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

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Barbara Demick is an American journalist who is currently the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times.  Her book “Nothing to Envy,” published in 2010, is based on seven years of conversations with North Koreans.  The book was a National Book Award finalist as well as a National Book Critics Circle finalist.  It is a remarkable view into life in North Korea, as seen through the eyes of a few of its ordinary citizens.


Map of North Korea

                                                  Map of North Korea - Wikimedia

Restrictions on Journalists

It is exceedingly difficult for an American journalist to visit North Korea.  Reporting is impossible.  Western journalists are assigned “minders” who make certain that no unauthorized conversations take place.  Contact with ordinary citizens is not permitted.  There are always two “minders” who accompany the journalist, each one watching his companion for possible traitorous attitudes.  They offer constant stilted praise of their leader Kim Il-sung during the session.

Startling Revelations

Demick’s extraordinary revelations bring to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today.  She tells of a world which is not connected to the Internet, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life.

North Korean children are taught to sing that "We have nothing to envy in the world.”  People believed this as they had so little access to information about life outside their own country.

What Satellite Photographs Reveal

Satellite photographs of Korea reveal an area of darkness in the north which is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, in contrast to South Korea which shows tiny white dots representing street lights, head lights and neon signs in a country bustling with progress and new technology.  North Koreans cannot read at night; they cannot watch television. There is no culture without electricity.  Citizens go to bed as early as 7 p.m. in winter.  Teenagers are able to slip out at night to meet their friends under the protection of darkness.


Kim Il-sung

                                                               Kim Il-sung - Wikimedia

Contrast between North Korea and South Korea

North Korea is a nation of almost 25 million people whereas South Korea has double that number with over 50 million people.  North Korea collapsed in the early 1990’s when its ally, the Soviet Union, collapsed and was no longer able to produce cheap fuel oil to the North Koreans. More than a million people died due to the famine during those years.

Defectors are Interviewed

Barbara Demick interviewed more than 100 defectors.  She realized that if she wanted answers to her questions, she would not get them inside North Korea.  She had to talk to people who had left, the defectors.  In 2004, there were about six thousand North Korean defectors living in South Korea.  Their stories are moving as well as disturbing as they relate to Barbara Demick what their lives were like when they lived in North Korea.   

Demick chose defectors who had lived in the city of Chongjin, North Korea’s third largest city and an industrial center, although the nation manufactures very little.  Chongjin is perhaps more likely to be representative of life there than the capital city, Pyongyang, where nobody is starving and is artificially fashioned for observers to the city.  Chongjin was among the areas hardest hit by the famine in the early 1990’s, which claimed between 600,000 and one million lives.

Citizens Reaction to the Death of Kim Il-sung

It is interesting to hear that upon the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, citizens wailed in groups under his statues throughout the country, many of them faking their sorrow lest they be seen by others as not caring.  Kim Il-sung was revered as a god who would never die, and his successor, his son Kim Jong-il, was looked on as the son of a god, a Christ-like figure.

The Defectors’ Stories

The defectors learned that their country had betrayed them instead of providing them with lives of abundance.  People stumbled over dead bodies in the street and ate tree bark to survive.

One defector, Mi-ran, was living in Suwon, a city twenty miles south of Seoul, bright and chaotic. Suwon is home to Samsung Electronics.  In the years before her defection, she had worked as a kindergarten teacher in a mining town in North Korea.  In South Korea she was working toward a graduate degree in education. She described her job in North Korea, watching her five- and six-year-old pupils die of starvation. As her students were dying, she was supposed to teach them that they were blessed to be North Korean.  Mi-ran had become a harsh critic of the North Korean system of brainwashing.

Mi-ran and Jun-sang

Mi-ran had a boyfriend when she lived in North Korea, Jun-sang (a pseudonym), a future scientist studying at one of the best universities in Pyongyang.  Mi-ran was from near the bottom of the North Korean social heap, while Jun-sang came from a comparatively privileged family, with relatives in Japan.  It was almost impossible for a North Korean of low rank to improve his or her status.  That was one of the reasons they could not be seen in public. Their relationship could have damaged Jun-sang’s career prospects.  They dared not tell each other that each was thinking of defecting.  It took them three years to hold hands; another six to kiss.  When Mi-ran was 26 years old and a schoolteacher, she still did not know how babies were conceived.


Kim Jong-il

                                                             Kim Jong-Il - Wikimedia


Jun-sang was a studious boy with the best grades in school.  As a high school freshman, he was already on a career trajectory which left no time for dating or sex.  He had a reunion with Mi-ran after they had both defected to South Korea.  She had married but Jun-sang was still single.

Dr. Kim

Dr. Kim is another featured character who, through much of the book, considered herself an ardent loyalist to North Korean socialism.  She escaped to China in order to avoid starvation.  She then realized the drastic difference in societies which she was forced to confront.  She was not able to deny that dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.  When she arrived in South Korea, she learned that her medical certificate was not accepted there.  It took her a long time to decide to go back to school to be re-certified.  She did just that.  She hoped that one day she might return to North Korea to help her people there.

Mrs. Song

Mrs. Song was a true believer.  She was the mother of three girls, and at last had a boy, an achievement which redeemed her in the eyes of her mother-in-law.  In Mrs. Song’s home, as in every other home, a framed portrait of Kim Il-sung, and later also of Kim Jon-il, hung on the wall and were wiped clean every day with a white cloth distributed with the portraits.  Eventually, she and her husband had to sell most of their possessions for food.  After her husband died, she started a cookie business with one of her daughters.  She then crossed over into China to look for her daughter Oak-hee who had defected.  When Oak-hee informed her that she was now in South Korea, Mrs. Song was urged to come there.  With the aid of a forged passport and a false name, she took a plane to South Korea and was reunited with Oak-hee.


Oak-hee had watched South Korean television, which made it clear that what they were told back home about exploitation and poverty in the capitalist south was all lies.  She was able to cross into China with the expectation of going to South Korea from there eventually. 


Map of South Korea

                                                    Map of South Korea - Wikimedia

Kim Hyuck

Kim Hyuck was twelve years old when Kim Il-sung died.  He was one of the “wandering swallows,” a child whose parents had died or had gone off to find food.  He would steal food from strangers at the railroad station.  He joined up with other children who formed gangs to steal together.  He was able to cross the river into China by himself.  He was arrested, charged with illegal crossing and was made to serve three years in a labor camp.  Upon his release, he decided that his only chance was to make a break for South Korea.  A Christian church in China sheltered him for five months.  Overcoming many difficulties, he arrived in South Korea, settled in Seoul and enrolled in college.  His short stature and his large head (caused by malnutrition when he was growing) did not hold him back from his dreams.

These stories are just samples of the tales Barbara Demick heard from more than 100 interviewees.  Surprisingly, many defectors harbored the wish to return to North Korea and are wracked by guilt over leaving family members there.

Gratitude for our Blessings

Revelations such as these make us grateful that we live in a country which is not subjected to the horrendous experiences of these poor misled citizens.  I was glad to learn about this situation which is a closely guarded secret of the North Korean regime.











Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Amazon Price: $17.00 $5.85 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 11, 2016)


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