On the recommendation of last year’s National Book Award winner Katherine Boo, this past week I picked up a copy of Barbara Demick’s remarkable work of narrative non-fiction — Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. I have always been somewhat fascinated by North Korea — how has a country of more than 20 million people remained so entirely cut off from the rest of the world for so long? In our digital age, where it’s not uncommon to see a Cornell student’s library desk covered with books, magazines, an iPhone, iPad, and Macbook all at the same time, North Korea has remained a country almost entirely isolated, with little unscreened information moving in or out.
Demick’s work follows the lives of six North Korean defectors living in South Korea and peppers in her own background knowledge garnered during years covering the peninsula for The Los Angeles Times. She writes the book largely like a novel, allowing the reader to follow her characters, understand their passions, live through the ups and downs of their romances and friendships and struggle maintaining a life during the country’s horrible famine in the ’90s. We follow Mi-San and Jun-sang through their secret romance that endures for almost a decade without so much as a kiss on the lips. Oak-hee leaves an abusive husband, venturing to China where she is caught and sent to a prison camp. She eventually leaves, finds work in China and then South Korea and even helps her mother escape. The characters’ rich plights in part come from the way they form in spite of the censors and government mandates that try so hard to write their citizens life stories.The book briefly mentions, though, an interesting factoid that particularly sparked my interest. As it turns out, the late Kim Jong-il, despite his seeming penchant for oppression and distaste for modern culture, fancied himself quite the film buff. In 1973, the young dictator-in-waiting Kim Jong-il authored On the Art of Cinema, a book on his vision for a socialist film industry, oxymoronic though it may seem. The book is complete nonsense, pages about how to use film to spread juche, the North Korean state-religion that venerates Kim il-Sung, Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un as divine, communism as the key to prosperity and individualism as a scourge on the Workers’ Party. Much like economics and human rights, though, the art of film was entirely foreign to Kim Jong-il. The North Korean film industry never really took off, the biennial Pyongyang Film Festival that began in 1987 never showed anything more than innocuous domestic propaganda and censored foreign fluff, though one of the nation’s films, The Schoolgirl’s Diary was released in France. In an attempt to create what he saw as an inchoate North Korean film industry, Kim Jong-il kidnapped legendary South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his former wife, actress Choi Eun-hee in 1978. Shin Sang-ok had been shut down by then South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee and was working in Hong Kong at the time of his kidnapping. In North Korea, Kim Jong-il, the son of the country’s then leader, and presumed successor, forced the two to make dozens of North Korean propaganda films, most notably Pulgasari, a Korean version of Godzilla that served as a metaphor for capitalism destroying the country. For eight years the two lived in relative luxury (the rest of the country was increasingly becoming incredibly poor during the ’80s) until they finally escaped at a film festival in Vienna. What’s remarkable about this juxtaposition is not only how horrifically repressive the idiosyncratic North Korean regime is — it’s absolutely terrifying that this family possesses nuclear launch codes — but what this story says about art. No matter what lengths propagandists and dictators go to to manufacture stories to their liking, ones that glorify the regime and hide the awful situation their country is in, the work they produce always ends up ridiculous. You can kidnap an esteemed filmmaker like Shin Sang-ok, but unless you give him the liberty to tell stories and produce art organically, everything he produces will end up being mindless dribble. On the other hand, despite the unthinkable oppression and suffering of Demick’s real life characters, there’s a certain beauty in their narratives. When they see a glimmer of hope during the most trying of times, our hearts race with theirs. When a family member passes away from starvation or is sent to a labor camp for a brief critical aside of the government, we mourn with them. Demick is a talented writer, but her brilliance lies in unlocking the compassion of her characters through language, not in creating it. This type of work, a pure journalistic endeavor, begs the question: are all artists simply journalists with different stylistic approaches? Sure, some may change characters names, alter situations, and often times throw in fantastical elements, but the reason a work of art, well, works, comes from its humanity, the way it offers its audience a separate point of view and facilitates empathy. The book’s subtitle, Ordinary Lives, encapsulates this truth beautifully.
Original Author: Adam Lerner