graphic novel · memoir

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea- Guy Delisle

Another one down for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge! I’m pleased that I’ve been able to continue progress on my reading challenges, even in captivity. *grin* The prompt here was to read a graphic memoir, which is actually a genre I love, so pretty much everything on the list of suggestions looked good to me. But I’m always trying to keep my TBR at a manageable level (*nervous laughter* let’s not discuss that right now…), so I went through my want-to-read list on Goodreads and found Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly, 2003). I’d read and enjoyed Burma Chronicles by the same author (before mailing it off to a friend!), and I was fascinated to learn that he’d spent time in North Korea and had written another book about his experiences. Onto the list it went!

I had no idea before reading this that North Korea has an animation industry. At one point, it was apparently pretty bustling, although it seems to have slowed down a bit since then. But animator and graphic novelist Guy Delisle, who has a sense of adventure that I seem to be lacking, was invited to work there and jumped at the offer. Upon arrival, he confronts a bizarre country where everyone spouts the party line, shortages of everything are commonplace, pictures of the leaders plaster nearly every surface, and he’s rarely left alone.

North Korea really is the upside-down, even by 2020 bizarro-world standards, even in the capital city of Pyongyang which is meant to be shown off to foreigners. Mr. Delisle’s stripped-down illustration style lends well to the bleakness of the regime and the stark realities of life in a country where an admission of doubt of the President’s nearly supernatural status can get a resident killed, or thrown into a reeducation camp for life. Even the restaurants seem to fall well short of basic health and cleanliness standards, and the museums and ‘tourist’ destination he’s taken to are nothing more than state-created propaganda tools designed to further the myth of North Korean greatness and world domination. The entire experience is bizarre and creepy and leaves the reader with a both a sense of relief to know that Mr. Delisle survived his time in country and a deep feeling of sadness that what he showcased in this graphic memoir is the best it gets there.

I don’t know that this is the best Delisle book to start with. I got a better sense of who he is as a person in Burma Chronicles and I don’t think I would have necessarily been inspired to read more from him if this is where I started. Part of that is because of the stark nature of the subject, I think; a sojourn in such an oppressive regime doesn’t necessarily lend for warm and fuzzy feelings about much of anything. I’d start with another one of his books first. Nor do I think this is a great place to start if you’re looking to learn anything about North Korea. Pyongyang is their show city, and although it comes off as a run-down communist-era Soviet nightmare, it’s still far beyond anything else the country has to offer in terms of, say, their citizens not dying in the streets of starvation and lack of medical care. If you’re looking to learn more about the hideous wasteland that North Korea truly is, start with some personal memoirs of escapees, such as In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park or The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, or for a more journalistic account that covers both the history and the horrors of the country, I highly recommend Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

What Guy Delisle does offer here, though, is a fascinating perspective on a foreigner’s view of North Korea’s capital city. In the memoirs I’ve read, escapees have talked about the absolute splendor and privilege of a visit to Pyongyang, and to them, this city absolutely was the pinnacle of creation, leagues above and beyond what their daily lives offered. But to an outsider, it’s run-down, lacking in basics such as electricity and teeming with North Koreans doing forced ‘volunteer’ work. It’s absolutely worth your time if North Korea is a subject that fascinates you; it s a perspective that my reading has been lacking and I’m glad to have been able to ‘see’ Pyongyang from a non-North Korean’s viewpoint.

I’m in more than a bit in awe at Guy Delisle’s sense of adventure. Had I received the offer to work in or travel to North Korea, accepting wouldn’t even occur to me as a possibility. There’s no way I would ever feel comfortable traveling there, not as long as the country is in the state it is, with its leadership the way it is (*glances around, laughs nervously*). Its own citizens aren’t safe; I wouldn’t labor under the delusion that I’d be safe, either. But I’m grateful that Mr. Delisle has written and illustrated his experiences in this book. His story does beg the question of how his story would have differed had it been a woman traveling there for work, but it’s fascinating to see North Korea through an outsider’s eyes.

Visit Guy Delisle’s website here. (En fran├žais!)

Follow him on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom- Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers

I love nonfiction. I could read it exclusively (and kind of have in the past), although I realize that’s kind of outside the norm for book bloggers. I so enjoy learning and getting to expand my knowledge of the world, so I was excited to find a nonfiction pick as this month’s Library Book Reading Group selection. I’ve read two books about North Korea in the past (The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee with David John, and Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick; both excellent books and highly recommended, especially Nothing to Envy) and have found the subject alarming and deeply intriguing, so I’m really looking forward to the group discussion of In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers (Penguin Press, 2015).

