This Is Paradise
"My mother started selling buns and pancakes in the market. She was shattered by the sight of dozens of ragged urchins (some of them little more than toddlers) avidly watching the customers as they ate their pancakes just in case they accidentally dropped some. Then they would dart forwards to pick up scraps and stuff them into their mouths. Some adults, racked with hunger, beat the children and stole from them.
Hunger engulfed my little universe. The poorest children lived on nothing but grass, and during class their stomachs rumbled. After a few weeks their faces began to swell, making them look well nourished. Then their faces went on growing until they looked as though they had been inflated. Their cheeks were so puffy that they couldn’t see the blackboard. Some of them were covered with impetigo and flaking skin.
My classmates started dying during the summer of 1996. One girl spent her days by her dying brother’s bedside, going short herself so that he would have more to eat. She died before he did.
As time passed there were fewer and fewer of us sitting at the school desks. Sometimes there were only about 10 in a class of 35. The teachers themselves no longer had enough energy to take their classes. They sat shapelessly in their chairs, cane in hand, while we repeated by heart lessons we had already learnt about the childhoods of Kim Il-sung and his son and successor Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader.
The famine encouraged the most selfish kinds of behaviour. My grandmother sold soya dishes and soups at home, a little trade that helped her to survive. I remember one father who regularly came to my grandmother’s house in secret to eat his fill far from the eyes of his family. Many parents left their homes in search of food, and most didn’t come back.
People generally died at night, and every morning we counted five or six deaths in our neighbourhood. Most of them were ordinary people, because neither party cadres nor policemen nor high-ranking military officers suffered as a result of the famine. My father calculated that the district where we lived had shrunk from 4,000 to 2,000 inhabitants.
There were empty houses everywhere. We felt as though we were living in a ghost town. Nonetheless, with my boy’s eyes, I found it all relatively normal. It was all I had ever known, and I thought that things abroad must be pretty much the same, or worse, as our leaders told us, assuring us that North Korea was “paradise” compared with other states. My belief in Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il remained unshakeable.
The party cadres blamed “natural disasters”, the US and South Korea for the shortages.
My friends and I caught frogs and cooked them skewered on bicycle spokes. We also ate grasshoppers, which are delicious fried, as are dragonflies. Grilled, the flesh of fat dragonflies tastes a bit like pork; but you can eat them raw, once the head and wings have been removed. Sparrows and quails ended up in the pot. We caught them with nets set in wooden frames. Other birds, like crows, we fried on a brazier.
The railway station was a hideout for abandoned children. The shortage of petrol and electricity had reduced the daily rail service to one departure every two weeks. So the station was filled with people waiting for trains that never came. Destitute crowds slept there night and day. Skeletal children wandered through the waiting room. Some of them were very young: I remember kids of one or two who couldn’t even stand upright. They crawled on all fours on the filthy floor, picking up whatever they could with their black fingers.
Kang's father, suffering from malnutrition, asked the local government authorities to be given softer work than his hard labor in a coal mine. When they refused, he went beserk in their office. When the government called him the next week to go to the reeducation camp, he fled to China. When he returned carrying food for his family, the border guards arrested him, ate his food, and sent him to prison.
People gathered for a few minutes around the body of a child who had just died, but lost interest almost immediately. A friend of my father’s was in a unit responsible for their collection and burial. He told us he never rushed to pick up dead children. He waited until at least three had died before collecting their bodies because that way he only had to dig a single grave. He dug rather shallow graves so as not to tire himself, and then laid the little skeletons in the holes, sometimes without so much as a shroud.
By 1997 my school had ceased to function. I ended up joining the gangs of children who stole from the market stalls. I would distract a well-padded person’s attention and then my gang of five or six would jump on them and grab their money. The misfortune of others, even your own family, leaves you completely indifferent when you have nothing in your belly. You rob ruthlessly; you would even kill."
"Eventually, after contracting typhus from infected lice, my father was granted provisional release on condition that he would go back to prison if he recovered from the illness. Depressed, he hit the bottle and one evening he suddenly started shouting at the top of his voice: “Kim Jong-il, son of a bitch . . . bastard, swine!” My mother, in a panic, jammed both hands over his mouth. Our house was under constant surveillance from neighbourhood informers, and this sort of outburst could get us all shot."Kang's father wanted his family to escape with him from North Korea. Even though Kang was trapped in the Jurassic Park of communism, he and his mother still believed the government propaganda and were sure that no matter how much they were starving, it was worse outside North Korea.
Kang and his family lived like hunted animals for four years in China, fearing they would be caught and deported home to North Korea, until they made their way to South Korea, their paradise on Earth at last.
"He made up his mind to smuggle us to China. For more than a month he tried everything he could think of to persuade us, but my mother wasn’t convinced. “In spite of the shortages,” she insisted, “North Korea is without a doubt one of the most prosperous countries in the world!” I told him I would rather be a beggar in North Korea than follow him to China. I spouted phrases that I had learnt at school: “Let us safeguard socialism . . . I will fight to the death to protect socialism and the Great Leader Kim Il-sung!” My father went on insulting Kim Jong-il in the worst possible terms.
My mother finally yielded. In turn she tried to persuade me, the confused 13-year-old. She said we would spend a year in China, no more, and we would earn money and come back to North Korea.
Reluctantly, I agreed. We made our getaway from home on March 19, 1998, at 4am, because that was the time when my father was under the least amount of surveillance. We had only the clothes on our backs, because even the smallest bundle of clothing would have looked suspicious. Needless to say, we did not return after a year — nor have we ever."