James's Reviews > Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
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M_50x66
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Nov 05, 10

bookshelves: reviewed
Read in October, 2010

If there’s an existence more miserable than life in North Korea, I don’t think I can bear to hear about it. In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick presents an Orwellian horror story of repression, surveillance, poverty and hunger.

For North Koreans, every year is 1984.

Until the 1990s, the country had a good thing going. Benefiting from favourable trade relations with eastern Europe and playing off rivalry between China and the USSR, the country managed to maintain the perception of a self-reliant utopia. Then, the Berlin Wall came down. When the Czechs and Hungarians exchanged Marx and Engels for Marks and Spencer, North Korean factories ground to a halt. When the Soviet Union died, the lights started going out all over North Korea. And when China kissed and made up with South Korea, North Koreans were plunged into a catastrophic famine.

Demick's description of the hungry years is harrowing: in the countryside, families scavenge for weeds; in the cities countless numbers drop dead. And all the time, the government assaults the population's senses with ludicrous claims of prosperity. Meanwhile, military expenditure transformed a country not much larger than Pennsylvania into the fourth most militarised nation on the planet.

All of this is powerfully described. But the book is at its best when we hear from the North Koreans themselves. And it’s the women who emerge as the true heroes of this forsaken land.

"They knew nothing of business other than what they had been taught - all private endeavour was egoistic. But out of hunger and desperation, they were reinventing the concept of a free market economy which required unlearning a lifetime of propaganda...Women cut up scraps of canvas, melted discarded pieces of rubbber and stamped out crude sneakers. Old tires, wooden doors and wires made a cart from transporting merchandise from market to home."

In the face of unspeakable suffering, appalling ignorance and a ghastly government, the women of North Korea have displayed courage, resourcefulness, resilience and compassion which the odious Kim il Sung couldn’t begin to comprehend.
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message 1: by Wayne (new)

Wayne I liked your line re every year being 1984 for North Koreans.
For many Eastern Berliners and Russians too.
I have no doubt that most , if not all governments are corrupt, but are prevented from going too far by a free press(dwindling!!!now), traditions of freedom and voices that can't be silenced (although the murders of journalists in Russia in recent years show how brazen a governmennt can get.)
Our previous Prime Minister, John Howard, trampled on so many of our rights. Unlike the French, the laid back attitude of Australians and our ignorance at what cost our rights have been bought, and current materialistic attitudes -worldwide that disease!!!- allowed workers' rights and refugees' rights, free press etc., all to be trampled on with the open encouragement of Little Johnnie, as he was nicknamed.
When people say:"It can't happen here!!" that line comes from a certain ignorance, blindness and smugness.
Thanks for an interesting review, James.
Don't forget to get some dialogue going on some of my reviews.I like a good discussion with Goodrreads Friends.....Ciao from Wayne


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