A detailed, grim portrait of daily life under the repressive North Korean dictatorship, where schoolchildren are taught to sing anthems in praise of their leader asserting that they “have nothing to envy in this world.`
Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent Demick bases her account on seven years of interviews with North Koreans who escaped to South Korea. She focuses on individuals whose stories began in the 1990s and continue to the present, including Mi-ran, a lower-class girl who became a teacher; Jun-sang, a university student who eventually got a glimpse of outside life through books, radio and television; Mrs. Song, a middle-aged true believer, and her defiant daughter Oak-hee; Dr. Kim, an idealistic female physician; and Kim Hyuck, an orphan boy surviving alone on the streets. Along with their personal stories, Demick includes background information on the Korean War and the dictatorships of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il. The author also examines the great famine that killed millions of North Koreans in the 1990s. She paints a stark, vivid picture of reality in an industrial city with no electricity and almost no industry, where workers no longer get paid, men are conscripted into military service for ten years, grass, bark and corn husks are considered food, and death by starvation is all too common. In one unforgettable scene, Dr. Kim, having crossed a river into China, sees that dogs in China eat better than human beings in North Korea. In addition to the physical hardships is the psychological stress of living under a rigid totalitarian government where a chance wrong word overheard and reported by a neighbor can mean imprisonment or death. Demick shows the state of mind of each of her subjects, what their daily life was like, how they coped and eventually how each escaped. She also reveals her subjects struggling, sometimes unsuccessfully, to adapt to life in South Korea.
Meticulous reporting reveals life in a country that tries hard to keep its citizens walled in and the rest of the world out.