Together with PEN International and Human Asia, the Rafto Foundation have gathered 14 stories of day-to-day life and struggle in North Korea.
Illstration photos: Erik Lafforgue
North Korea has recently appeared in the news mainly because of the political games played by North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and US populist President Donald Trump. While these notorieties are posing for international media, little changes for those who have to live there. The Rafto Foundation commemorates the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this week by publishing stories told by ordinary North Koreans now living in exile, collected under the title "Writing wrongs from North Korea - 14 stories about life left behind."
These are stories of day-to-day life inside a rigidly organized society, as it disintegrates. The narrators are, or were, children, women, men, students, soldiers, workers - from the lowest to the middle class. The stories are about feeding on grass to survive, losing illusions, deserting family and country. But they are also about love, ingenuity, courage born out of necessity.
"Although the North Korean regime is a persistent human rights violator, we should focus more on the people rather than its illiberal government"
Many of the authors contributing to this book experienced the long-lasting crisis of the nineties, which North Koreans call the "Arduous March", and fled to escape it. Between 1993 and 1998, half a million people died of hunger in North Korea. Many more suffered from inadequate nourishment in the years that followed. The disaster was triggered by a combination of failing crops and loss of subsidies from friendly states such as the recently dissolved Soviet Union. This was not just a temporary crisis, however, but a long-term systemic failure in the production and distribution of necessities, administered by authorities prioritizing other needs than the survival of the most vulnerable members of society.
It may be tempting to think that a country mismanaged as badly as North Korea can only move forward through a collapse, and that the high price many ordinary people will have to pay during the collapse is unavoidable. This is, at a critical point, dangerously close to the mindset of the North Korean regime. They thought that the only way forward was to secure the continuation of the system, and that the highest price unavoidably had to be paid by many ordinary people in order to secure this necessary end.
When societies break down, situations arise that are difficult to comprehend. The stories chronicle a partial societal collapse as experienced from the inside, and how different people handled that situation. We hardly have any experience with such breakdowns. The North Koreans have lived through one. For most of them, naked poverty and hunger is not far away even today. It's their society. Better societies must be built by those who are to live in it, and with it. To be able to provide useful assistance in their efforts to build a better society, we must understand them better. That is our main motive for collecting these stories, and making them available to a broader audience.
The book is a joint project of the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights, Human Asia, and the North Korean Writers in Exile Center of PEN International.