Effective writers use images that provoke us

Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick chose to reveal the dark stories of North Korean defectors in her 2009 non-fiction text “Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” In this text, Demick constructs interesting and twisting tales of how defectors who escaped the clutches of the North Korean government survived. This information is given to the reader in great depth with no harsh details censored. The core of this dark narrative’s impact upon the reader lies in the crude specifics that are provided. For example, we gain insight into what it was truly like for defectors to live through the haunting time of the “Arduous March.” For most of this prize-winning novel, it follows the separate lives of many different defectors who escaped out of North Korea in the 1990s. All of the temperaments and characteristics of these defectors are different, but each hold stories that speak of the “Arduous March.”

The Arduous March, also known as the time of the North Korean Famine, occurred in North Korea from 1994 to 1998 and was one of the most recent devastating famines of the world. “Of a total population of approximately 22 million, somewhere between 240,000 and 3,500,000 North Koreans died from starvation or hunger-related illnesses.” The famine stemmed from a variety of factors. Poorly managed economy and the loss of Soviet support caused food production and imports to decline rapidly. A series of floods and droughts intensified the crisis. However, it is the images that are efficiently used by Barbara Demick in her acclaimed novel, which have been collected over many years from hundreds of different North Korean defectors. These pictures are efficiently used to provoke the reader, making them feel mixtures of sorrow and sympathy towards those who had to experience the Arduous March.

Barbara Demick interviewed Dr Kim, one of the North Korean defectors written under a pseudonym to protect her identity. Dr Kim is introduced to the reader as a serious, dedicated woman, with a “disciplined and somewhat unforgiving personality.” Demick uses Dr Kim to introduce the utter devastation initiated by the North Korean famine. Dr Kim establishes this concept of a disaster while working in the paediatric ward at her hospital when she begins to notice the children that were coming in for treatment were a lot smaller than normal: “Now their upper arms were so skinny she could encircle them with her thumb and forefinger. Their muscle tone was weak. It was a syndrome known as wasting, where the starved body eats away at its muscle tissue.” Dr Kim, with all her education and schooling, cannot help these patients and their children. The way that Demick portrays the image of screaming children through her writing strikes a chord with readers. It has been scientifically proven that humans are deeply stirred by the image or thought of a child in distress. “One study suggests there is something special about the way baby sounds are processed by the brain. The fact that there is activity in the emotional areas of the brain could potentially mean that the sound of a baby’s cries are tagged as important even before our brains have had a chance to fully process them.” This technique to grab people’s attention is used in television advertisements. For example, World Vision uses pictures of starving children, like those from the current world issue of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, to capture the viewer’s attention and therefore encourage those who are financially sound to donate to help these children with the simple things, such as food and water. It is our empathy for humankind that provokes us to action. Barbara Demick uses these same images of suffering to grab her reader’s attention and make them think about the true humanitarian issues they are reading about. This concept motivates the reader to learn more about the actual nature of the North Korean dictatorship. We, as the reader, learn that the citizens of North Korea are entirely dependent on their regime run by their “Great Leader.” The people do not have any choice or freedom in how they handle crises, they have been brought up their entire lives being indoctrinated to believe in nothing but the power of their leader, Kim Il-Sung. “If North Koreans paused to contemplate the obvious inconsistencies and lies in what they were told, they would find themselves in a dangerous place. They didn’t have a choice. They couldn’t flee their country, depose their leadership, speak out, or protest. To fit in, the average citizen had to discipline himself not to overthink.” This passivity shows the fear forced on citizens by the dictatorship of North Korea. It is the fear of violence, disapproval, ridicule, change that pushes people to be reliant on a more powerful entity for their survival. They will need to exist in alignment with the leadership and obey this body – in this case, the North Korean dictatorship – to receive protection and sustainability. Therefore Dr Kim is helpless and cannot provide the help to her patients that they need; she is too afraid to reach out for guidance, especially when her leader is not already providing her with such assistance, or even acknowledging the fact support is needed. Dr Kim represents the concept of an aspiring intellectual. She is a woman who has worked her entire life to get to the position she is in. She provides a symbol for those who endeavour to achieve their dreams, pushing forward even when the current is against her, and it does not seem possible. In Dr Kim’s case, her end goal is to become a member of the Workers’ Party of Korea, which is a tremendous ambition for a woman. This is why she is a symbol for people in hindered situations who must work harder than those in more privileged positions.

