Barbara Demick wrote an excellent book about North Korea, Nothing To Envy, that has just won the BBC’s Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction. Demick interviewed dozens of defectors from the North during the years she spent living in Seoul, and the book follows the lives of six of them as they struggle to survive in Kim Jong Il’s crumbling police state. In our fall issue last year, Demick told the story of two of those defectors, Mi-ran and Jun-sang, who fell in love in North Korea but defected south without telling each other. Here’s how she sets the scene for their love affair:
The night sky in North Korea might be the most brilliant in northeast Asia, the only airspace spared the coal dust, Gobi Desert sand, and carbon monoxide choking the rest of the continent. And no electrical glow competes with the intensity of the stars there. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up its old Communist ally with cheap fuel oil, North Korea’s power stations rusted into ruin. The lights went out. Now when the sun drops low in the sky, the landscape fades to gray and the squat little houses are swallowed by the night. Entire villages vanish into the dusk. Even in parts of Pyongyang, the capital, you can stroll down the middle of a street at night without being able to see the buildings on either side.
Such darkness is a curse, of course, but it also has its advantages. If you are a teenager dating somebody you can’t be seen with, invisibility confers measures of privacy and freedom that are hard to come by in North Korea. You can do what you like without worrying about the eyes of parents, neighbors, or the secret police.