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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

If you look at a satellite photograph of the far East by night, you’ll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. 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, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and 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, and through meticulous and sensitive reporting we see her subjects fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we witness their profound, life-altering disillusionment with the government and their realization that, rather than providing them with lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them.”

Nothing to Envy is a fascinating and very depressing book; I certainly learned a lot, but it’s not an easy book to read. It tells of a country in the modern world devoid of the conveniences that most people have come to take for granted. North Korea is a place almost completely closed off from the rest of the globe; Demick’s subject felt so alien to me. It’s hard to imagine people living in circumstances like those in North Korea, without technology, without connection to other people in the twenty-first century. And yet the citizens of North Korea go about their lives just like everyone else. That spot of darkness on the satellite picture holds as many people as England, all of them struggling to survive. I didn’t know the history of how Korea was split (so ignorant, I know), and Nothing to Envy tells us this too (of course).

The prison camps in North Korea have been compared to Nazi concentration camps by the few survivors who made it out. And that begs the question: why isn’t the rest of the world doing something about it? Now it seems unimaginable that in the 30’s and 40’s the rest of the world stood by as the Nazis perpetrated horrible crimes. But similar things are happening in North Korea, and none of the Western countries seem all that interested in doing something about it (at least to my knowledge). We’re all more worried about North Korea’s nuclear problems. See an article here about the prison camps. (Also, The New York Time’s review of Nothing to Envyhere). When babies are born, they are slaves in the camp, people are tortured for the slightest slips, and they fight over the smallest crumbs, betraying one another without remorse. Now, this may all seem a bit sensational, but it’s probably for the most part true. Demick also chillingly compares North Korea to the world of Orwell’s 1984, in which the only color is that of the propaganda posters; the same thing is true in North Korea, where the rest of the landscape is devoid of bright colors. The title of the book also comes from one of the sayings on propaganda posters, “We have nothing to envy in the world”, which is from a rhyme that children sing in school. They also have to sing a song about Yankee bastards and shooting them with “their own hands”. And many North Koreans, like the first woman who Demick interviews, believed that. They didn’t know that there were other places where life was much better. “Mi-ran” herself thought that most places had it worse, and that she was “lucky to have been born in North Korea under the loving care of the fatherly leader.” It seems unimaginable to us that people could be so blind, but as Demick points out, ever since their infancy, they were deluged from every direction with films, TV programs, educational brainwashing, and advertisements, all portraying outsiders as evil and Kim Il-sung as a kind of God figure, his son like Jesus.

By the time I’d read half of the book, I was very depressed, to say the least of it. But I think books like Nothing to Envy are so necessary to read, as a reminder of how easy we have life, and how many people are suffering without much aid. I knew North Korea was bad, but I had no idea it was that bad. Nothing to Envy is grim, but important. It also tells people’s personal stories, of people struggling to survive in the famine of the 90’s which killed over 10% of the population, as well as of the sweeping facts. It was a great combination, and Demick writes with compassion and clarity, stating the facts but also showing her own emotions.

I was kind of tempted to put Nothing to Envy down several times, not because the book is bad but because the material is so disturbing, so disgusting. But that’s exactly why one must read Nothing to Envy and books of its kind, to gain a better understanding. I can guarantee you that the majority of Americans are almost completely in ignorance of the situation. And that’s not a good thing. Nothing to Envy is definitely a must read if you have any interest at all in the state of the world.


296 pages.


Rating: ****

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