Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea – Barbara Demick

Through interviews with defectors, veteran journalist Barbara Demick takes readers inside the reclusive country of North Korea for a peak at the daily lives of its inhabitants.

I thought I knew a fair amount about North Korea, but it turns out I was wrong.  While Demick makes sure to inform her readers of the country’s origins, the emphasis of the book is placed on the people who are suffering at the hands of a heartless regime, which makes the book that much more effective.  The one thing that kept running through my head was “there is no reason for this suffering”.  When you look at the prosperity of the country’s southern neighbor, you can’t help but be sickened by the actions of the Kim family and their blatant disregard for the health and well-being of their countrymen.

Throughout the book, Demick makes sure to showcase a wide spectrum of lives in North Korea.  From a doctor struggling to perform her job in the absence of resources, to a disillusioned mother who had been a hardcore devotee of the North Korean way of life, to a love story between a man and a woman existing within different levels of North Korea’s brutal class structure, just to name a few.

To say that day-to-day life in North Korea is a struggle is putting it lightly.  Demick’s discussions with those who were lucky enough to leave the oppressive country more than proves that.  Propaganda and an unquestioned loyalty to the country’s founder Kim il-Sung permeate the daily lives of all citizens.  This becomes even more horrendous with the arrival of a famine in the early to mid-1990s.  Citizens are unwavering in their love and appreciation of the Kim family despite the loss of roughly 10% of the population.  Demick tells of Mi-Ran, a teacher who entered the educational system at the beginning of the famine, as she is forced to watch helplessly as her students waste away while singing songs of the country’s glory and superiority.  It’s truly heart-wrenching stuff.

When Demick gets to the moments when those she is interviewing had escaped to neighboring China and South Korea, it really becomes clear just how brainwashed they had become.  There is a particularly striking moment when the aforementioned doctor lands in China.  To avoid detection, she hides inside of a barn.  Desperate for food, she happens to see a dish brimming with food for the family’s dog as Demick writes, “..she couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.”

Escape doesn’t automatically guarantee happiness – there are far-reaching psychological issues that defectors have to deal with.  Not only do they most likely have to leave their families behind in order to escape, they often have to deal with an unexpected homesickness when attempting to adjust to a new way of life.  There are also moments of extreme guilt where they reflect back on their prior life and what they had to do to survive their worst moments.

Nothing to Envy is one of the most captivating books I have ever read and it is written with such care for those brave enough to tell their story.  This is a must-read if there ever was one.  I cannot recommend it enough.

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