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A Little Disjointed, but Fascinating Overall,
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This review is from: This is Paradise! (Paperback)
I probably would have prefered a more biographical chronology since the book jumped around a bit, covering issues and experiences more topically than chronologically at least in the first half of the book. But it wasn't that much of a drawback. Not as strong as "Aquariums of Pyonyang" or "Nothing to Envy," this book nonetheless deserves its place in the growing library of survivor's literature on North Korea.
The horrors of daily life under the psychotic Kim dynasty comes to life in this volume. The authors did a good job bringing out detail and experience from a young subject, a North Korean refugee who was probably barely in his teens at the time the book was compiled. One certainly comes away with a very clear picture of the depressing reality of daily life, if one can call existence there a life.
Particularly stark are the stories of survival and what it takes just to keep from starving to death in a country that seems to have plenty of money to spend on its military and on nuclear weapons, but not enough resources to feed its own people. It's depressing to see in the book just how animalistic people become in a situation of famine like this, transforming as the authors show into selfishness and concern only for one's own survival in just eeking out enough calories to stay barely alive. This manifests itself to the extreme of parents abandoning children so they can keep themselves alive. Far from judging these poor souls, I found myself questions how I would act in a similar situation.
The book also presents evidence of the craven, wholesale theft of foreign food aid by North Korean party hacks. It also shows how inspectors are regularly fooled by the North Korean regime as they roam the country to verify food is getting where it should be going--and how the food is instantly removed out of the peoples' hands as soon as the inspectors leave.
Several other interesting tidbits emerge that have not been presented in other defector's tales on North Korea, including the fact that North Korean guards patrolling the Sino-North Korean border do not have live rounds in their guns at the demand of the Chinese government. This after North Korea soliders made raids into China for food that resulted in the shooting deaths of Chinese citizens. I haven't before read this in other books on North Korea. Also, the extent to which the famine has impacted the North Korean Army is presented here as well, something barely hinted at in other books I've read.
The strongest and most engrossing part of the book is the last half with the story of the young boy's family's escape to China. This is a truly harrowing account of desperation and will to survive, including the terrifying imprisonment of the father of the family by North Korean police due to an earlier foray into China for food. The young boy's long and dangerous journey out of China through Southeast Asia with a cousin, leaving his family behind in Manchuria, to try to obtain refuge in South Korea is also intriguing.
Much like other books I've read on the subject, this book validates the tremendous problem of refugee assimilation into South Korea. The South Koreans do a good job getting the hapless North Koreans out of danger and into South Korea. But they do a lousy job of helping them fit in. The South Korean government definitely needs to work with their people on being more tolerant and accepting of their long-suffering Korean siblings who make it to their shores.
While I would have preferred a more biographical structure than the somewhat disjointed first half of the book, it was nevertheless a very insightful book that was hard to put down. Definitely finds its place among the other books on life in North Korea that are increasingly being published.