This book weaves together the stories of half a dozen North Koreans who eventually defected to South Korea, where Demick interviewed them. An early chapter features a photograph of both Koreas at night; Seoul is a big blob of light; the rest of South Korea has scattered lights throughout; North Korea is dark. And Demick shows, again and again, just how dark it is--both opaque to visitors (who are barely allowed, and kept to carefully manicured bits of the major city, Pyongyang) and having a very dark future. The stories of starvation are what stay with me--the parents feeding their children on ground-up bark and weeds; people eating dogs; people digging through nightsoil to find undigested pieces of rice, after aid from the former USSR vanishes.
One of the most curious stories was the thwarted love story between Mi-Ran and Jun-sang, who kept their forbidden relationship secret for nine years ... and then idealized it for half a dozen after Mi-Ran left. But Demick doesn't make the mistake of suggesting that as soon as these defectors moved to South Korea, everything came up roses. She explores quite frankly the difficulty of assimilation and how learned personality traits in North Korea did not translate so well south of the border.
There's black humor throughout. My favorite bits are some of the math questions in the North Korean textbooks (p. 120):
Eight boys and nine girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim Il-sung. How many children are singing in total?
A girl is acting as a messenger to our patriotic troops during the war against the Japanese occupation. She carries messages in a basket containing five apples, but is stopped by a Japanese soldier at a checkpoint. He steals two of her apples. How may are left?
Three soldiers from the Korean People's Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of soldiers?
And a favorite song:
"Our enemies are the American bastards
Who are trying to take over our beautiful fatherland.
with guns that I make with my own hands.
I will shot them. Bang, bang, bang."
My one gripe is that it feels to me as though at times Demick plays fast and loose with her translations--the sentences feel too close to contemporary American slang. I found myself wondering, Really? Did that sixty-year-old grandmother really say that? But the book is interesting, especially as I knew very little about North Korea.