Yeonmi Park lived a semi-privileged existence in North Korea, under the dictatorships of Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un. Despite rarely having electricity, having no running water, at different times having her parents imprisoned, having to forage in the forest for plants to eat in order to not starve and weighing only 60 pounds when she escaped, at the age of 13, with her mother in 2007, Yeonmi and her sister were better off than many of the North Korean children around them. As their living situation and the conditions in the country continued to deteriorate, the family began to realize their only hope of survival was escape. But in a country where even making a joke about the leader could lead to one’s execution, escape carried with it nearly as many risks as staying.

When Yeonmi and her mother flee across the river to China, they fall into the hands of human traffickers. They’re separated for some time, but through determination, some help along the way, and more than a bit of luck, they’re able to finally make it to the safe haven of South Korea, where the fight to finally build a life for themselves, find Yeonmi’s sister (who escaped just before them) and pull themselves free of the North Korean indoctrination presents yet another challenge.

Yeonmi’s story isn’t all that different than so many other defector’s stories. There are some serious moments of heartbreak here, including multiple accounts of rape and the death of family members, so take care to prepare yourself or choose another book if this isn’t the right time for you to read this. She explains in depth how much she and her fellow North Koreans had to numb themselves to the pain of others in order to survive and maintain the regime’s facade that theirs was a prosperous country with no problems; seeing piles of dead bodies in the streets, fellow citizens who had starved to death, was nothing out of the ordinary, and ignoring it was a matter of survival, mental, physical, and emotional. When you’ve been taught to care for nothing but your country’s leader, caring for your neighbor is a concept that doesn’t exist. A particularly harrowing quote:

‘The frozen babies that starving mothers abandoned in the alleys did not fit into my worldview, so I couldn’t process what I saw. It was normal to see bodies in trash heaps, bodies floating in the river, normal to just walk by and do nothing when a stranger cried for help.’

The propaganda fed to North Koreans is incredible. Yeonmi grew up believing Kim Jong-Il could read her mind and she would be punished for any bad thoughts about him. She and her classmates are taught to inform authorities on their parents and neighbors, and even their schoolwork is taught through a nationalistic lens of propaganda (“If you kill one Yankee bastard and your friend kills three, how many Yankee bastards have you killed?”). The flow of information is tightly controlled and Yeonmi’s family has almost no idea of how the rest of the world really lives- though the propaganda they’re fed tells them that North Korea is the most powerful nation on earth, and every other country is an utter nightmare to live in. It’s all doublespeak to the extreme, almost as if the leaders of the country were using 1984 as an instruction manual.

Her escape and journey to South Korea is harrowing and disturbing, especially considering how young she was at the time. I’ve read that it’s very difficult for defectors to build new lives, even with financial support of the South Korean government, for diverse reasons but mainly due to things like PTSD, lack of education and difficulty catching up, and difficulty learning to live in a society so radically different from the one in which they were raised (and one they were propagandized against). I can’t imagine the struggle, and it’s amazing that anyone comes out the other side and manages any kind of a life at all. So much pain, so much loss, so much left behind.

My book group discussion isn’t until the middle of this month, but I’ve got four pages (back and front) of notes I can go over in order to keep things fresh in my memory. Ms. Park apparently lives in the US now, is married, and is continuing her human rights work. She’s also a huge reader (it’s really the best club to be a part of, isn’t it???), which thrills me and fills my heart with such pride for her and all her many accomplishments. That she could survive such a brutal regime and use her life to shine a light on the egregious human rights’ violations ongoing in North Korea, while still working hard to improve herself every day, is inspiring. What an amazing story.

Visit Yeonmi Park’s website here.

Watch her TED talk here. (Highly recommended!)

Follow her on Twitter here.


The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story- Hyeonseo Lee with David John

In the comments of my review of Barbara Demick’s Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Susan from Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books recommended The Girl With Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story by Hyeonseo Lee with David John, and I was thrilled to see that my library had a copy (I seriously love my library, if you couldn’t tell. Their book collection is phenomenal). And so as soon as my stack of books began dwindling, I grabbed a copy of this book.

Hyeonseo Lee was born in North Korea to a family of good songbun, meaning their status was decently high. Their lives weren’t terrible compared to their fellow countrymen scrounging for food and dying in the streets, but as Hyeonseo grew, the cracks in the system became visible, and the country she’d always been told was the greatest country on the face of this earth began to seem…maybe not quite that great at all. But surely the things she viewed on illegal South Korean movies and Chinese television can’t be real, right? So many cars, all those buildings with flashing neon signs, fancy clothing…all that is just propaganda, right? Life can’t be that good anywhere.

