istock (wood) / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (cover)
istock (wood) / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (cover)

5 Ways North Korea Is Much Worse Than You Think

istock (wood) / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (cover)
istock (wood) / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (cover)

You might think you have some idea of what life is like for North Korean peasants. You’re probably wrong. Under the Same Sky: From Starvation in North Korea to Salvation in America recounts author Joseph Kim’s life in North Korea, and how he eventually escaped. Though the book is beautifully written in a dignified and measured tone, Kim’s life makes the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath look like revelers in The Great Gatsby. Here are five things I learned about North Korea from Under the Same Sky.

1. Life is hard, if not impossible.

When a famine swept across North Korea beginning in 1994, peasants had no idea what was coming. As far as anyone knew, things were going swimmingly and food subsidies from Russia never stopped. As trouble rolled in, the state media certainly didn’t discuss it; food just slowly vanished in a steady squeeze. Hundreds of thousands of people would eventually die from starvation, and some estimates put the number upward of 10 percent of the country’s population. The result was such regular sights as bodies piled outside of train stations, dead of hunger and heat fatigue while waiting for transportation somewhere—anywhere. The rare improvised restaurant out of someone’s home was salvation, or a curse. When animals could not be found, human flesh was rumored to be substituted. A constant fear grew from this of never allowing your children to play outside unsupervised.

2. There is hope in China.

North Korea buzzes with rumors of a better life in China, and stories proliferate of people who slipped across the border, became rich, and brought money back to North Korea in order to feed their families. Money, it was said, was easy to make in China, and there’s a great life to be made as a trader. The process: slip into China, buy goods, bring them home, and sell them. “But how many trips would it take to get rich off North Koreans?” Kim writes with the benefit of retrospection. “Innumerable, countless ones. It was absurd, the whole thing, but it didn’t stop me from populating my dreams with crazy feats.”

The path to China is dangerous. Rumors among North Koreans suggest that the river is electrified with 33,000 volts of electricity. One can be arrested on either side of the Tumen River, which makes up a large stretch of the border separating North Korea and China. Captured defectors can expect to be marched through the streets of some North Korean towns—not for humiliation, but because there are no cars. Waiting at police stations are torture, beatings, and duress positions.  

3. The North Korean government is cartoonish and terrifying.

Growing up, Joseph Kim was taught that Kim Il-Sung was a kind of bureaucratic Santa Claus. “He was our grandfather; he had magical powers; he was the smartest man in the world; and he often flew around the countryside keeping watch on all of his children,” Kim writes. Allowing dust to collect on a portrait of Kim Il-Sung was an offense that carried a prison sentence. So did forgetting to wear one’s Kim Il-Sung badge. The North Korean government’s most effective method of propaganda is by way of statues and giant concrete billboards, each of which contain such propaganda messages as “CHUN LEE MAH,” which means, “We must work a thousand times harder than other countries.” (Engraved concrete is valuable for pro-government propaganda because unlike radio or television, it does not require electricity.) When the famine hit its full stride, the government ramped up its patriotic campaigns, mounting such efforts as the “Let’s Eat Two Meals a Day” drive. Meanwhile, city dwellers were put to work in the fields, where they farmed from pre-dawn to nighttime.

4. You don’t want to go to a detention camp.

Young delinquents need not be afraid of the police, who are easily purchased for very little money. State-controlled agencies are the real threat. The North Korean Department of Youth, for example, runs detention camps and is responsible for everyone between the ages of 14 and 28. Detention camp crimes include truancy, thievery, and failure to properly honor North Korean leaders. Especially during the famine, such camps were useful for imposing forced starvation on citizens without fear of the public witnessing such atrocities. Kim described his typical detention camp meal as “watery soup and maggoty cornmeal, and not enough of either.” Older inmates enforce the rules at detention centers, resulting in a Lord-of-the-Flies-type operation. When a detainee is targeted for beatings, it’s not pretty: “It was a competition to see who could hit the hardest. The boy’s skull was their favorite target.” During night hours, older inmates allowed (if not required) singing, but never sad songs, not wanting to “disturb the good atmosphere.”

