Anyone who has visited the bizarre post of Panmanjon on the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea will have an insight into the bleak world of the People’s Democratic Republic. The four-kilometre strip of land is said to be the most heavily armed in the world with soldiers from each side engaging in a daily glaring competition. When I visited many years ago the surreal charade of North Korean life was highlighted by an imposing structure that had the appearance of a command post but was in reality just a façade. Soldiers would step in and out of the front “entrance”.
I’ve just finished reading the compelling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, by Stanford University creative writing professor Adam Johnson. It tells the story of Pak Jun Do – read John Doe – whose mother has disappeared and who spends his childhood in an orphanage overseen by his father, the orphan master. It traces his bewildering and haphazard life journey from semi-orphan to DMZ tunnel fighter, to a kidnapper of Japanese civilians, a spy and ultimately an impersonator of a brutal military hero.
While recognising its status as a novel I was struck by a piece of dialogue in which Jun Do described his country as “the most straightforward place on earth”. This accords with a surprising revelation in a documentary I saw recently about a young North Korean man, actually born in a labour camp, who manages to escape. The German documentary Camp 14: Total Control Zone recounts Shin Dong-Hyuk’s harrowing life in the camp and of his heart-stopping flight into first China. Shin recently gave testimony before a UN commission. At the end of the documentary he expresses a longing to return to North Korea because he finds the “freedom” of life in the west so stressful, especially the constant struggle to earn money to survive. Perhaps the “plus side” of living under a totalitarian regime is that a life of no choices is “straightforward”.