:: Article

The Worst Of All Possible Worlds

By Max Dunbar.


With police on either side, they were dragged by their feet through Onsung for a whole afternoon, adorned with evidence of their crimes. The grandmother had to wear a plate on her head bearing the decomposed skull of a victim, while the murderer and his son had pieces of charred human remains tied to their necks. They wore them pitifully, heads lowered, under the insults of the population, who pelted them with stones. This unforgettable scene took place in late August or early September of 1997.

Hyok Kang (with Philippe Grangereau, translated by Shaun Whiteside), This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood, Abacus, 2007

North Korea is perhaps the purest expression of a totalitarian state. Its leaders, Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, are venerated in gigantic statues, military parades and rote education. In fact, no form of art is produced ‘without the two Kims at its centre.’ There’s no internet access and what news or history that seeps through the cracks is doctored and distorted by the country’s one propaganda channel. Everyone is watched and everyone is afraid. The slightest deviation from the national script can lead to execution or years in a labour camp. Christopher Hitchens, on his visit to North Korea, remarked: ‘[T]he state was founded actually I think the year that 1984 was published and it’s as if they sort of took the book and thought I wonder if we could make this work?’ On his schooling, Hyok Kang recalls: ‘In Lesson 8 we are told, with a straight face, that ‘one plus one equals one.”

Unlike the great totalitarian dynasties of the twentieth century, North Korea has not yet produced well-known dissidents. No North Korean Havel or Solzhenitsyn yet troubles the regime. What little we know of the slave state comes from outside reportage and travelogue: pinbeams of light upon a land of darkness. Guy Delisle, in Pyongyang, captured in simple line drawings the eerieness of his experience: unlit streets, supermarkets that stock only one product, foot-high juche slogans etched into hillside. Of those few who have managed to escape, Philippe Grangereau regrets that ‘few publishers or journalists are interested in their shattering stories’ and notes that ‘only one has so far been published: Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot’.

Realising the aspect of silliness and absurdity that is always present in totalitarian propaganda, the binaries and parables of its leader-cult, Hyok Kang observes: ‘And like all the others – even if today, with hindsight, I may give the impression of mocking it all – I can assure you that at the time I swallowed it whole. I was inspired by an unshakeable faith.’ And yet, in one of his many lyrical passages, Kang recalls that ‘there was a profound dissatisfaction at the heart of our family, a kind of sly dissidence that floated above our heads like a storm cloud… I felt, subconsciously, that something was wrong.’ This is something Orwell raised: that people who have known nothing but privation their whole lives can still feel that things should be other than they are. There is some kind of universal tug of the belly and soul. Which is worse? The fact that we can adapt to almost anything? Or the fact that we can’t?

Like many systems of forced collectivism, North Korea’s regime abominated the individual and yet in its oppression produced a desperate, grasping selfishness among its subjects. To even leave one’s home district required a bribe: if not actual money, then in the form of flour or rice wine. Humanity was reduced to its worst when the famine came. Corpses rotted ignored, market stalls were robbed: ‘misfortune of others, even your own family, leaves you completely indifferent when you have nothing in your belly.’ During their flight from the country, a Chinese man gives Kang a bowl of rice: ‘I was so surprised by his kindness. In North Korea, no one would have done that.’

This is Paradise! is not just an invaluable social document but a compulsive human story. What comes through is Kang’s love for his passionate, volatile but strangely resourceful father, who leads the family in a gripping escape. Even after liberation, there is a new struggle: to evade the zealous immigration authorities, and get used to life under capitalism. Religion is banned in North Korea, but Kang is smuggled into the South by a heroic Christian clergyman and hidden in a church. Daily services ‘reminded me, strangely, of the ceremonies and political studies sessions to the glory of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, so I felt uneasy.’

In Kang’s nightmares the regime catches up with him. It’s an understandable trauma for North Korean refugees, and Kang is able to talk out his dreams with fellow immigrants. ‘It’s curious,’ he admits, ‘but we do have a kind of nostalgia for hell.’


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is a co-editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 4th, 2009.