Listening to Famine in North Korea

Dr. Sandra Fahy

Dr. Sandra Fahy has been a close friend of mine since we first met, shortly after she arrived in Seoul. I couldn’t be more proud of her for reasons that are quite evident in this interview, which we did in September of this year. Her book is based on her PhD dissertation in anthropology from the University of London, entitled Marching through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea.

Sandra did an interview with Dr. Kang, the director of the Korean Studies Institute at USC for National Public Radio. (Link)

Sandra’s story

It began with my fascination with the holocaust as reflected in the arts, philosophy, psychology and the writings of genocide survivors. When I was majoring in literature in Canada, I read the works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Viktor Frankl and Alexander Kimel, which were really insightful into the dynamics of suffering. I studied famine and social suffering for my master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, and I discovered that famine survivors had produced nothing like the work done by survivors of other crimes against humanity. There are two autobiographies, Grass Soup and My Bodhi Tree by Zhang Xianliang, a Chinese writer who survived the Great Leap Forward. A group in Canada collected oral testimonies from survivors of the Ukrainian genocide famine. Other than that, the writers are historians or journalists, so maybe 99.9% of the material was written by people who were never there. John Steinbeck wrote Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, excellent books that describe the experience beautifully, but he was not a survivor of it. The absence of work is astounding considering that famine is a human experience of Biblical proportions which is known to all people and all places.

I wondered why the silence. I knew what was going on in North Korea, and I saw the lack of research as a glaring omission. I’m a scholar at heart, inherently curious. So in 2000, when I finished my master’s degree, I got a job teaching English in Seoul. I learned Korean in the evenings. With this topic in mind, I went to the UK to work on a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of London. I learned how to do field research and how to approach, examine and digest my material and be respectful of it. In 2005 I returned to South Korea and started working with non-governmental organizations, and in 2006 I began my field research.

I wanted to get involved with the North Korean community in Seoul, so I volunteered as a translator for an NGO. This group was pretty radical. A lot of the members had survived North Korean political prison camps. When we went to dinner, there would be talk like “We’ve got to assassinate that mother-fucker, Kim Jong-il.” This was the group sending helium balloons into North Korea. Inside the balloons are plastic envelopes which contain flyers about who really started the Korean War and historical information about North Korea and its leadership. The flyers are obviously not safe reading material, so as an incentive to pick up the envelope they add a US dollar bill which you can be seen clearly through the plastic. Foreign currency is used a lot in North Korea on the black market.

I got to know people and started interviews. I told people exactly what I was doing and why I was working with the material. I had written consent forms, but often people just gave their consent directly into the tape recorder. I was a little hesitant at first to ask people about their experience. My focus was on the famine in the 1990s: what it was like, whether their political views changed and whether it led to a desire for rebellion. Given the lack of literature by famine survivors, I expected people to be a little embarrassed, a bit shy or reluctant to sit down and talk to me about it. But everyone who had direct experience of the famine said yes. I interviewed thirty people in total. Two seemed to be acting from a sense of duty, but everyone else said they really wanted to talk about it. They were extremely gracious.

I told them I was born in Ireland, which was also divided and colonized and where there had been famine as well. They knew about the history of Ireland. They were immediately sympathetic to my interest. When they asked why I learned Korean, I said, “So I could speak with North Koreans.” That always won them over. I never told South Koreans, but it embarrassed them if they found out.

It was weird to be in Seoul, a brilliant metropolitan hub, with people who were foreigners like myself, who were outsiders and social outcasts in a way. We knew that as we were talking the other reality north of the border was continuing. South Korea has given a lot to the world in terms of technology development and all kinds of things. I looked at the rich, well-dressed South Koreans and thought of the potential that was lost in North Korea. If the peninsula were one nation, capitalist or semi-socialist like Canada, it would be a powerhouse in a totally different way. I think reunification is impossible. The amount of work that would be required—economic, social, psychological, intellectual, infrastructural—is unprecedented on a global scale.

Of course I also worried about whether I could get the information I needed, but there was another kind of stress which made me reluctant to do the interviews. I became depressed. I had dreams of being in a landscape of deprivation. Eventually I became a bit numb, but even that was weird. I got very sick, but the doctors in Korea and the UK when I went back could never find out what was wrong with me. Maybe it was some kind of sympathetic, psychosomatic sympathy. I was eating just as usual and doing everything I normally do, but I became very thin, my hair started falling out and my skin got very bad. It was really bizarre.