Just before she turns 18, Hyeonseo, wanting to do something adventurous for once in her life, decides to slip across the border (which she can see from her house), to visit family in China. But once she arrives, her mother and brother pay the price for her recklessness, and Hyeonseo can no longer return home. Thus begins her saga of living illegally in China, reinventing herself over and over as only one without a country must. Life on her own is a struggle, always worrying about those she left behind, and far too many people want to create a new kind of prison for her. After years of hard work and constant fear of deportation, Hyeonseo finally makes it to freedom in South Korea, where life becomes both better and more difficult. And there’s still the question of her family in North Korea. Don’t they deserve the kind of freedom she has, too?

Ms. Lee’s story expands on Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, showing the dangers North Koreans face when they leave the only home they’ve ever known. She points out that for people who escape because of starvation and fear of death, the transition to freedom comes little easier, since there’s nowhere to go but up; for people like her mother and brother, who led a relatively comfortable existence, a free life in Seoul, where everything must be earned via a job (for which they are entirely unqualified, having been educated solely with North Korean propaganda), can be painful and confusing. Her story, and ultimately those of her mother and brother, are success stories, but how many are not?

This is a story of courage, strength, and indefatigable determination. Ms. Lee’s description of homesickness is heartbreaking; even when a place is terrible and hurts so many people, it’s still home, and knowing that you can never return home is a unique kind of pain. My heart aches for her and for the thousands upon thousands of North Koreans for whom home is only a memory and never again a destination.

Far from satisfying my curiosity about North Korea, Ms. Lee’s story has only piqued it further. While Nothing to Envy told more about those who suffered deeply under the Kim family, The Girl With Seven Names explains what life was like for those who had it easier. I’d love to read a memoir by a defector who escaped due to dire circumstances, to understand exactly what their path to building a life in the outside world looks like. Goodreads has several lists of books on North Korea; the longest has 105 books, so it looks like I’ll definitely have a few options.

Visit Hyeonseo Lee’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.


Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea- Barbara Demick

How jarring is Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick? When I finished it, I set it down and turned over in my oversized chair to doze for a bit on this cold, gray, snowy day. I jolted myself awake just before a snowplow dropped in front of my house…because I’d been dreaming about North Korea.

Truly, I’d had no idea of the horrors citizens of North Korea live with every day of their lives. I’d heard the news reports calling North Korea the perpetrators of the worst human rights violations in the world, and I knew there were problems with food shortages, but otherwise, I knew very little about the country itself, and that was what moved me to pick up this deeply unsettling book.

North Korea is more 1984 than 1984 itself. Ms. Demick’s writing paints a picture of a dystopian society where neighbor is encouraged (and sometimes paid by the government) to spy on neighbor, family on family. “By the accounts of defectors, there is at least one informer for every fifty people- more even than East Germany’s notorious Stasi..” she writes, a chilling look into a society where everyone must be glancing over their shoulders and no one lets even the slightest hint of doubt show.

Consequences for individualism and free speech are severe. A joke against the leader, overheard by the wrong person, led to one man being imprisoned for life. Writing the wrong thing in her own diary earned another woman a similar life sentence. Selling rice was an automatic prison sentence; selling DVDs led to several people’s executions. Even earning money for performing any service was at one point considered a crime. But even more brutal than these sentences were the descriptions of starvation.

Even in the best of times, North Korea is only able to produce about 60% of what it needs to survive, and after fuel shortages forced the factories to shut down, even the twice-a-day-for-an-hour-each bouts of electricity and water ended. Workers stopped being paid (although some were still expected to show up at their jobs), no one had any money, and the rations of food handed out by the government- the only source of food other than not-quite-legal gardens and definitely-illegal-black-market-food- trickled to a halt. The population began starving to death. At best estimates, between 600,000-2 million people died due to lack of food, and up to half of all children who survived show signs of stunted growth due to the extreme malnutrition they suffered. Citizens began eating grass and weeds, picking pieces of undigested corn out of animal feces they found on the road, and in 1997, the government began executing people who stole food or who stole materials they could sell in order to purchase food. The hospitals, which lacked heat or food, admitted ill people, but eventually patients stopped coming. Why bother, when the doctors could do nothing for them?

Ms. Demick tells the story of North Korean brutality through the stories of several people who eventually ended up defecting, which isn’t as common as I would have thought- but now that I have a clearer picture of just how merciless the regime truly is, I understand both why escaping would be so daunting, and why so many might not want to escape. The propaganda is endless, woven into every aspect of life in the country, right down to children’s math problems about killing American and Japanese soldiers. Knowing that your neighbors are listening in on your every word, even thinking the wrong thought probably feels terrifying.

This is a deeply heartbreaking book, but I don’t regret reading it at all, and if anything, I regret that I hadn’t read it sooner. If you know little about the country other than the alarming nuclear threats that pop up in the news from time to time, I highly recommend Nothing to Envy. This is a book that will stick with me.

Visit the book’s website.

Follow Barbara Demick on Twitter.