5. Slipping across the Chinese border is only the first step in escaping North Korea.

North Koreans who have made it across the Tumen River must quickly come to grips with reality. It’s a shock to learn that every Chinese citizen isn’t rich, and that border towns do not want to deal with refugees. And there’s no hiding one’s North-Korean-ness. Emaciation, ravenous appetite, and filthy clothes are one indicator, but so too is basic demeanor and bearing. (Trying, for example, to be invisible in public.) Good advice for North Korean refugees is to keep moving so as to avoid Chinese police. This isn’t necessarily easy because of how overwhelming everything is. The buildings are taller, colors are brighter and in greater variety, and people are wearing fashionable clothes.

Another bit of advice handed down that, in Kim’s case, turned out to be incredibly important, was to seek out churches in China. (“What’s a church?” Kim asked upon hearing this.) Churches, he was told, will give you money. (“Why would these church people just give you money?” / “Because they’re Christians.” / “What are Christians?” / “The people in the churches.”) A charity at one such church eventually conspired to help Kim find asylum in the United States. Not everyone is so lucky, however. Some are never discovered by charities. Many young, desperate North Korean women are sold into China as household slaves. Others are sold into the sex trade. As Under the Same Sky makes very clear, life for the average North Korean is hard, and good fortune in short supply.

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Hulton Archive, Getty Images
15 Things You Might Not Know About Jules Verne
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Jules Verne, widely regarded as one of the fathers of science fiction, wrote some of literature's most famous adventure novels, including seminal works like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in 80 Days. In addition to helping pioneer a new genre of writing, the French author also sailed the world, had a career as a stockbroker, fell in love with his cousin, and was shot by his nephew. Here are 15 facts you probably didn't know about him.

1. HE GREW UP SURROUNDED BY SHIPS.

On February 8, 1828, Pierre and Sophie Verne welcomed their first child, Jules Gabriel, at Sophie's mother's home in Nantes, a city in western France. Verne's birthplace had a profound impact on his writing. In the 19th century, Nantes was a busy port city that served as a major hub for French shipbuilders and traders, and Verne's family lived on Ile Feydeau, a small, man-made island in a tributary of the Loire River. Verne spent his childhood watching ships sail down the Loire and imagining what it would be like to climb aboard them [PDF]. He would later work these early memories of maritime life into his writing.

2. HE FELL IN LOVE WITH HIS COUSIN.

Verne began writing poetry at just 12 years old. As a teenager, he used poetry as an outlet for his burgeoning romantic feelings. Verne fell in love with his cousin, Caroline Tronson, who was a year and a half older than him. He wrote and dedicated poems to Tronson, gave her presents, and attended dances with her. Unfortunately, Tronson didn't reciprocate her younger cousin's feelings. In 1847, when Verne was 19 and Tronson was 20, she married a man two decades her senior. Verne was heartbroken.

3. HIS FATHER PRESSURED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

While Verne had been passionate about writing since his early teens, his father strongly encouraged young Jules to follow in his footsteps and enter the legal profession. Soon after Tronson's marriage, Verne's father capitalized on his son's depression, convincing him to move to Paris to study law.

Verne graduated with a law degree in 1851. But he kept writing fiction during this period, and continued to clash with his father over his career path. In 1852, Verne's father arranged for him to practice law in Nantes, but Verne decided to pursue life as a writer instead.

4. HE LIVED IN PARIS DURING A TUMULTUOUS TIME.

Verne's time in Paris coincided with a period of intense political instability. The French Revolution of 1848 broke out soon after Verne moved to the city to study law. Though he didn't participate, he was strikingly close to the conflict and its turbulent aftermath, including the coup d'état that ended France's Second Republic. "On Thursday the fighting was intense; at the end of my street, houses were knocked down by cannon fire," he wrote to his mother during the fighting that followed the coup in December 1851. Verne managed to stay out of the political upheaval during those years, but his writing later explored themes of governmental strife. In his 1864 novella The Count of Chanteleine: A Tale of the French Revolution, Verne wrote about the struggles of ordinary and noble French people during the French Revolutionary Wars, while his novel The Flight to France recounted the wartime adventures of an army captain in 1792.

