Good Reading : September 2010
12 goodreading ı SEPTEMBER 2010 Sitting beside Sydney's beautiful harbour on a sunlit autumn day, Barbara Demick's eyes follow a group of book lovers ambling by. But her thoughts are far from a literary festival in one of the world's most prosperous countries. She is thinking about a nation of which she is one of only a handful of Westerners ever to have visited, a nation about which we know next to nothing, and whose people know nothing about the outside world. Suddenly, Barbara poses a question. 'Do you know how to tell a North Korean defector in South Korea? Men from the North have copious amounts of hair. It's because of the famine. Starvation lowers testosterone levels and so their hair doesn't fall out. But they show ll the other signs of starvation and geing: sallow skin, emaciation, and hey're usually much smaller than their well-fed South Korean counterparts.' Barbara is full of such anecdotes about her investigations into the her mit kingdom of North Korea, the world's most secretive nation. It is a country of 24 million people living behind a solid wall of silence where almost no news leaks out, and virtually none gets in. A multi-award-winning jour nalist, who is the China bureau chief for the prestigious Los Angeles Times, Barbara was one of the international guests at the recent Sydney Writers' Festival, and spoke to capacity audiences about her recently published book Nothing to Envy: Love, life and death in North Korea. North Korea is a truly Orwellian nightmare, a nation where the radio dials are fixed so that citizens can listen to only one station, run by the government; where everything is black and white except for the red lettering of the propaganda signs; where every citizen is required to keep a large portrait of the President on their living room wall, dust it daily, and bow to it on national holidays; and where sexuality is repressed except for the purpose of reproduction. In Orwell's doublespeak, welcome to the Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea! Spending years interviewing North Korean defectors to put together her brilliantly researched work, Barbara follows the lives of six defectors. They tell her more about the day-to-day minutiae of life in the hermit kingdom than any other journalist's account has ever reported. She deliberately chose refugees from the same provincial city so that each aspect of life in the nation could be cor roborated, ensuring that the defector's understandable prejudice against the dictatorship would not distort the facts Barbara was researching. 'I didn't want to do a typical jour nalistic interview which lasts a couple of hours. Instead I had a number of criteria that had to be met if I was LOOKING CLOSELY AT THE HERMIT KINGDOM Photography: Jinna Park (portrait of Barbara Demick); Edward N Johnson (North Korean guards); Ko (Kim Il Sung Square, Pyongyang, North Korea) author profile 1 Barbara Demick BARBARA DEMICK talks to novelist ALAN GOLD about life, love and liberty in North Korea.