and who have nothing to do with the controversial nuclear program. Demick’s North Koreans are not even from Pyongyang; she wisely focuses her story on six men and women from Chongjin, a grimy industrial port city of 500,000 on the eastern coast. They fall in and out of love; they marry and divorce. They study hard, work hard, succeed, and fail. They start businesses and struggle to make ends meet. They protect their families, love their country, and question their government. They flee their native land and want to go back. They are shocked when they see booming China and dynamic South Korea and yet retain an ambivalence about the wider world. Their ordinary experiences fill in the grand narrative of North Korea since the end of the Cold War and raise new questions about North Korea’s place in the world.

Nothing To Envy documents the lived experience of the lost decade when North Korea “fell out of the developed world.” In its early history, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was actually considered a success case in economic development. Through the 1960s and early ‘70s, the average North Korean did not in fact have much to envy in the lives of his compatriots in China or even South Korea. But the prosperity gap between the DPRK and its East Asian neighbors, even the Communist ones, quickly widened into a chasm. In the 1960s, the “Korean economic miracle” referred to the steel plants and electrified transport networks of the DPRK; by the 1980s, South Korea’s chaebol conglomerates, export juggernaut, and exponential GDP growth were the “miracle.” China’s Communist paramount leader Deng Xiaoping followed suit by launching bold market reforms in 1978, creating the economic Leviathan of our day. A decade later, Vietnam embarked on market reforms, too.

Meanwhile, a bold and misguided borrowing spree from capitalist countries left North Korea saddled with debt. By the mid-1980s, the DPRK lapsed into a state of sovereign bankruptcy from which it still has not emerged. Even as the winds of glasnost blew, Kim Il Sung stuck with an orthodox planned economy, now perilously dependent on politically motivated subsidies from the Soviet Union and, to a lesser extent, China. After the swift disintegration of the Soviet-led socialist trading bloc, aid to North Korea became a liability without geopolitical payoff, and Russia abruptly cut it off. Rather than adapt, the DPRK regime dug in and did its best to survive.

By 1996, North Korea was in the grip of one of the deadliest famines in modern times. Much of Demick’s book is devoted to chronicling the “vicious death cycle” that consumed what had been a “viable, if Spartan, economy.” A closed, secure, immobile, stratified, totalitarian country was transformed into a place of vagabond children stealing fruit and hunting frogs; middle-aged women haggling over cheap Chinese-made goods in black markets; college-educated women wading half-naked across the Tumen River to sell themselves into arranged marriages with Chinese farmers; family patriarchs wasting away as the food rations ran out, often going raving mad before a quiet, hideous death from starvation. Demick’s interviewees describe, firsthand, the harrowing toll of mass hunger on the basic institutions and infrastructure of North Korean life.

The ordinary people in Nothing To Envy survived their country’s precipitous demodernization by adopting family survival strategies. Demick calls it “a brutal triage” in which parents and grandparents starved first to try to save the young. More than once in Demick’s book, a dying grandparent passes on information about relatives in China or South Korea as the blueprint for escape. North Korea is often labeled an “atomistic” society, which is true in the sense that there is no civil society. But North Koreans are tightly bonded in family units, a powerful and enduring legacy of Korean Confucian culture.

Beyond reliance on family and insuppressible human resilience, North Koreans’ primary survival and adaptation strategy was, and is, China and a growing trickle of population movement across that porous 850-mile border. Among the many revelations of Nothing To Envy, one of the most startling is the extent to which North Korean exiles either travel back into the DPRK or otherwise maintain contacts inside the country. Primarily the purpose is to communicate with relatives. But there are also commercial opportunities for those who work the China border, from petty trade, to human smuggling, to joining the paid networks that help other exiles track down loved ones or send remittances. These mobile exiles bring with them not just goods and services, but tales of hope and hardship in China, Mongolia, Southeast Asia, South Korea, and beyond.

The scale of North Korean population movement has expanded dramatically in the past decade. Fewer than 1,000 North Koreans defected to the South in more than 50 years after the Korean War. During China’s Cultural Revolution, many ethnic Koreans fled China for the sanity and stability of the DPRK. But since 1998, hundreds of thousands have crossed the river into China, with a smaller number making it as far as Seoul.

New technologies intensify the impact of these population flows, in spite of North Korea’s isolation. The old North Korean propaganda system is intact: state-run newspapers; single-frequency radios and single-channel televisions; state broadcasts direct into every home in the country; no Internet access. But the total information monopoly has broken down. Demick’s subjects wire their radios to pick up Radio Free Asia and televisions to pick up “subversive” soap operas from South Korea. VCRs, DVDs, VCDs, laptops, CDs, and USB flash drives are increasingly commonplace, even outside Pyongyang. The Egyptian company Orascom established a cell phone network, Koryolink, last year that has steadily grown to include 100,000 subscribers, and Chinese cell phones can pick up signals well across the border.

To judge by Demick’s book, this underground globalization of their country is having an impact, and the North Koreans are very aware of it. They call themselves “frogs in a well,” alluding to a parable from third-century-BC Taoist philosopher Zhuangzi, in which a frog brags to a sea turtle about the glories of life in his dank, muddy well. After hearing from the sea turtle about the wonders of the vast oceans, the frog is devastated by the recognition of the limits of his world. The problem for all of us on the outside is: How to give North Koreans, ordinary and elite, not something merely to envy but instead a way back into modernity?

The answer is one that policy-makers from Washington to Seoul often overlook, fixated as they are on two stark options as they confront North Korea’s nuclear threat: either impose harsh sanctions or promise a “grand bargain” of complete normalization and massive financial assistance in return for denuclearization. Either put a stone slab on top of the well or propose to flood it, and then wonder why the frog-king doesn’t leap at the offer. The third way lies in between, through incremental engagements that draw North Koreans into the world—without contributing to their military capabilities. Universities, NGOs, corporations, U.N. agencies, and international financial institutions have untapped potential to build more constructive relationships with counterparts in the DPRK. And, as Demick’s book suggests, the North Korean exile community is a catalyst for transforming life back in the DPRK that shouldn’t be underestimated.

The country’s isolation has lasted too long. Nothing To Envy’s final paragraph on North Korea’s stasis could apply just as well to the underlying policy approach of the United States and its allies since the end of the Cold War.

For lack of chairs or benches, the people sit for hours on their haunches, along the sides of roads, in parks, in the market. They stare straight ahead as though they are waiting—for a tram, maybe, or a passing car? A friend or relative? Maybe they are waiting for nothing in particular, just waiting for something to change.

This June marks the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. How much longer is the world prepared to wait?