Is life in North Korea really not that bad?

November 2, 2012

North Korea is so insular that tales from defectors are some of the few glimpses the Western world gets. Books such as Blaine Harding's "Escape from Camp 14" or Barbara Demick’s "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea" are filled with former North Koreans' accounts of innocent people toiling away in gulags, scrounging around train stations for food and living in complete darkness thanks to nationwide energy shortages.

But Felix Abt, a Swiss businessman who lived in North Korea for years, says these and other widely read accounts of life in North Korea tell far from the whole story. In a recent opinion piece on GlobalPost, he makes the incredibly unusual argument that North Korea isn't as destitute and oppressed as its escapees would have you believe.

"For seven years, I made a living in the world's most closed off communist country as — of all careers there — a businessman. Now living a comfortable life as an entrepreneur in Vietnam, I have all sorts of stories to tell that contradict these tales."

For example, he writes that in a visit to Chongjin, a city whose total collapse in the mid-'90s was chronicled in "Nothing to Envy," "badly damaged infrastructures during the floods had been repaired, a number of withering and dilapidated factories had resumed operation after being abandoned, street markets had expanded and a good number of new buildings had been built." It was six years after the period during which "Envy" is set, and Abt says everyday people said that "life had improved dramatically."

He also challenged the view, put forth in other literature, that North Koreans' cultural options consist mainly of government propaganda.

"When I traveled around the countryside, school children narrated old Korean folktales to me, rather than regime propaganda. ... At home and sometimes at their universities, they watched foreign movies like 'Gone with the Wind' and 'Titanic.' "

You can read Abt's full account here, but it's worth noting that he's an outlier, as most foreign visitors to the country later describe it as a repressive hellhole.

However, a few other commentators have pointed out that South Korea has also been the instigator of the occasional instance of geopolitical bullying, even though it's frequently portrayed as the good twin of the Koreas.

It's true that in North Korea, there have been some recent, small signs of openness — new leader Kim Jong Eun introduced small-scale agricultural reforms with elements of capitalism,  The Washington Post's Chico Harlan reported.

One defector told Harlan that a large gulag had recently closed, but most of its political prisoners were probably relocated, not freed.

Another defector who fled to South Korea later returned to the North and claimed in news conferences to have missed her homeland, but most of her acquaintances said it was most likely a government-concocted tale.

Most people will never know what life is really like in North Korea, however, so stories from journalists — and devil's advocates like Abt — are all we have to go on.

What do you think? Do journalists overstate the negative when they report on North Korea?

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Max Fisher | November 2, 2012