This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood

By the time he was thirteen years old, Hyok Kang had spent the second half of his life in the worst imaginable misery. Kang lived in the northern North Korean village of Onsong, which was devastated by the famine in the 1990’s. His memoir with Philippe Grangereau, This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood (translated by Shaun Whiteside), tells of his life in Onsong and the desperate measures his family undertook in order to survive.

From the first day of school, children throughout North Korea are inculcated with quotations from Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, for whom they are drilled to refer to at all times as Dear Respected Comrade Head of State Great Leader Kim Il Sung and Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. The rest of the world, especially South Korea, is portrayed as an impoverished wasteland, with criminals and prostitutes roaming the streets and where millions of people are dying of starvation. Thus as the famine slowly knotted its grip on the stomachs of the city of Onsong, Kang had the illusion that: 

“I found it all relatively…normal [1]. 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 to other states. My belief in Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il remained unshakeable.” 

In addition to the daily Kim cult inculcation, from the first year of school at age six or seven, students are encouraged to snitch or report on their fellow students. Time is set aside each day in class wherein students report on their fellow classmates’ misdoings. These communal tattle sessions ingrain in young minds a sense of paranoia, which continues for the rest of their lives: 

“In North Korea everyone is suspicious of everyone else, all the time. There are security spies in every work unit, but you never know who they are, or how many. And they spy on each other as well.” 

All students, from kindergarten up to university, have to spend part of their day performing manual labour. This may involve planting seeds or weeding the fields, building roads or even working in the mines. No task was off-limits to students’ hands, including the following: 

“During the winter holidays, there was also a dung quota to fulfil. To do this we had to carry six whole carts of faecal matter to the school, collected from public or private latrines. But we had to be careful not to choose just any old excrement. We needed human turds, the only ones that bore the label ‘manure’ in the eyes of our teachers. In extremis, dog turds were tolerated as well. But cowpats, horse manure and the liquid faeces of pigs or poultry were not acceptable. That said, we weren’t averse to adding small quantities of forbidden excrement to bulk up our quotas, because, scour the streets of the city though we did, dog poo was not easy to find, not least because adults collected it to fertilise their own private plots of land. Once I nearly came to blows with a neighbour over a piece of dog shit!” 

The famine took children away from school in order to gather leaves and grass, which were boiled down to make a bitter concoction of soup. Corncobs, bark and weeds were all collected and children would beg at the marketplace and train station for any scraps they could find. Many died as a result of constipation from eating such inedible foodstuffs. 

Daily Kim indoctrination from a young age can build a population of loyal, unquestioning followers, yet pangs of hunger can turn a citizen’s loyalties overnight. After rations ceased and the shelves of the stores continued to remain unstocked, Kang and his family made a life-threatening decision. The party line may have explained the food shortages as only temporary setbacks which were far worse in the South and neighbouring China, yet since Onsong was only twelve kilometres from the Chinese border, Kang and his family made the decision to defect in March 1998. They fled across the Tumen River, still frozen in places at that time of year. Kang fell through the ice yet: 

“I swam without looking back, I fought my way between the blocks of ice, my body freezing, my heart beating a hundred times a second.” 

Once in China, Kang and his family could not believe what they saw. Everyone ate three meals a day, meals of white rice which was even given as pet food. Kang noticed that: 

“They lived well in China, people were well fed, and some of them had fat, oily faces. Back in Korea, there was only one obese person in the whole country: Kim Jong-Il!” 

While in China the Kang family hopped from village to village and house to house in a constant run from the Chinese authorities, who would send back North Koreans as illegal immigrants. Once repatriated to North Korea, the Kangs would most surely have been interned in a labour camp. Eventually Kang travels through China to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and finally to South Korea.

South Korea is a culture shock to Kang, as it is nothing like the country he had learned about in school. People are well dressed and their faces are happy and not all the same expressionless mask. He admits that, like many North Korean defectors, it is difficult to reconcile the truth with the lies his homeland instilled in him: 

“Whatever I might have lived through before, whatever the dangers may have been, the blindness, the forced stupidity, the constant terror, the hunger, the sickness, the persecutions, those bits of life are a part of me and will always be etched within me. I may have fled them, but I can’t deny them. It seems to be a common paradox among refugees, this joy at being in a free country, mixed with nostalgia for the nightmare landscape that we have fled.” 

Kang has difficulties in South Korean schools since his accent and stunted body stature identify him as from the North. While at first his home country is a curiosity to others who treat him sympathetically, he later becomes a target for mockery. It is hard for him to adapt, and he turns to the company of other North Korean defectors for support. The book ends on this note, with Kang missing his three closest friends who are still in North Korea. 

Instead of photos, This is Paradise! is filled with drawings by Kang himself, depicting scenes of his everyday life in Onsong, including public executions, thievery at the marketplace, starved corpses lying in the street and his bone-chilling escape attempt to China with his family. 

[1] The ellipsis is in the text as quoted. I did not leave out any text between the quotation marks.

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