Having lived in Seoul, South Korea for a year, the North Korean lifestyle has become an area of fascination for me. The totalitarian North and capitalistic South have been in an armistice since 1953. Much has changed in both halves of the country since the Korean War fighting eased. 65 years have passed and North Koreans have witnessed the mortality of its leaders. But how are those living in this “failed Stalinist utopia” surviving? Andrei Lankov’s book, The Real North Korea, does an excellent job documenting the lives of North Korean deserters before they fled their homeland.
The book shares the stories of several North Koreans who have since found asylum in the South. Lankov describes the struggles that these individuals from varying backgrounds and generations went through. These stories depict what life was truly like for the average North Korean, both pre and post-Soviet era. Most, if not all, North Koreas aspired to join the Workers’ Party of Korea. However, with a strict and highly immobile class structure, North Koreans more often found themselves trying to avoid imprisonment than obtaining upward mobility. Your social class is well documented and is inherited making it extremely unlikely for a non-party member to gain access. The deification of North Korea’s leader, Kim Il-sung helped allow the government to better manage these social hierarchies, at least while the Soviet Union still existed.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, North Korea had less access to subsidized goods, which helped to prop up its Communist infrastructure. Salaries eventually disappeared while food rations continued to dwindle. The death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 and the famine that persisted throughout the mid-90s only added to the hardships experienced by the North Korean people. Black-markets immerged across the country to help support peoples’ salaries and food needs. Disillusionment was an increasing concern for the government, especially once its citizens began to transport goods across the Chinese border.
Once someone became disillusioned, they feared sharing their feelings with others. North Korea had an elaborate system of spies and social advisors who monitored the local populations for deviation from the party line. Loyalty rested with the State, not with family or social ties, and one is expected to report any anti-party tendencies to the authorities immediately.
While Lankov does a good job sharing the stories of North Korea defectors, I wish he would have further discussed the transition from being a North Korean citizen to a South Korean refugee. He briefly mentions the process near the end of his book, but I would be interested in learning more about that early transition. Having been indoctrinated for so many years, what was it like for these defectors to transition from self-preservation to a consumer-driven, fast-paced society?
Overall, I give this book a 4 out of 5. If you are interested in Korea, the Cold War, or Geopolitical studies, then I would highly recommend this book. The average reader may not be as engaged as I was, but it was definitely an insightful read. If you are a slow reader, like me…, this book is also available on Audible.com.
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