Book Review – Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

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After I finished Suki Kim’s memoir about her time as an undercover teacher in an elite North Korean high school, I browsed Amazon and bought Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. Stories about North Korea are so grotesque that I feel compelled to keep reading them—I’m not sure why. Maybe I hope to find that other sources don’t support the horrible, outlandish stories. Unfortunately, though, everything checks out.

In Nothing to Envy, Demick tells the stories of several North Koreans who were born and raised under the “Great Leader’s” dictatorship but ultimately escaped to China, South Korea, or other safe countries. She relates their stories beginning with their early daily lives in North Korea, when they were faithful and loyal to the regime. Demick then describes the unique events that led each person to the questioning of that faith and then the final, irreversible decision to escape the country. Escapes from North Korea are extremely rare, incredibly risky, prohibitively expensive, and highly convoluted, so it’s amazing that Demick found a diverse—albeit small—group of people to interview.

The common thread that seemed to push these once-loyal citizens to question authority and consider fleeing was the severe nationwide North Korean famine of the 1990’s. Demick’s book describes the famine in wrenching detail through the eyes of her sources, which include a mother, a doctor, and a teacher, all of whom witnessed the slow, painful deaths of family members, patients, and students due to starvation and malnutrition. To me, the most striking realization of this book was that the famine that almost obliterated the North Korean people was also the main cause of the first real cracks in the power of the regime. Demick does a great job of connecting the dots in her storytelling; here’s my summary:

Crop shortages cut off the internal supply of food and raw materials in North Korea, and a ruined economy (and callous or stubborn leaders?) prevented the purchase of outside food and goods. Factories began to lie idle for want of raw materials, so the (unpaid) workers were eventually allowed to drift away from their controlling work places to forage by day for enough calories to support themselves and their families. Personal gardens and capitalistic black markets began to emerge and thrive, giving many citizens real control for the first time in their lives over their time, personal finances, and decisions. Exotic outside goods—and information—began to trickle into North Korea, too, as hungry border guards were now more easily bribed with food and luxury goods. Demick’s sources reported seeing new fruits and vegetables for the first time, and hearing of the riches that ordinary people had in neighboring China.

In fact, right after one of Demick’s sources escaped into China, she remembered stumbling upon a full bowl of rice lying on the ground in the dark. She hadn’t eaten that much rice in North Korea in over a year, and she was shocked to realize that this was the meal of a pet dog. Another woman in the book remembers being completely amazed by the ordinary household gadgets of her Chinese host family, especially their automatic rice cooker. The cooker would make mounds of steamed rice every morning and turn itself off when the rice was perfectly done, sounding a little alarm to let the household know the food was ready. The woman had a few lingering doubts about her decision to escape North Korea, but they dissipated after she saw the technology of the simple rice cooker and began to realize just how much she had been denied.

In short, mass starvation, porous border patrol, and new information emboldened Demick’s sources to risk escape. The people she interviews are extraordinarily hard workers and incredibly brave, and it’s hard not to feel in awe of them. It’s also hard not to feel sorry for them. They are wracked by unimaginable guilt because of the punishments their families must have surely endured because of their defection. They must also adjust to the realities of life in the modern world, and a wildly shifting sense of self and personal identity. It seems horribly unfair to survive so much mistreatment in North Korea only to suffer still in freedom.

Demick’s book also made me much more aware of the enormity of the problem of an oppressed people like the North Koreans. Demick’s sources relate in detail about how difficult their transitions were from life in North Korean to life in South Korean—of having to quickly process and absorb all kinds of shocking new factual information, technology, social practices, etc. Even if the North Korean regime were to fall tomorrow, how would it be possible to help millions of people “catch up” with their South Korean brethren? Millions would need mental and emotional counseling, education, medical care, job training…The task seems like it would be impossible.

I highly recommend this book. It provides a great introduction to the general political history of North Korea as a whole, alongside honest, inspiring, and heart-wrenching personal stories of some of its brave former citizens. I hope you check it out.

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