Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
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.
One thing the official blurb doesn’t mention is that all 6 of the North Korean escapees Demick interviewed were from the same town of Chongjin. This allowed for her to get multiple perspectives of life in the same town over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. I think this is key because it allowed her to, through their eyes, get a well-rounded sense of what life in Chongjin was like in those decades.
Since I had just read The Girl with Seven Names (review), the extent of the brainwashing North Korean citizens go through their entire lives and how difficult it is to escape (physically and mentally) were not revelatory to me. However, I do think this information is presented quite well by Demick, and there is added value in getting it from 6 different voices, instead of the one in the memoir I started out with.
What struck me the most as new information in this book was actually the famine in North Korea. I hadn’t heard of it, and every single person interviewed by Demick was touched by it. Some more than others. One of the people interviewed was a homeless child during the famine whose growth was permanently stunted by his starvation. For those wondering, the famine was the result of North Korea’s various trade agreements falling through after the fall of the USSR. Humanitarian agencies did send aid, but the North Korean officials intercepted it and either took it or sold it on the black market. Demick speaks at length how this incredibly long-lasting famine impacted not just people’s bodies but their psyche and can lead them to do things they normally wouldn’t for survival.
Her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring. (location 2109)
I already knew of the horrible gulags (prison camps) in North Korea but some of the people Demick interviewed had actually been in some of the less severe ones. They spoke of familial bribery and overcrowding as ways they got out. The crimes they commited to be sent to these concentration camp style prison camps, by the way, were things like smuggling goods and escaping to China. One new fact I learned about these prison camps that will haunt me for a while is this:
North Koreans have multiple words for prison in much the same way the Inuit do for snow. (location 2740)
Demick goes more in-depth into what happens to the North Koreans who do manage to escape to South Korea. How well do they acclimate? What are their lives like? She speaks about how many of them are struggling to save money to pay to have human smugglers help sneak their remaining family members out of North Korea. The most heartbreaking of these stories is the mother who escaped to China and had to leave her two children behind with their father who was still loyal to North Korea. Her children are grown now, and she’s still trying to get in contact with them to help them escape. In addition to the difficulties of trying to save remaining family members there’s the fact that capitalism is new to the North Korean escapees, and that South Korea really has a different culture at this point. There’s a lot of struggles to adapt to both that Demick does a good job demonstrating by letting her interviewees speak for themselves.
Demick did a wonderful job interviewing and assembling the stories of these 6 refugees. She both lets their stories speak for themselves and interjects at appropriate times with astute analysis. Recommended to those with an interest in North Korea who want some narrative story with critical analysis.
4 out of 5 stars