Strangely, often the interviews would involve eating. If we were at someone’s house, for instance, they might arrange food, which was a bit awkward. A scholar working with holocaust survivors said that, while they were talking about hunger in the ghettos, they would have big buffets of food. Maybe it was a form of reassurance for the survivors, a tangible proof that the deprivation was over for them. I always took people out to eat after the interview as a way of thanking them.

I’d expected to hear anger toward the North Korean government. I thought there would be more disillusionment and criticism of the nation state as a failure, more camaraderie between individuals and more solidarity in overcoming their difficulties. I wondered whether this material would provide insights like the works of Frankl and Solzhenitsyn, but I didn’t expect that level of self-reflection or intellectualizing. What surprised me was how long and how much my interviewees trusted that the North Korean government would eventually provide for them. All thirty people had been happy, contented with life and the status quo. Since the division, the whole population in the North had adjusted to or become acclimated to rationing and under-nutrition. So when things started to go bad at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s—and of course in the middle of the 90s with the flooding—the people were already used to a situation which was far from ideal. So their reaction was “okay we’re going to hustle, but we’ll do it.” Often they didn’t see that things had gone bad because the government was inconsistent: it would promise to deliver the food and do it, and it would promise and not do it.

They might first notice something was unusual when returning after an absence—for instance, a soldier who’d come back from military duty and seen that things had changed. One person said, “I noticed that my brother and sister were selling on the black market, and I wondered what the hell they were doing. We’d been educated not to do that.” Later he realized there was nothing for them to eat. His siblings had become more acclimated to the changes, possibly because in the military he’d been fed a little better.

People would notice that the children were falling asleep in school. Former school children would say, “I’d go to school, and the teachers would tell us we needed to bring certain items for the teachers to eat, and if we didn’t bring them we’d get punished.” People started locking their doors more. They saw more orphaned children wandering around, and they wanted to feed them, but they didn’t have enough. Someone in charge of the apartments in a building would notice that people didn’t have enough to eat, or they had only one set of clothes, and they would wash them, but then they had nothing to wear while the clothes were drying outside. It was really bizarre because they couldn’t even help each other out too much. We’re talking now about the most northern regions. Gradually the famine spread to Pyongyang.

At the time I was surprised at the willingness people demonstrated to stay and wait and trust as long as they did. In hindsight I’m not, because the North Koreans would talk about being much tougher than South Koreans and being able to put up with a lot more. They also have a lot of ingenuity, they’re creative and they know how to solve problems, and of course that’s something to be proud of. The context of South Korea shaped how people spoke about their lives in the North.

Anyway, we would meet in my apartment, their apartments or a third location. I had my cassette recorder, a map, consent forms, note paper and my electronic dictionary to use for translation. I would begin with, “Tell me about your home town. What was it like?” Individual personalities impacted a lot on the interviews, but no one was angry about the North Korean leadership or said they hated everything about North Korea. If they were angry it would be with the South Koreans—living very well, wasting food, worrying about their diet, wanting to be thin, dressing extravagantly, acting silly on television—while their so-called brothers are dying up in the North. I guess it was misdirected frustration.

The interviews got very emotional. The men my age—I was thirty at the time—didn’t want to tell me how hurt they were, but everyone else was really open and started getting very upset about it and crying. I’d be crying too. How can you not? The South Korean woman who transcribed the tapes said she cried when she was typing. Every South Korean I met who knew I did this work got emotional about it, although it was hard for them to approach North Koreans and show their feelings directly. But when they read the interview material or heard about it from me, they would allow themselves to feel their emotions.

So it was really sad. My interviewees would be upset because of a child or a neighbor who died of hunger, but also because everything they knew of their country had changed. They no longer had a part in the dream of what the country could be, even though they wanted to. They knew the decision to leave was final, even though it might not have been in their hearts. The state had decided. They might have gone into China to get medication or food or to sell lumber or whatever, they might even have been so sick they didn’t know they were being taken out, but then they were at a point of no return. There had been cases where people were successful at returning and talking their way out of punishment, but you couldn’t count on that. Some people were reluctant to move from China to South Korea.

Now, Koreans in Los Angeles may have a distilled understanding of Korean-ness going back as far as the 1960s when they emigrated, but that’s not how people in Seoul would define what it is to be Korean. The North Koreans lived in a time capsule, a sovereign nation with another version of Korea. In human history I don’t know that there’s another case that approximates this, not even the north and the south of Ireland. North and South Korea are so economically much farther apart from each other than East and West Germany were. The literacy rate in both North and South is very high except for the huge number of orphaned North Korean children. But the differences are vast, and they’re growing more each year. So the refugee is basically stepping from one world into another—having had the expectation that there would be more similarities. It’s heartbreaking for them. For example, they may think they speak the same language, they have the same bloodline, they look the same and talk the same. And then they get to South Korea and they find they don’t have standard Seoul pronunciation. Even people from Cheju-do or Kwangju [in the southern part of South Korea] are discriminated against in Seoul.

