Sandra Fahy's Marching Through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea is now out from Columbia University Press. In our work on the famine and refugees, Marc Noland and I documented psychological distress that resembled post-traumatic stress disorder. But our econometric—and ultimately clinical--way of approaching the issue is much less true to the emotional facts than Fahy’s simple focus on loss. The book is based on a number of interviews Fahy conducted in Tokyo and Seoul and she exercises the restraint of letting her subjects talk at length through her transcribed interviews. Their focus is on both the individual and collective experience of the famine years and their aftermath, but the punch of the book is not in the material facts and coping strategies; it’s in the descriptions of the subjective and social worlds.
There is a temporal organization to the book, but rooted not so much in historical time as in personal time. After stage-setting chapters, Fahy begins with the onset of the famine; she rightly puts a short history of the famine in an appendix to get more directly to her story. Early signs were survived with not only a hope but a belief that things would turn around. As the bottom fell out, Fahy shows how the regime sought to rally the troops by blaming the international environment—and the US in particular—for the travails; survival became “an act of national preservation.” As the realization dawns that deprivation was not passing, Fahy’s subjects trace the social consequences. As one respondent put it eloquently, “human compassion comes from the rice bowl. If there is an abundance to eat, there is harmony; if there is nothing to eat and little work, there will be quarreling.” Fahy’s subjects note the breakdown of families, of domestic abuse, the emergence of crime and the dissipation of trust.
In my favorite chapter, Fahy talks about language. As the famine deepened, the disjuncture between government propaganda and personal and social reality widened. But how to talk about it given the government effort to purge direct discussion? Fahy’s subjects talk about circumlocution and euphemism, but the chapter shows how these efforts to suppress thought had the opposite effect of increasing clarity.
A chapter on death—including not only deaths by starvation but by execution—sets up the emotional denouement: “breaking points.” The key to these breaking points was not only physical—reaching limits of endurance—but frequently rooted in a deep sense of betrayal; that the social contract had failed. But this realization was always mixed with deep sense of regret and even of their own betrayal for leaving their families and a country they loved. The final chapter details the complex emotions of viewing a homeland from the outside. The story is by no means as simple as a simple march to freedom; too much harm had been done to these simple but extraordinary refugees to see their escape as an unmixed blessing. If you want to know why the human rights agenda matters, read this book and be reminded how complexly damaging state-led deprivation and oppression can be.