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This Is Paradise!

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This Is Paradise!

October 15th, 2007  · Rachel

Rachel reviews "This is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood", an autobiography by Hyok Kang. The compelling autobiography provides a rare glimpse into life in North Korea, as told through the eyes of a child.

(Non-Fiction)Review of "This Is Paradise! My North Korean Childhood" an autobiography by Hyok Kang

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other international human rights organisations have asserted that North Korea, officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, has one of the worst human rights records of any nation. Human Rights violations include suppression of Freedom of Expression, Movement, and Religion, as well as the use of arbitrary detention and imprisonment, inhumane prison conditions, torture and the death penalty. However, North Korea is a closed society, with very little information making it into, or out of, the country. Consequently, first-hand accounts of the living conditions and reality of life in this totalitarian state are shocking, especially when told by a child.

Hyok Kang spent the first thirteen years of his life in North Korea and he describes many aspects of life in the socialist state. He describes how the children are taught to worship the party leader, “Great Leader Kim Jong-Il” and his deceased farther Kim Il-Sung. How total respect of these two leaders is an expectation of all citizens. He describes the conditions inside penal colonies, work camps and how public executions are carried out, as well as how the citizens are encouraged to denounce their peers, generating a society built on distrust. Hyok Kang talks about the impact of the great famine of the 1990’s, which lead to the death of hundreds of thousands of citizens, while making others lie, steal, cheat, and even resort to cannibalism, in order to survive. Despite all the hardships of life in North Korea, the party propaganda is so pervasive that the majority of citizens still believe that, compared to the rest of the world, “This is Paradise.”

It is not until Hyok Kang and his family escape to China that the North Korean political brainwashing begins to unravel and he appreciates the relative luxuries of life, outside of North Korea. Even still, his family is not safe, as the threat of forced repatriation and execution are constant. After years of living in China as a fugitive, Hyok Kang undertakes the dangerous journey across North Korean sympathetic states, such as Cambodia and Vietnam, before finally making it to safety in South Korea, where he now struggles to put the past behind him.

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This is Paradise! is an eye opening book. It gives the reader an appreciation of what life is really like in a totalitarian Stalinist state on the other side of the world. The few documentaries and newspaper articles that I have seen or read on North Korea had failed to convey the stories of the citizens living under the realm of Kim Jong-Il. Hyok Kang, however, has enabled me to feel the hunger and suppression of the people of North Korea like never before.

At times this book left me hanging, hungry for more detail and insight to Hyok Kang’s childhood self. I often felt that the book read like a newspaper article with its short, choppy sentence structure and the way it quickly jumped from fact to fact. I wanted more about how Hyok Kang felt about things, but was usually disappointed when such opportunities were passed over with summations such as, “I felt guilty about that.”

The difficulties with the writing style may well be due to the fact that Philippe Grangereau, the co-author, is a journalist by profession. It has also been suggested that Hyok Kang may have a naturally formal way of speaking, or the only way that he is able to talk about the hardships of his childhood, by denuding them of as much emotion as possible. Difficulties with flow and style may also be a result of the number of times that Hyok Kang’s story has been translated, in order to arrive at the English version: his mother tongue is Korean, but he was interviewed by Grangereau in Chinese, who then wrote in French and the book was later translated, by Shaun Whiteside, into English. With that number of translations, it is easy to understand how much style would be lost in the process. Nonetheless, the eye-opening essence of this book is not diminished by the awkwardness of the writing style.

While this book is shocking, it is also informative, enlightening and empowering. Hyok Kang’s discussion of the stigma and hardships that he still faces as a refugee make me think of the refugees in my own country and how we treat them. This book has given me some knowledge and understanding, with which I may be in a better position to influence change, both big and small.

If you found this review helpful, please consider purchasing a copy via this link at - This is Paradise! (My North Korean Childhood). Even if you don't purchase a book, the link provides editorial and other reader reviews and other salient information.

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Updated: 17-Oct-2007
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1.flag Gran Pilley Comment
Hey Rachel: I have just finished a book and am after another one. I will give this one a try. It sounds very like one I've just read. I can recommend it to you. Infidel is the autobiography of a Somali Muslim girl who lives in a strict Muslim household which moves from Somalia to Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya. She escapes an arranged marriage and lives in Holland a small country but with a large Muslim population. She questions Islam and eventually there is a fatwa against her. I can't give you my copy as I got it from the library but its a great read, I couldn't put it down.