Barbara Demick

A North Korean soldier would later recall a buddy who had been given an American-made nail clipper and was showing it off to his friends. The soldier clipped a few nails, admired the sharp, clean edges, and marveled at the mechanics of this simple item. Then he realized with a sinking heart: If North Korea couldn’t make such a fine nail clipper, how could it compete with American weapons?

North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people. But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung’s divinity. Who could possibly resist?

North Korean defectors often find it hard to settle down. It is not easy for somebody who’s escaped a totalitarian country to live in the free world. Defectors have to rediscover who they are in a world that offers endless possibilities. Choosing where to live, what to do, even which clothes to put on in the morning is tough enough for those of us accustomed to making choices; it can be utterly paralyzing for people who’ve had decisions made for them by the state their entire lives.