5. HE BECAME A STOCKBROKER TO PAY THE BILLS.

In May 1856, Verne was the best man at his best friend's wedding in Amiens, a city in northern France. During the wedding festivities, Verne lodged with the bride's family and met Honorine de Viane Morel, the bride's sister. He developed a crush on Morel, a 26-year-old widow with two kids, and in January 1857, with the permission of her family, the two married.

There was one big problem. Verne had been writing plays for Paris theaters, but being a playwright didn't pay the bills. Verne needed a respectable income to support Morel and her daughters. Morel's brother offered Verne a job at a brokerage, and he accepted, quitting his theater job to become a stockbroker at the Paris Bourse. Writing was never too far from Verne's mind, though. He woke up early each day to write and research for several hours before heading to his day job.

6. HIS ADVENTURE NOVELS WERE PART OF A SERIES …

A caricature of Jules Verne on the sea floor with fantastic sea creatures on the cover of a magazine.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Modern readers probably think of Verne's most famous books as distinct entities, but his adventure novels were actually part of a series. In the early 1860s, Verne met Pierre-Jules Hetzel, an established publisher and magazine editor who helped Verne publish his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon. This novel served as the beginning of Voyages Extraordinaires, a series of dozens of books written by Verne and published by Hetzel. Most of these novels—including famous titles like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—appeared in installments in Hetzel's magazine before being published in book form.

7. … THAT PROVIDED HIM WITH A STEADY STREAM OF INCOME.

Starting in 1863, Verne agreed to write two volumes per year for Hetzel, a contract that provided him with a steady source of income for decades. Between 1863 and 1905, Verne published 54 novels about travel, adventure, history, science, and technology for the Voyages Extraordinaires series. He worked closely with Hetzel on characters, structure, and plot until the publisher's death in 1886. Verne's writing wasn't limited to this series, however; in total, he wrote 65 novels over the course of his life, though some would not be published until long after his death.

8. HE DREW INSPIRATION FROM HIS OWN SAILING ADVENTURES.

During the 1860s, Verne's career was taking off, and he was making good money. So in 1867, he bought a small yacht, which he named the Saint Michel, after his son, Michel. When he wasn't living in Amiens, he spent time sailing around Europe to the Channel Islands, along the English Coast, and across the Bay of Biscay. Besides enjoying the peace and quiet at sea, he also worked during these sailing trips, writing most of the manuscripts for Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea on his yacht. As he earned more money, he replaced the Saint Michel with a larger boat that he called the Saint Michel II. A few years later, he bought a third vessel, the Saint Michel III, a steam yacht that he hired a crew of 10 to man on long voyages to Scotland and through the Mediterranean.

9. HE'S ONE OF THE MOST TRANSLATED AUTHORS IN THE WORLD …

Verne wrote in French, but his works have always had an international appeal. Since the 1850s, his writing has been translated into approximately 150 languages—making him the second most translated author ever. He has appeared in translation even more often than William Shakespeare. He is second only to Agatha Christie, who holds the world record.

10. … BUT NOT ALL OF THOSE TRANSLATIONS ARE ACCURATE.

Although Verne wrote primarily for adults, many English-language publishers considered his science fiction writing to be juvenile and marketed his books to children. Translators dumbed down his work, simplifying stories, cutting heavily researched passages, summarizing dialogue, and in some cases, nixing anything that might be construed as a critique of the British Empire. Many translations even contain outright errors, such as measurements converted incorrectly.

Some literary historians now bemoan the shoddy translations of many of Verne's works, arguing that almost all of these early English translations feature significant changes to both plot and tone. Even today, these poor translations make up much of Verne's available work in English. But anglophone readers hoping to read more authentic versions of his stories are in luck. Thanks to scholarly interest, there has been a recent surge in new Verne translations that aim to be more faithful to the original texts.

11. HE HAD MAJOR HEALTH PROBLEMS.

Starting in his twenties, Verne began experiencing sudden bouts of extreme stomach pain. He wrote about his agonizing stomach cramps in letters to family members, but he failed to get a proper diagnosis from doctors. To try to ease his pain, he experimented with different diets, including one in which he ate only eggs and dairy. Historians believe that Verne may have had colitis or a related digestion disorder.

