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Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick



The Korean War never officially ended. To this day, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea engages in insane posturing and grandstanding, reminding the world that they have nukes while demanding food, all the while issuing apocalyptic threats worthy of Saddam Hussein aimed at South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

The posturing is no idle threat. While economists worry about how North and South Korea will integrate in the event of a future unification (most agree that even in a best-case scenario it will be vastly more difficult and uglier than the unification of East and West Germany), some observers fear that it is entirely possible that Kim Jong Il or whoever is in charge at the time might decide to go out in a blaze of glory rather than simply collapsing as the Soviet Union did. Should hostilities break out, even assuming no nuclear warheads are involved, North Korea has enough artillery within range of Seoul to flatten the city, home of 12 million people (and the US 2nd Infantry Division).

The South Korean and US response, of course, would probably leave everything on the North Korean side of the DMZ looking like the surface of the moon, but after reading Nothing to Envy, it’s hard to imagine that the North Korean people would actually be any worse off.

From the book’s website

What if the nightmare imagined by George Orwell in 1984 were real? What if you had to live in a country where radio dials were fixed to a single government station? Where the surroundings were entirely black-and-white except for the red lettering of the propaganda signs? Where you were required to keep a large portrait of the president on your living room wall and bow to it on national holidays? Where sexuality was repressed except for purposes of reproduction? Where spies like Orwell’s Thought Police studied your facial expressions during political rallies to make sure you were sincere not only in your speech but your thoughts?
This is a real place – the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea or North Korea. The Communist regime that has controlled the northern half of the Korean peninsula since 1945 might be the most totalitarian of modern world history.

George Polk Award and Robert F. Kennedy Award-Winning Journalist Barbara Demick’s NOTHING TO ENVY: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Spiegel & Grau) offers a never-before-seen view of a country and society largely unknown to the rest of the world.



North Korea is probably the most insulated and repressive country in the history of the world. While other dictators can boast greater body counts, not even Hitler or Mao or Stalin were able to seal their borders and control their populations as thoroughly as Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, have done. But despite the fact that North Korea is virtually a closed world, some people do get in (journalists and tourists and a few aid workers, with a two-person team of “guides" assigned to every one, as well as diplomats), and some get out, mostly crossing the border into China, and a few of those making their way to South Korea.

Barbara Demick was in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war and wrote a book about the conflict there. Nothing to Envy (the name comes from a North Korean song) is the same sort of journalism: it’s a picture of life in North Korea based on interviews she conducted with defectors she interviewed over several years while she was working for the Los Angeles Times in Seoul.

It’s a fascinating but depressing picture. Most Americans imagine an Orwellian police state, and it is -- people get sent to labor camps for making jokes about the Dear Leader’s height -- but it’s the complete sense of unreality that permeates the book. The government exists in a delusional dream world in which the godlike figure of Kim Jong Il causes the sun to rise and set, and it’s hard to tell who earnestly believes the propaganda and who has seen through it but doesn’t dare talk about it with anyone else. This was the case with one couple interviewed in the book. They were romantically involved for nine years, but had never so much as held hands, and both were making plans to escape the country, neither ever telling the other. It is one of the bittersweet ironies of this book that both of them did, separately, eventually make their way to South Korea, and were reunited, only to find that they had little in common outside the repressive regime where they had grown up.

While the anecdotes about what daily life is like in such a repressive country are fascinating, and it’s very interesting to hear the tales about how defectors escape, the most terrible and affecting part of the book is the story of the famine that killed millions of North Koreans in the 1990s. No one knows how many, but by some estimates it was upwards of 10% of the population. Everyone who survived saw people literally dropping dead in the streets. There are tales of mothers, husbands, daughters and sons starving to death, all while the government exhorted the population to “square their shoulders and continue the Arduous March" and forbade them to grow their own food. People exchanged tips on how to thicken stone soup with ground up bark and grass. A schoolteacher watched her students stop coming to class as they died at home, one by one. Doctors worked in hospitals that had no medicine and no food. As Demick grimly points out, when the worst of the famine ended, it wasn’t because North Korea was producing enough food, but because most of the people who were going to die already had. To this day, observers say that the North Korean population is chronically undernourished.

It may seem incredible that after seeing all this happen, North Koreans would still remain loyal to their government and believe the propaganda, but this is a testament to how difficult it is for people to let go of their most cherished beliefs: many defectors in South Korea have difficulty adjusting, and some admit to wishing they had never left.

Nothing to Envy is a very readable and accessible (I hesitate to use the term “entertaining") book about a society most people don’t know much about. It’s not a history book -- the Korean War and the formation of the DPRK are concisely summarized -- and it’s not a political treatise. There’s no need for a screed against communism or a denunciation of police states when the stories of ordinary people’s lives tell the tale succinctly enough.

There is no upbeat ending, and no predictions about what will happen next. Most of the people Demick interviewed for the book are getting on with their lives, but North Korea continues to stagger along like a violent, angry drunk who might simply fall over at any moment, or who might abruptly step into traffic or start attacking everyone around him.


Verdict: A book worth reading. It puts human faces on a country that most people know only as part of the “Axis of Evil." We may worry more about Al Qaida than we do about North Korea nowadays, but that could change very quickly.
Tags: books, non-fiction, reviews
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