Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick is an astonishing and eye-opening book that takes us inside North Korea, a hermit kingdom. Demick follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years, and chronicles the government induced famine that killed one-fifth of the North Korean population.
North Korea is the most repressive regime on the face of the earth.
Citizens are brainwashed 24 hours a day to believe that the Dear Leader is divine. Christianity is banned. As are all religions.
It’s an Orwellian world where the greatest crime is criticizing Kim Jong Il. Children are encouraged to inform on parents, neighbors routinely spy on neighbors. Informants are rewarded and victims sent to gulags where they subsist on grass and tree bark while they are worked to death. Most prisoners perish within a few months.
Only a priveledged few have televisions, but of course the one channel is run by the state and all you see is schreeching propaganda.
There are no clothing stores. Everyone wears the same shiny, scratchy rayon fabric. Women use rags as menstrual pads.
Public displays of affection are forbidden.
North Korea is also a deeply racist society. When someone is arrested for treason, the secret police also arrest close relatives because their blood is tainted. North Koreans are told that they are the most exceptional race on the face of the earth. All others, especially Japanese, South Koreans and Americans, are deeply inferior.
Forget cell phones, there are no telephones for the ordinary citizen. Of course, the internet does not exist in North Korea. Though the regime is pouring enormous resources into cyber warfare against American targets.
There are no typewriters. Paper and fountain pens—ball point pens are virtually unknown—are reserved for a few university students.
Not surprisingly, medicine is primitive:
North Korean doctors are expected to serve people selflessly. Because of a shortage of X-ray machines, they often use crude fluroscopy machines that expose them to high levels of radiation; many older North Korean doctors now suffer from cataracts as a result. They not only donate their own blood, but also bits of skin to provide grafts for burn victims…
North Korea is the most purely Communist regime on the face of the earth, hence there are no private industries. The state owns and runs everything. Of course, nothing works. Absolutely nothing. There are no pharmaceuticals. Not even bandages.
Making one’s own medicine is an integral part of being a doctor in North Korea. Those living in warmer climates often grow cotton as well to make their own bandages. Doctors are all required to collect herbs themselves; Dr. Kim’s work unit took off a month in spring and autumn to gather herbs, during which time the doctors slept out in the open and washed every few days. Each had a quota to fill. They had to bring their haul back to the hospital pharmacy, where it would be weighed, and if the amount was insufficient, they would be sent out again. Often, the doctors had to hike far into the mountains because the more accessible areas had already been scoured by ordinary citizens who sought to sell the herbs or use them for themselves.
But by the early 1990’s, the deficiencies in the system became more pronounced. Much of the medical equipment was obsolete and broken down, with spare parts impossible to obtain since the factories in the Communist-bloc countries where they were manufactured were by now privatized. The [government] pharmaceutical factory in Chongin curtailed its production due to a lack of supplies and electricity. There was little money to import pharmaceuticals from abroad.
In fact, the North Korean regime counterfeits millions of American dollars and is deeply involved in the international drug trade. That’s how the regime raises cash, which the malignantly corrupt political class spends on itself.
There was a government induced famine in the 1990’s and millions North Koreans died as a result of starvation and disease. Almost all the foreign aid poured into North Korea was diverted to the army—the fouth largest in the world for a state the size of Pennsylvania—and to the black market. The average North Korean male is five foot three inches tall. Most of the population suffers from stunting caused by lack of nutrition.
But take heart, there is some good news:
North Koreans are entitled to universal health care.
The right to “universal free medical service… to improve working people’s health” is enshrined in the North Korean constitution.