In America, some teenagers have the leisure to build fantasy worlds, engage in considerable self-pity, drink, screw around etc.Share
Then there are teenagers who have to live in North Korea.
Okay, that’s a low blow. It’s unfair to compare two books which have such different purposes as Amy Zhang’s This Is Where The World Ends and Yeonmi Park’s memoir In Order to Live. Still, reading them one after the other did give me the odd ironic jolt. Far be it from me to belittle the angst of American teenagers, but the phrase “First World Problems” did keep surfacing in my mind when I considered Amy Zhang’s effort.
Briefly, In Order to Live is Yeonmi Park’s account of growing up as a child in North Korea, escaping with her mother across the Yalu River into China when she was a young teenager, and eventually making it to South Korea, via Mongolia, after many horrific experiences. She states clearly her present situation in her introduction:
Like tens of thousands of North Koreans, I escaped my homeland and settled in South Korea, where we are still considered citizens, as if a sealed border and nearly seventy years of conflict and tension never divided us. North and South Koreans have the same ethnic backgrounds, and we speak the same language – except in the North where there are no words for things like ‘shopping malls’, ‘liberty’, or even ‘love’, at least as the rest of the world knows it. The only true love we can express is worship for the Kims, a dynasty of dictators who have ruled North Korea for three generations. The regime blocks all outside information, all videos and movies, and jams radio signals. There is no World Wide Web and no Wikipedia. The only books are propaganda telling us that we live in the greatest country in the world, even though at least half of North Koreans live in extreme poverty and many are chronically malnourished. My former country doesn’t even call itself North Korea – it claims to be Chosun, the true Korea, a perfect socialist paradise where 25 million people live only to serve the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Many of us who have escaped call ourselves “defectors” because by refusing to accept our fate and die for the Leader, we have deserted our duty. The regime calls us traitors. If I tried to return, I would be executed. (pp.3-4)Yeonmi Park, born in 1993, is only 22. She explains:The country I grew up in was not like the one my parents had known as children in the 1960s and 1970s. When they were young, the state took care of everyone’s basic needs: clothes, medical care, food. After the Cold War ended, the Communist countries that had been propping up the North Korean regime all but abandoned it, and our state-controlled economy collapsed. (p.15)The 1990s were therefore the years of famine, disguised by the pervasive propaganda of the state. The propaganda is so relentless that “my mother…. sincerely believed that North Korea was the centre of the universe and that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il had supernatural powers.” (p.34) We are told of the relentless surveillance by the bo-wi-bu (“National Security Agency”). We are told of the starvation and official brutality. We are told of the young Yeonmi Park’s appendectomy in a North Korean hospital where corpses are piled for days in the courtyard until there are enough for the removal men to cart away. But - despite the surveillance – we are also told of a thriving black market and of corrupt officials who will turn a blind eye to people smuggling. (Read more.)