Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Book Review: Nothing to Envy
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick
This is a study of the people of North Korea during the famine of the 1990's. In other words, a peek into the mindset of the most closed society in the world, combined with the psychology of starvation.
North Koreans are indoctrinated from birth to believe that their political leader Kim Il sung was a god, whose birth on a mountain under a double rainbow was announced by a swallow, and who rules in spirit for eternity. His son - the son of a god, obviously - Kim Jong Il , represented him on earth until his own recent death. It sounds silly to us, and of course it is, but then many Americans believe that a talking snake convinced the world's first woman to eat a magic apple.
North Koreans are also taught - and forced - to depend on their socialist government for everything, from shelter to food. Hunger drove them to defy the ruling elite and become self-reliant and resourceful. In effect, they reinvented the free-market economy. Not even one of the most intrusive governments on earth could repress the black market once people were reduced to eating grass.
So, how do people behave as the infrastructure of their society collapses? Hint: you are most likely to survive if you are chubby, selfish, young, female, and willing to lie and steal. The young, the old and the men perished, in roughly that order. When it got down to women, the sharing, the honest and the slender starved first.
Some of the lessons they learned the hard way may be valuable to us as our own government inexorably approaches defaults on its welfare programs.
When the electricity goes out for good and fuel becomes unavailable, it's better to live in the country than the city, the warmer south rather than the colder north, the coast rather than inland.
The most valuable commodity becomes food, of course. Clothes, books, firewood, medicines, and wheels for making carts are also much sought after.
Foraging for wild edibles becomes an essential skill. Small animals not normally considered food are trapped to geographical extinction. Thieves, gangs and street urchins must be guarded against. If one can't remain below the government's radar, then authorities must be deceived, eluded or bribed. Gardens are planted anywhere space can be made. Human excrement becomes the main fertilizer once animals and synthetics are unavailable.