Barbara Demick, while spending five years in Seoul as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, discovered during six trips to the north that the government thugs escorting her wouldn't let her exchange even one word with a private citizen. So, back in South Korea, she began to study refugees from the north.
The result, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, recently won the Johnson Prize for the best non-fiction book published in Britain. It turns out to be a marvellous journalistic performance, the first account I've read that delivers an intimate sense of North Korean life. Demick braids the stories of six Koreans and their families into the history of a state dedicated to isolating and oppressing its citizens.
She leads us carefully and thoughtfully through desperate lives. A kindergarten teacher reports that the hardest part of her job was watching her pupils die of starvation. A pediatrician says much the same about her patients.
Yet most of these survivors acknowledge that for a long time they believed what the regime told them. They were persuaded, for instance, that South Korea was suffering terrible deprivation—one reason children sang a song beginning, "We have nothing to envy in the world."
And just in case you've forgotten how bizarre the Korean flavor of totalitarianism can be, there's this:
Refugees described Public Standards Police who would often visit private homes to be sure that the mandatory glass-framed portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were kept clean.