Title: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Author: Barbara Demick
A National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle finalist, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy is a remarkable view into North Korea, as seen through the lives of six ordinary citizens. “Nothing to Envy” follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years — a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Taking us into a landscape most of us have never before seen, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today — an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, in which radio and television dials are welded to the one government station, and where displays of affection are punished; a police state where informants are rewarded and where an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors. Through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her six subjects — average North Korean citizens — fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we experience the moments when they realize that their government has betrayed them. “Nothing to Envy” is a groundbreaking addition to the literature of totalitarianism and an eye-opening look at a closed world that is of increasing global importance. (from Goodreads)
Thoughts: This book chronicles the lives of six ordinary North Koreans living their everyday lives. Besides detailing their normal lives, the book tells how they survived the horrible famine in the mid-1990s and the the circumstances leading up to each deciding to defect out of North Korea.
I read this book as part of a book club I belong to, although it has been on my radar since earlier this year. I really loved this book! Demick does an incredible job bringing North Korea to life, a difficult task considering North Korea is the most isolated country in the world. Demick herself has been to North Korea as a reporter so she has some first-hand experience, but the amount of research she put into this book really shows. The only criticism I would have is that occasionally information is repeated within a short period of time- one final edit would have made this book near perfect.
I have a lot of thoughts about this book. I really liked Mi-ran. Her father, a miner, was born in the southern half of the Korean peninsula, and fought for the South during the Korean War. He was captured by Northern forces; as such, Mi-ran and her family suffer from ‘tainted blood’ and have a low class status in North Korean society. However she manages to be accepted into a teacher’s college and becomes a kindergarten teacher. In the middle of the 1990s a famine, caused by a variety of factors, descended onto North Korea. About 2 million people died. People were reduced to leaving the cities and wandering into the countryside looking for edible weeds and peeling bark off the trees. They ate corn husks and corn stalks. Rice, extremely important in Korean culture, was non-existent. Frogs are now virtually extinct in North Korea because they were all eaten during this period. Dogs and cats were drowned and eaten. When Mi-ran started teaching, her kindergarten class contained 50 students. Over time that number dwindled down to 15; 35 of her students, more then half her class, died of starvation. This was a really sad period in North Korean history and it was heart-wrenching to read about. One women whose life is detailed in the book lost her mother-in-law in the first year of the famine, her husband the next year, and her 25 year old son the year after, all victims of starvation. The famine finally ended, not because of an increase in the food supply, but because so many people died that those who were left had more to eat.
This book is just as interesting, and disturbing, in regards to what it reveals about North Korean society. Private ownership of cars is illegal. Workers attend mandatory ideological training after their normal working hours. Every house as two portraits- one of Kim Il-sung and one of his son, Kim Jong-il. No other pictures or any other decoration are allowed to reside on the wall these pictures hang on. Citizens are expected to clean these portraits daily, and there are monthly inspections to insure that the portraits are being taken proper care of. North Korean couples don’t get married in a religious ceremony; instead, they get married in front of a statue of Kim Il-sung, who takes the place of the clergy. There are a lot of other facts in this book that just blew my mind. I knew that life in North Korea was restrictive, oppressive, and that the government participates in severe human rights violations, but reading this book really brought home what terrible conditions millions of people currently live under. It’s terribly sad, and it made me even more grateful for where I was born.
This book is incredibly relevant because of all the commotion North Korea is currently causing in the news. It’sis one of the few chances we will ever have to look inside this reticent, secluded nation. Highly recommended!