“I can’t figure out what is it. I just can’t get my child to stop crying,” the mothers would tell Dr Kim. She nodded sympathetically because she recognised the condition, but she was at a loss for words. How do you tell a mother her child needs more food when there is nothing more to give?”  The reader relates to Dr Kim through this passage – both have no power to help these starving children. Dr Kim is unable to assist the children because there is no food available to do so. She’s a fully trained doctor, and she cannot provide something as simple as food to these starving patients, so it is understandable this stirs her so significantly. Similarly, the reader who holds the book, although they know about what is happening in North Korea in real life, cannot do anything to stop or help the citizens who are suffering. They can’t because it would be a risk to their safety, as North Korea is in a sense entirely closed to the outside world. What we, the reader, learn from this is that no amount of education and schooling can protect an individual from a dysfunctional community under a failed dictatorship. Everyone is fallible to the failings of their leadership. An example of this in the wider world is Xerxes I, the fourth king of kings of the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia. His military career was one of unbridled success, total strength, and power, so he was followed loyally by all of his subjects. Though, at The Battle of Thermopylae Xerxes met his match. Vastly outnumbering the Greek forces, Xerxes could have expected and was expected by his citizens, to brush them aside and go on to Europe. He did not count on the Greek resilience, or the highly trained Spartan soldiers holding the pass.  It is believed that fifty of Xerxes’s men were lost for every Greek that was killed. Eventually, he would be halted at Plataea, a Greek victory that owed much to the Spartan sacrifices. This story can be related to the Arduous March that occurred in North Korea in the 1990s, seeing as the North Korean citizens were loyal to their Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung, above all else. It was when people began perishing from hunger that they realised he was no god; he was a human like the rest of them, and they started to come apart at the seams along with their community.

To resist this patriotism in our own lives, we as a Western society must push ourselves as humans to free our minds. This action is the hardest, and most profound of all to take against manipulation. Releasing the soul comes from a combination of self-education, focus and self-belief: When you listen to a thought, you are aware not only of the thought but also of yourself as the witness of the thought. A new dimension of consciousness has come in.” A mind that knows itself through and through knows how to be free and knows when it is being manipulated by others. It is a fact that those who have practised conscious introspection find it far easier to understand when another person is lying or trying to manipulate them.

Another story that Barbara Demick shines a light on is the story of Mi-ran. Demick does this by showing us the thought-provoking images of the discrimination Mi-ran and her family receive. Mi-ran “was the youngest of four girls,” a girl who had been brought up in a family with “tainted blood.” Tainted blood is the main reason for the troubles Mi-ran experiences through her life, a terrible curse that was brought on by her father and spread to every single member of her family. Mi-ran’s father, Tae-woo, was a former South Korean soldier, which was an offence to the capital in the regime’s eyes, so they intended to punish everyone who was connected to Tae-woo, Mi-ran included. “As a former South Korean soldier, Tae-woo’s ranking was toward the bottom of the heap – not the very bottom, because those people (about 200,000, or 1 percent of the population) were permanently banished to labour camps.” The North Korean society has a fatal social ladder, and if you are viewed as being at a lower rung, you will no doubt see the consequences reflected in your life. Mi-ran begins to note these differences in how she and her family are treated by government-run places, like schools. All of her elder sisters who applied to tertiary education were rejected – “Mi-ran’s siblings were confident they would be among those chosen to further their education. They were smart, good-looking, athletic, well-liked by teachers and peers. Had they been less talented, rejection might have gone down more easily.” The fact that the North Korean dictatorship has manipulated their people into vilifying the enemy – South Korea – seems to justify the harsh treatment for both internal and external enemies. These so-called ‘enemies’ are dehumanised and not given the same opportunities as others with clean backgrounds. An example of this concept of “tainted blood” in the wider world is the racial policies established in Nazi Germany during WWII. Just like Mi-ran and her family were discriminated against, the Jews that were present in Germany, and other parts of Europe, were heavily limited in the things they were allowed to own, and the places they were allowed to go. “During the first six years of Hitler’s dictatorship, from 1933 until the outbreak of war in 1939, Jews felt the effects of more than 400 decrees and regulations that restricted all aspects of their public and private lives.” The discrimination against Mi-ran’s family is not as verbally stated, but it is felt. They, like the Jews, have the threat of being taken to a labour camp hanging over their heads. By the time Mi-ran realises the reason for her unfair treatment is to do with her father’s background, all of her siblings, including herself have been denied the opportunity to take their education any further.

The tainted blood in Mi-ran’s family also has an adverse impact on her love life. She meets Jun-sang, “a lanky and studious boy,” an elite student, who becomes Mi-ran’s secret boyfriend in North Korea. Later he becomes a privileged university student in Pyongyang, but still, develops a critical perception on the regime, and begins listening to “subversive” South Korean radio and television. Jun-sang is from a wealthy family. Therefore his and Mi-ran’s relationship is frowned upon by the society of North Korea, should it be made known to the public. In North Korea, romantic relations before marriage is severely frowned upon, and it is not ethical to have a public romantic relationship. For this reason, Mi-ran and Jun-sang have to keep their relationship secret. The reader is provoked to think about how lucky they are when they see the image of Mi-ran robbed of her goals and desire for a future with Jun-sang and even robbed of true love by the North Korean dictatorship. This image provided by Demick of a young girl being unable to live her future dreams can be relatable to those young readers who pick up this book. Many young people have fervent hopes and dreams for their future, and the moment that it appears it may not work out as they first believed, it can deeply upset them. For example, teenagers who have wanted to study at tertiary education for their entire lives, only to drop out in their first year: “More than one in five undergraduate students drop out of university within their first year of study, new data shows.” To have a dream for so long, and then be unable to carry it out due to circumstances, can be profoundly upsetting for a person. Mi-ran’s story provokes the reader into seizing control and pushing forward with relationships they want to keep with people they care about it, in doing so, preventing their love-lives from ending up as Mi-ran’s did. We need to be resilient in our choices and be firm against other people’s opinions on our own beliefs.

