Whether you’ve dabbled with any books concerning North Korea before (Barbara Demick’s excellent Nothing to Envy and Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang spring immediately to mind), Meonyi Park’s memoir, In Order to Live, makes for an eye-opening and fascinating read. Here is a person who grew up as part of a family who in turn formed part of a community predicated on an extraordinary and outdated system of the world, in which your caste determines whether you prosper or not (Park’s family, we sense, had it better than most, although ‘better than most’ shouldn’t quite conjure the gulf that exists between rich and poor in the West), and – just as with the Stasi in Berlin, you live in constant fear of being reported and punished.
“In North Korea,” she tells us,
“…it is not enough for the government to control where you go, what you learn, where you work, and what you say. They need to control you through your emotions, making you a slave to the state by destroying your individuality and your ability to react to situations based on your own experience of the world.”
Her experience in North Korea, however, is merely one third of the book, as we also get to glimpse the terrible experience she and her mother had in China at the hand of people traffickers, before being eventually reunited in South Korea where they start to build what we would no doubt think of as a more common life. It may be wrongheaded of me to praise the equanimity and acceptance with which she attempts to deal with her trials (as undoubtedly, acceptance is an enforced way of life in North Korea), but her ability to find good in bad is inspiring. For example:
“…there was human intimacy and connection [in North Korea], something that is hard to find in the modern world I inhabit today.”
“When you have so little, just the smallest thing can make you happy – and that is one of the few features of life in North Korea that I actually miss.”
Park refuses to be derailed by the slightly passive aggressive professionals she looks to for help in South Korea (she says, “When I was young, my dream was to have one bucket of bread. Now I started to dream great dreams”) and she excels, driven undoubtedly by the barriers placed in her way previously.
Her association with faith groups (who encourage her to tell her story overseas to other religious groups) is unnerving (because you wonder as a reader if her experience in North Korea has left her a person who needs a leader figure, a hole which faith adequately occupies). The rigour with which Park interrogates the new world in which she finds herself heartily offsets this, though. You can’t read In Order to Live without thinking: here is a person who has overcome more than most, who continues to push hard for change, who continues to put herself in danger (she is high on North Korea’s enemies list and receives death threats and security alerts to this day) in order to make a positive difference in the world. More than this, here is a person who appreciates the life she has made for herself, who has found a kind of contentment.
Any Cop?: Whilst it lacks the rigour and oversight of Demick’s book (as of course it was always going to), it gives the reader an important something different: a view of a world not open to Western eyes, which makes it important.