Even more unsettling than the stomach pain, Verne suffered from five episodes of facial paralysis over the course of his life. During these painful episodes, one side of his face suddenly became immobile. After the first attack, doctors treated his facial nerve with electric stimulation, but he had another attack five years later, and several more after that. Recently, researchers have concluded that he had Bell's palsy, a temporary form of one-sided facial paralysis caused by damage to the facial nerve. Doctors have hypothesized that it was the result of ear infections or inflammation, but no one knows for sure why he experienced this.

Verne developed type-2 diabetes in his fifties, and his health declined significantly in the last decade of his life. He suffered from high blood pressure, chronic dizziness, tinnitus, and other maladies, and eventually went partially blind.

12. HIS MENTALLY ILL NEPHEW SHOT HIM IN THE LEG …

In March 1886, a traumatic incident left the 58-year-old Verne disabled for the rest of his life. Verne's nephew Gaston, who was then in his twenties and suffering from mental illness, suddenly became violent, to Verne's detriment. The writer was arriving home one day when, out of the blue, Gaston shot him twice with a pistol. Thankfully, Verne survived, but the second bullet that Gaston fired struck the author's left leg.

13. … LEAVING HIM WITH A PERMANENT LIMP.

After the incident, Gaston was sent to a mental asylum. He wasn't diagnosed with a specific disorder, but most historians believe he suffered from paranoia or schizophrenia.

Verne never fully recovered from the attack. The bullet damaged his left leg badly, and his diabetes complicated the healing process. A secondary infection left him with a noticeable limp that persisted until his death in 1905.

14. HIS WORK CONTRIBUTED TO THE RISE OF STEAMPUNK.

Verne's body of work heavily influenced steampunk, the science fiction subgenre that takes inspiration from 19th century industrial technology. Some of Verne's characters, as well as the fictional machines he wrote about, have appeared in prominent steampunk works. For example, the TV show The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne explored the idea that Verne actually experienced the fantastic things he wrote about, and Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea appeared as a character in the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

15. MANY OF HIS PREDICTIONS WERE SURPRISINGLY SPOT-ON.

Some of the technology Verne imagined in his fiction later became reality. One of the machines that Verne dreamed up, Nautilus—the electric submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—came to life years after he first wrote about it. The first installment of the serialized Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was published in 1869, and the first battery-powered submarines were launched in the 1880s. (Similar submarine designs are still in use today.)

In addition, Verne's Paris In The Twentieth Century contains several surprisingly accurate technological predictions. Written in 1863, the dystopian novel imagines a tech-obsessed Parisian society in 1960. Verne wrote about skyscrapers, elevators, cars with internal combustion engines, trains, electric city lights, and suburbs. He was massively ahead of his time. He even wrote about a group of mechanical calculators (as in, computers) that could communicate with one another over a network (like the Internet). Pretty impressive for a guy born in 1828.

But Verne's influence goes beyond science fiction, steampunk, or real-world technology. His writing has inspired countless authors in genres ranging from poetry to travel to adventure. As Ray Bradbury wrote, "We are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne."

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TASCHEN
Everything You Need to Know About Food in One Book
TASCHEN
TASCHEN

If you find yourself mixing up nigiri and sashimi at sushi restaurants or don’t know which fruits are in season, then this is the book for you. Food & Drink Infographics, published by TASCHEN, is a colorful and comprehensive guide to all things food and drink.

The book combines tips and tricks with historical context about the ways in which different civilizations illustrated and documented the foods they ate, as well as how humans went from hunter-gatherers to modern-day epicureans. As for the infographics, there’s a helpful graphic explaining the number of servings provided by different cake sizes, a heat index of various chilies, a chart of cheeses, and a guide to Italian cold cuts, among other delectable charts.

The 480-page coffee table book, which can be purchased on Amazon for $56, is written in three languages: English, French, and German. The infographics themselves come from various sources, and the text is provided by Simone Klabin, a New York City-based writer and lecturer on film, art, culture, and children’s media.

Keep scrolling to see a few of the infographics featured in the book.

An infographic about cheese
TASCHEN

An infographic about cakes
Courtesy of TASCHEN

An infographic about fruits in season
Courtesy of TASCHEN

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