I bought this book after reading an article on BBC News on how it had won an award. I became interested in North Korea when I decided to write my A Level History coursework on the totalitarian regime there, but ultimately gave up and switched to Germany due to just how difficult it is finding information on this secretive country - a country where foriegners are only allowed to visit the capital, Pyongyang, accompanied by two minders to make sure they don't see anything the state doesn't want them to see. A country where most ordinary citizens are not even allowed to visit their own capital, with only party members or promising academics allowed to live there.
This book not only offers an insight into the real lives of six North Koreans, and puts human names and faces on the statistics, but taught me several things I didn't even know. I knew there had been a famine in North Korea in the 90s, but I did not know how severe it actually was. This is possibly due in part to my age - I was born in '89, so I was too young to pay attention to any news broadcasts about it we may have had at the time. I didn't know that people were reduced to eating husks and the bark off of trees, with grass to create the illusion of vegetables. I didn't know that North Korea ended up losing most aid that was given, as it would only show the healthiest children when aid agencies came to see the extent of the famine, who then had to conclude they didn't need as much aid as they thought, and that the aid they did get was mostly confiscated by the military and sold for profit on the black market instead of being properly distributed.
I didn't know that it was so bad teachers would watch their students starve while eating their own lunches down to the last kernal of corn - it may be difficult to grasp for us, how they would not share their food with starving children - but they had to switch off, to stop themselves caring - "it was either that or go insane." I didn't know that it became commonplace to walk around bodies in the street, or that doctors were expected to donate their own skin to give skin grafts to patients.
I didn't know that the country has virtually no electricity - a satellite photo at the start of the book shows South Korea blazing with light, and to the north, just a black expanse, except for one small glow that is Pyongyang, the only place that has electricity around the clock.
I didn't know that people were executed for stealing copper wire from electricty pylons to swap for food.
North Korea is a country that still has Gulag style prison camps, secret police, and public executions. It encourages it's citizens to tell people in authority if they suspect their neighbours have been criticising the regime - similar to Nazi Germany. Each neighbourhood has an imimban (kind of like a community leader), whose job it is to report even the slightest thing to a party official. Newspapers even print stories about "heroic" children who reported their own parents. It is a country that starts brainwashing it's citizens from birth, and children sing songs in school about how they will "kill the American bastards".
It's a fantastic, and yet horrifying, book, and is a great insight into North Korea.