Nothing to Envy

I’m finishing up Nothing to Envy, a book about North Korea told from the perspective of a variety of defectors. I must admit I hadn’t realized how truly horrific it was, especially starting in the late 90s when as many as 2 million people starved to death while trying to live on tree bark, corn cobs, and weeds.

Defection had long been near-zero, thanks to unthinkably harsh punishments and tight government control of the media. It finally took hold, though, when people had nothing to lose: they had no living relatives left to be punished if they defected, and they would certainly die if they stayed.

There are so many amazing excerpts, but here are two. The first about a defector arriving in China:

Dr. Kim staggered up the riverbank. Her legs were numb, encased in frozen trousers. She made her way through the woods until the first light of dawn illuminated the outskirts of a small village. She didn’t want to sit down and rest—she feared succumbing to hypothermia—but she knew she didn’t have the strength to go much farther. She would have to take a chance on the kindness of the local residents.

Dr. Kim looked down a dirt road that led to farmhouses. Most of them had walls around them with metal gates. She tried one; it turned out to be unlocked. She pushed it open and peered inside. On the ground she saw a small metal bowl with food. She looked closer—it was rice, white rice, mixed with scraps of meat. Dr. Kim couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a bowl of pure white rice. What was a bowl of rice doing there, just sitting out on the ground?

She figured it out just before she heard the dog’s bark.

Up until that moment, a part of her had hoped that China would be just as poor as North Korea. She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world. The beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime would be vindicated. But now she couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.

And here’s a defector arriving in South Korea:

She ventured out in search of a security official to approach. She practically collided with a very tall man whose badge and photo ID were at Mrs. Song’s eye level. She bowed low, as one does when beseeching an official, and spoke her rehearsed line.

“I have come from North Korea. I am requesting asylum here,” she said.

The man was a janitor. He looked startled, but he knew what to do.

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