Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

I have always been fascinated by North Korea, from the time I watched Diego Buñuel of Don’t Tell my Mother: North Korea on National Geographic, to reading Pyongyang by Guy De Lisle and Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden, the mysteriousness of the world’s rogue state has fascinated me. 

Nothing to Envy is a well-researched account of the lives of six North Korean defectors from the city of Chongjin: grade school teacher Mi-ran, intellectual Jun-Sang, orphan Kim-Hyuck, loyalist Mrs. Song and her daughter, the rebellious Oak-Hee, and loyalist Dr. Kim. Their stories begin the 80s, but Barbara Demick goes back in time to bring readers to the 1950s and how North and South Korea were divided. The circumstances of the war are quite influential on the lives of these people, forming their worldviews and endearing their memory to the collective belief that North Korea is the greatest country and the two Kims are the greatest leaders in the world.

Of course, this the same rhetoric that many viewers of North Korean documentaries have been seen since the beginning. But what we don’t get to see or read are the firsthand accounts of the people who suffered and slowly became disillusioned with the “arduous march” and the Kim regime. Having established the backstory of the 6 main characters, Barbara begins digging deeper into how each character strayed away from the propaganda and endless brainwashing from the government. The famine that hit North Korea in the 90s was a strong motivator, for years North Koreans were led to believe that the government would provide for them, every flop or error was attributed to the imperialist Americans and the traitorous South Koreans. However, as the famine and the lives of each character worsens, they each resort to drastic measures to survive. These could be in the through theft, capitalist ventures, or the deteriorating food conditions they had to endure. In the end, the truth behind the famine and their hardship opens their eyes, and each one slowly makes their own plan to defect via China to South Korea.

Like Escape from Camp 14, Barbara Demick dives deep into a dark and dangerous pool and when she surfaces she brings with her a trove of never before written stories. These stories, intimate and personal, are stories unheard of and oftentimes unbelievable. At different times, I would find myself shaking in disbelief that living conditions such as the one portrayed can exist. But if anything, these stories unbelievable or not, show the extent of human sacrifice and condition that no other country can emulate.

In the end, picking up Nothing to Envy in Kyobo Bookstore was probably a good decision. The book opened my eyes to the culture of North Korea, from its government to the way its people think. This book is a strong reminder of the failures of a government, the failures of a corrupt family, and the dangers of a totalitarian government.

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