Friday, November 11, 2011

Book Recommendation: "This is Paradise!"

Since my first go-round in South Korea, North Korea has become one of my pet interests.  The latest book I read on the subject is one of the few books written by a refugee (with the assistance of a French[?] journalist).  The writing itself is pretty simple and dry; it would be a boring book if it weren't about a first-hand look into what living in North Korea is like.

There's two scenes that I think are pretty telling.


As a student, the narrator had to fulfill quotas of fecal matter to be used in the communal fields as fertilizer.  He and his friends would go around town emptying out outhouses and collecting animal droppings.   Some other people managed to have gardens, though, and would get fiercely protective over their manure.  At one point he almost came to blows with a neighbor over a frozen dog turd.

A fistfight over dog shit.  Over who gets to keep the dog shit.


The other story is less surreal and just plain horrifying. The narrator's father escaped into China, found out you could actually make money and eat and not starve to death, and decided his family needed to get out. Patrol guards caught him as he escaped back into North Korea and threw him into prison.  The prison experience itself was horrendous, but that's not the real story. (Though fortunately the father survived and eventually brought the whole family to South Korea, happy ending!)

As Jong-min put it, "It's a North Korean gulag, not a day spa."  The prisoners were often beaten before being thrown in a cell with eighteen or nineteen other people.  One day, this guy gets thrown in their cell who looks especially like hell.  He had obviously gotten a special round of body blows.  The other prisoners noticed and asked him why.  At first he was really reticent about it.  "I stole some meat." No one buys that, of course.  Eventually the truth comes out.

The man's wife had gone off to look for food, so he was home alone with their young daughter.  They were both starving more or less to death, like everyone in North Korea who isn't a top party cadre.  The girl was so hungry she started crying and asking about food.  The man, irritated, knocked her back.  She fell and cracked her head pretty hard, eyes rolled back and mouth foaming and all of that stuff.

She would either not survive, or would survive with all kinds of brain damage.  So he picked up a hatchet and cracked her a good one on the back of the head.  Then he cooked her up and ate her.

Again: he killed and ate his own daughter.  That is how hungry he was.  That's the kind of hunger that's ongoing in North Korea.

It's a book worth reading, for sure.  It's also a pretty quick read and you'll burn through it in just a day or two.

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