North Koreans defectors who survived the famine of the 1990s were not brainwashed puppets of the regime prior to the crisis, and the experience didn’t necessarily leave them embittered toward the state after it took place.
So said Sandra Fahy of Sophia University in Tokyo, whose book Marching through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea, will hit bookshelves in March next year. Fahy said she has been interested in North Korea since 1998, about the time she finished her undergraduate degree.
“I had previously read everything I could get my hands on about collective social suffering as a consequence to political violence (historical and contemporary literature) and was deeply fascinated by materials, both oral and written, produced by survivors of political violence,” she said. “One area where there was a stony silence was in famine history.
“If you take a good look you’ll see there’s almost nothing written by survivors of famine, though it’s a kind of political violence known to nearly all peoples at some point in their history.”
Fahy became intrigued to know how famine survivors would write about their suffering, and whether that could be in ways similar to survivors of other kinds of political violence.
With such questions in mind she began an MA in interdisciplinary studies (history, anthropology, sociology), exploring accounts of famine written by colonial historians, and considered them alongside other accounts of collective social suffering (such as the Holocaust and other cases of genocide).
As she could find no accounts from survivors themselves Fahy grew curious about the topic and in 2001 moved to Korea to study the Korean language.
“There were some North Koreans making their way out by then (via defection) and I wanted to learn Korean to talk to them,” she said.
She later completed a Ph.D in anthropology at SOAS, University of London and has held positions at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Science (EHESS) in Paris and the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California, before settling into her current position in Tokyo.
Fahy’s forthcoming book uses survivors’ oral accounts to explore changes in social relations, perceptions of the state, communication methods between individuals and the experience of defecting.
NK News: Your main concern seems to be with anthropological and social issues, in a country where direct ethnographic fieldwork is not possible at present. What are the main challenges you face?
Fahy: I respect the anthropological historical tendency to value highly the “being there” aspect of fieldwork. I think there is little that can replace that. There are sometimes places we can’t go, or cannot access and for me this is frustrating.
When I was working on my Ph.D I was keen to interview North Korean officials and get their take on things. It would have been even better to spend a few months in North Korea – well, neither of those things was possible. I had to rely on what North Korean defectors had to say.
This is an example of one of the many complications. Who do you believe? For me, it was not so much the “truth” that I was after, as it was an exploration of how this experience was communicated, understood and coped with that interested me. So it wasn’t, “How many died in your village? Is that number accurate?” but rather exploring what kinds of connections North Koreans themselves made between things.
All work has limitations, we are all just putting our small piece together with other scholars, journalists (and) activists so that we can approximate a better picture
For example: “Mrs. Kim was complaining the other day about being hungry, and now she’s gone.” That’s a paraphrase of something I heard a few times. So, for my interlocutor there is a connection between the speech of Mrs. Kim and her disappearance. Not the “truth” but rather the function and production of knowledge within society, and how that was used. That, to me, is interesting.
All work has limitations, we are all just putting our small piece together with other scholars, journalists (and) activists so that we can approximate a better picture.
I think the best thing is, particularly with books, to let your reader know what the book is and is not offering. That way there is no disappointment. Also, it indicates where future research could go, if it has the will and the means.
NK News: Rather than analyzing the famine under the lens of economic studies and humanitarian aid, you have the approach of illustrating changes within the social fabric of North Korea.
Fahy: Famine, if it happens today – if it occurred any time since the last half of the 20th century – was something that could have been averted. North Korea could have averted the famine, but prioritized other things.
Many in the international community perhaps silently hoped that the famine would bring social change. It did, but not as may have been hoped (revolution, regime change).
Historically, famines have never caused a revolution. A bread riot, yes, not a revolution. In a country like the DPRK your food is provided via the state, so when that relationship changes, when it becomes insecure, it’s pretty meaningful.
What meaning did the state ascribe to this insecurity? This failed promise? What meaning did people give to it? These were my questions. Also, something more close to home, if you’re a scholar of Korea you know how important food is. If you’re an anthropologist you know that food is one of the central cultural identifiers. Food, types of food, methods of cooking, carry history in them, stories.
A political, economic and social freedom is achieved (by defecting), but I think many North Koreans would say it is not a freedom of the heart – the heart remains in North Korea
When I was conducting the research I was surprised by something: I had expected North Koreans would have been angry, annoyed, judging of the state for failing to provide food for them (as it promised to do).
