Darcie Draudt is a research associate for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Last Thursday at the United Nations headquarters in New York, the U.S. delegation convened a meeting on the human rights situation in North Korea that featured testimony of North Korean escapees. The event was part of North Korean Freedom Week, hosted annually since 2004 by a coalition of U.S. and South Korean NGOs focused on increasing awareness and mobilizing action to promote freedom for the North Korean people. The UN meeting took a turn when the testifiers were interrupted by a statement the DPRK delegation, who had previously been assured they would have an opportunity to speak following the defectors and faced vehement objections most notably from U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.
This is only the latest testament to the power of personal narrative and the saga unfolding between the North Korean state and the people who have chosen to leave its borders illegally. Some escapee accounts have been subject to public scrutiny of the veracity or intention of the testifiers, leading to debate on the policy implications of the issue as a whole. Shin Dong-hyuk, whose story is famously told by journalist Blaine Harden in Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, had become a prominent example of the prison camps in North Korea. However, earlier this year Shin admitted to fabricating some of the details of his captivity, perhaps resulting from North Korea’s refutation of his story as a whole.
There exists ample and growing information rigorously collected that attests to the pervasiveness of the suffering. A recently published book on the topic by Sandra Fahy, Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea, addresses these issues. Fahy’s book is the latest installment in David Kang and Victor Cha’s “Contemporary Asia in the World” series from Columbia University Press.
Following in the vein of Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009), Fahy, an anthropologist by training, interviewed thirty North Koreans living in South Korea and Japan in 2005–2006. Marching Through Suffering examines the narrated experience of the Arduous March (Gonan-ui haenggun, the North Korean famine in the 1990s); Fahy collates the accounts chronologically, moving from initial coping strategies and denial to social cohesion to disintegration and finally, for those she interviewed, to the decision to flee North Korea when survival trumped starvation and allegiance to nation.
One central theme of the book is the power of language as a political and social tool. As Fahy points out, censorship of the famine and state media’s manipulation of the events is obvious; what is less obvious is how average North Koreans used language, sometimes in contradictory ways, to strategize and cope with the famine on both individual and communal levels.
It is probably inevitable that media coverage of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) report on North Korean Human Rights gravitated toward coverage of the most severe cases. The chillingly gruesome tales of gulags and harrowing escapes are certainly valuable testimony to the political cruelty of the North Korean regime and the perseverance of the North Korean people. But central to the case against the North Korean government is that the suffering of the North Korean people is indeed commonplace; the extraordinary nature of “ordinary” lives in North Korea deserves our attention and indignation just as much as the outlier cases. As both Fahy’s and Demick’s books both demonstrate, it is the accumulated ordinariness of personal stories on record rather than the most dramatic and sensationalized cases that validate the chilling conclusions of the UN COI that the North Korean system is responsible for institutionalized suffering of the people of North Korea.