The language of North Korea includes no borrowings from English. A huge percentage of the Korean vocabulary comes from borrowings from Chinese, but the North Koreans won’t know the Sino-Korean characters. [This limits what they can read]. Most North Koreans are shorter from being undernourished; their skin is darker and more worn. The South Korean standard of beauty is different. Then there’s the fact that both nations have been waging propaganda campaigns against the other. [In the recent past, South Korean school children had textbooks of North Koreans as wolves or with red devil faces and guns under their arms]. So the end result is that these underdogs are coming into a majority pool where they’re seen as people who failed. In some ways the society in North Korea may be superior to South Korea. There must be something because 23 million people live there—solidarity, community, who knows.

During the interviews, I really just went into their world, listening as carefully as possible and asking for clarification when I didn’t understand. One guy said, “I’m only going to talk for ten minutes.” Then he talked to me for about an hour. People found it strange that I was just interested in doing this without expecting anything from them. They didn’t see what we were doing as an exchange. Sometimes they wondered why we were talking about this, although they might have needed to talk about it for emotional reasons. Some people wanted payment or expected something in return.

Well, I went back to London and recovered from whatever illness I contracted. I finished my PhD in anthropology. For the dissertation I went over to the British library and selected sections of the interviews which seemed really pertinent, interesting, relevant, and I translated them. The dissertation had a different structure than the book I’m working on. There was a review of the literature. There was a chapter about what led up to the choice to defect. There was a chapter about control over the language North Koreans were allowed to use. That was the big thing that people talked about, how they were censored in North Korea. [People were not allowed to say they were hungry. They had to say they were in pain.] I looked for patterns in the testimonies, patterns of metaphor or how they referred to Kim Il-sung versus Kim Jong-il, how men coped with the famine, how women coped with it. How women talked about it, how men talked about it. The signs of trouble that told them they had to find another way to live. Going off into the mountains to look for food or planting their own private plots. Then there was a section about trauma and PTSD in a non-western context.

So I finished the PhD in 2009, and then I did a post-doc in Paris for one year, and I did a post-doc fellowship here at USC for two years. I’m on my second year. My current employer at USC is incredibly supportive, but I think there’s a lack of understanding about how taxing research like this can be for the academic.

The book I’m now working on is a rewrite which follows the chronology of the famine. That’s the backdrop, but the greater topic and the theme that runs throughout the book is loss: loss of country, loss of loyalty, loss of trust, loss of family and friends. It continues into South Korea where survivors have a loss of identification. Their hopes are dashed in many ways. That’s the direction I’m moving in with the book now as I revise it. I’m still in touch with the North Korean community.

Reader comment:

This is about a woman I know who has been studying the effects of famine in North Korea for over ten years now.  It’s really changed her.  I didn’t understand what she was going through, how she was connecting on a heart-level with the people she was interviewing.  Now, I realize (a little better, anyway) how draining it was.  You can understand when she says that she got sick.  She was born in Ireland and grew up with the history of famine in her family background.  When I was there in August, 2000, I got a sense of the immediacy of that history in Irish lives.  They can see the poorhouses and the mass graves.  Many don’t know where their great-great-grandparents are buried.  The Irish culture is rooted in its soil and goes back thousands of years, very like the culture of Korea.
Transfer this to the Korean culture, where ancestors are honored at Chusok and Solnal, and you can get a glimpse of the damage that has been done to North Koreans’ hearts and minds.  I understand now why Sandra says that reunification may be impossible.  The southerners just don’t have the same experience; they haven’t lived/survived the same horrific “branding experience.” {I’m using that in the older sense of the term, like a calf or a slave being burned with a mark of ownership.}

Reader comment:

Thanks for the fascinating interview with Sandra, Carol. I was particularly struck by the North Koreans’ feelings of resentment not for abuses by the NK government but for the excesses of South Koreans. Interesting, too, that Sandra thinks reunification is impossible. A guest lecturer at Hanseo University a few years ago, a former Korean ambassador, opined that reunification would be possible only with the demise of Kim Jong-il. Time will tell what’s in store with the youngster Jong-un in power.