They were angry after the fact, in South Korea and China, but when I asked them to recollect their lives in North Korea they did not have anger toward the state then. They did not see the triage of resources toward the military, toward the capital, as unfair. Rather “that’s just the way it was” – this kind of banal rationalization that was unusual to me.
I believe my most important findings are these: first of all, we should not presume that those who defect are always and necessarily the worst off. Many still hold the memory of Kim Il Sung highly, while demonizing Kim Jong Il.
The gradual aspect of famine meant that people were never sure that a “crisis” was happening; it crept into their lives slowly and by the time it was very severe for them individually it was often too late (or too politically impossible, perhaps also the will was not there) to do anything.
Perhaps some of the most interesting things I leaned in this research concern now North Koreans use language to communicate different registers of socially acceptable activity.
For instance, if they were planning on going to the black market they didn’t use amshijang(“black market”); they used the word baekwhajom – they called it the department store. They use humor and wordplay with great skill to communicate what they need, just as any of us do.
I had read about the role of humor in the Holocaust, so I wasn’t shy to ask North Koreans about common jokes during the famine years. This fact, that they use humor and wordplay, directly challenges the notion that they are all brainwashed victims.
The other thing which is significant is this: Many North Koreans I met with felt a deep ambivalence about leaving the North. Yes, it’s a corrupt state, but they are connected to family, friends, community – it is everything they have known for most of their lives, so departing is not the “achievement of liberation” that it is often depicted to be in the international community. A political, economic and social freedom is achieved, but I think many North Koreans would say it is not a freedom of the heart – the heart remains in North Korea.
NK News: How about gender differences? It’s a known fact now that the economic crisis has turned North Korean women into the real breadwinners. Was there humor about this fact too?
Fahy: Well, there wasn’t a lot, and it wasn’t something that naturally came out. But I had the sense to ask it, so I did. Women called men meongmeongi (doggy), as if they were just dogs barking into the air. They also called them “daytime light bulbs” (i.e. not useful).
I recently had the chance to ask three 2014 North Korean arrivals, women, at Hanawon, what male-female relations were like in North Korea. They said relations were bad
The women really took a strong role in the markets during the famine. Two reasons for this: the state turned a blind eye to women’s work (which has often been regarded as something not as vital as what men do) and also women in famine-time typically pick up the slack. North Korean men lost face, or so many folks (men and women) told me, and women were better at “knowing how to talk to sell things.”
I recently had the chance to ask three 2014 North Korean arrivals, women, at Hanawon, what male-female relations were like in North Korea. They said relations were bad. That they were shocked when they got here (South Korea) to see how men behave. North Korea is still a very male-chauvinistic society. This “macho factor” is something I hope to explore more in my next book on militarism.
NK News: How important has it been for you to have a good command of the language, and how did that change your communication and relationship with your interviewees?
Fahy: Quite important, I would say. I studied Korean at Seoul National University’s Language School (2001-2004) and then at Yonsei’s Language School (2005-2006). I am grateful for that, and honestly can’t imagine doing this research without having a good command of Korean.
First of all, Korean is a fascinating language and it is beautiful. Second, and perhaps more important, when you speak Korean it (in my experience) wins you the esteem of your interlocutor, particularly if they are North Korean. Now I’m not saying my Korean is perfect, far from it, but for a white woman who started studying it in her 20s it’s not bad!
There’s something else too. I love language, I love literature and poetry, and being able to read what North Koreans themselves write, being able to listen to how they (not how their South Korean translators) use words, that is special. I have met some of the most amazing wordsmiths from that silent, hermit country called North Korea.
For my new book I’m embarking on interviews with military defectors and I have hired a translator to come with me. This is my first time having this opportunity.
He’s South Korean and he’s a former military, but he knows I have a good command of Korean too. In this case, I’m bringing him along because, to be honest, even in English, military lingo is very confusing for me, so he’s sort of my military dictionary.
Main picture: Eric Lafforgue
North Koreans defectors who survived the famine of the 1990s were not brainwashed puppets of the regime prior to the crisis, and the experience didn’t necessarily leave them embittered toward the state after it took place.So said Sandra Fahy of Sophia University in Tokyo, whose book Marching through Suffering: Loss and Survival in North Korea, will hit bookshelves in March next year. Fahy
Gianluca Spezza is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Korean Studies (IKSU), University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), in the UK. His work has been published and interviewed on The Guardian, BBC, Newsweek Korea, and DR among others. He writes about North Korea, international organizations, international relations and national identity. Email him at [email protected]or follow him on Twitter @TheSpezz