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Monday, 1 July 2013
This book gives biographical account of the lives of five defectors from North Korea. It is ethnographical and does not contain much in the way of facts and figures regarding the regime. It is necessarily a biased viewpoint as there have only been a very small number of defectors and so it is hard to be sure that those profiled are necessarily representative of the people who have remained.

The book does show how the regime began to collapse after the end of communism in Eastern Europe and it is from this point that the standard of living in North Korea began to plummet. By the mid 1990s the economic system almost completely collapsed and the country began to endure widespread famine. The individuals in the book find themselves foraging for weeds to cook or engaging in petty theft to survive. The collapse of the economic system sees their skills (doctors and teachers) being no longer used as schools close and medicines run out. That seems to be a common theme as people’s skill remain unused, factors are scrapped, cinemas and hospital close. All that seems to work are the military and secret police. And the result is a huge loss of life (perhaps 10% of the population) and waste of potential.

The system manages to keep going as the people are starved of information about the outside world, and many seem to believe it is a paradise. Moreover Korea’s pre-communist culture is heavily tied in with families and those who betray the regime stain the family name, ensuring their children and grandchildren are punished. This means that defections are rare, and the huge informal spying network acts to ensure no-one criticise the leadership. It feels very much like George Orwell’s 1984.

The sheer level of terror means that the book is unable to speculate on whether everyone really believes in the regime or if they are just pretending. It seems even those who do defect, at the risk of imprisonment to death, still have some hope that North Korea really is a lie and the outside world is much worse.

It seems to be written from a female point of view. Males are assigned workgroups and jobs, these are often no longer paying and so are relatively worthless unless they are used to accept bribes. However women are allowed to engage in small scale enterprises - cooking, selling or prostitution, forging activities and as wives to those across the border in China. This means women have more opportunities for very limited self advancement and are better able to escape.

The book seems to have few positive notes to it, although it does seem that mobile phones are starting to penetrate into North Korea and radio and television can also project into the country. However it does not make any projects when and if the regime will collapse. It seems the famines of the 1990s are gone as food aid has poured into the country.