A third character heralded by Barbara Demick is a woman who goes by the pseudonym of Mrs Song. “A factory worker and mother of four, she was a model citizen of North Korea.” This woman is presented as the symbol of patriotism in this novel. When first introduced she has a great deal of national pride and is extremely devoted to her country. At the beginning of the book, she believes in the ways and means of Kim Il-Sung, and her faith is unwavering. Even though she is shoved into a stereotype by her step-mother, which is not uncommon for women of North Korea, accusing her of being “doomed to have nothing but girls,” Mrs Song perseveres with her goal to become a gold-star citizen to please her Great Leader. Demick shows us this with provoking images that display how dedicated this woman is with what she does. For example, Mrs Song works long, draining hours: ”She was supposed to work eight hours with a lunch break and nap in the middle of her shift.” She is one of the true believers who still take part in the compulsory custom of hanging a portrait of the Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung, which must often be cleaned: “Mrs Song didn’t need the threat of an inspection to clean her portraits. Even in the mad scramble of the mornings… she would still give the pictures a quick swab with the cloth.” Even this small act of polishing her Leader’s portrait every single morning shows the amount of importance that this man – who is viewed more like a god by the citizens of North Korea – has over Mrs Song and other true believers. Mrs Song is used as an example of an actual model citizen – she is what Kim Il-Sung wants his entire nation to think and be like: “Loyalty and filial devotion are the supreme qualities of a revolutionary.” This mindset can be related to an event in the real world. In the 1930s Germany was lead by dictator Adolf Hitler, and his Nazi Party. There was a belief that the Nordic people of Germany were the purest branch of the Aryan race, and therefore, the ‘master race’. The desirable appearance was blonde with blue eyes. People who did not fit these characteristics, or who were not of Nordic descent, were sent off to concentration camps. This relates to Mrs Song, as she fits the desired characteristics of her country: loyal, honest, and respectful of her Great Leader. Therefore she does not experience any discrimination and lives a fairly comfortable life. As the text goes on, Mrs Song begins to struggle with the people around her losing faith in the Great Leader as the Arduous March hits the nation of North Korea. Electricity starts to falter, work slowly becomes less and less available, so what does Mrs Song do? “She [Mrs Song] squeezed her eyes shut, willing herself blind to the unmistakable signs that something was amiss.” This action provokes the reader into trying to put themselves into Mrs Song’s shoes. What would the reader feel if something they had grown up with and had been reliable for all that time in their eyes wasn’t there anymore? Mrs Song has been conditioned her entire life to believe in nothing but the god-like ways of Kim Il-Sung, and now that it is becoming more and more apparent he is no god, she is beginning to lose her way as well. Mrs Song is so loyal that she continues to show up to her job, even though there is no work due to certain materials being unavailable, ending with her manager suggesting she “finds some other way to bring home food for your family.”

The beginning of the turning point for Mrs Song is the death of Kim Il-Sung. When he dies, Mrs Song’s beliefs die with him – this is because she, for so long, had believed he was some immortal being, that when he died, she was shocked beyond belief: “Mrs Song went blank. She felt an electric jolt shoot through her body as though the executioner had just pulled the lever.” It is in this way that Demick uses the raw emotion portrayed by Mrs Song and many others to help and bring the reader in by showing them these adrenalising images, provoking them to think about the dark influence that Kim Il-Sung has had upon his people. Now that he is dead, the people have no god to look to, to save them during this crisis of famine. The nation of North Korea’s hope died with their leader. Mrs Song’s determination to remain a “model citizen” is wavering, seeing as she soon starts her own business on the black market selling tofu, something that she swore she would never do. Later she notes that “simple and kind-hearted people who did what they were told- they were the first to die.”  Soon after the loss of Kim Il-Sung, Mrs Song is also hit with the three losses of her mother, her husband, and finally her son – all perishing from lack of food. As the reader sees Mrs Song fall apart at the seams and hide away in the weeds behind her home, delirious with malnutrition and hunger, they finally see and learn that no significant amount of patriotism can save a person from famine. No amount of status can protect a person from starvation.

Nothing To Envy, a 2009 non-fiction text by Barbara Demick. Throughout this narrative, we learn of a doctor, who with all her years of education cannot save starving children. We hear of a young girl with a forbidden love and tainted blood, who adapts quickly to the famine due to her family having already been treated as lesser. Finally, we learn of a mother who is loyal to her Great Leader above all, but her Leader cannot save her family. The reader is provoked to consider the circumstances they currently live in and compare them to the lives Demick has carefully written about in her 2009 novel. Nothing To Envy is a thought-provoking, compelling tale of the defectors of North Korea, which in turn teaches us always to appreciate what we have because there is eternally someone out there who wishes they had what you have.


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  1. Amy, well done for constructing such a compelling essay. This piece can be submitted this week for your Portfolio.


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