David Yoon's Reviews > Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
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Aug 03, 2011

really liked it
Read in August, 2011

In the aftermath of the Korean war my mother's brother left an enigmatic note on his pillow before stepping out for school. He never returned and the family lamented his apparent suicide.

A half century later a list of names is published in Koreas' national paper. Part of the warming relations between North and South Korea, it offered the chance for families separated by the border to connect. So far nearly 20 thousand Koreans have participated in face-to-face meetings. My uncle's name is there along with some briefly sketched details of the family tree. He is very much alive and living in North Korea. This was the first any of the family had ever heard from him.

My mother eventually traveled to North Korea to meet with her brother. My uncle was wearing a gold watch and a thinning suit. He confided that they were provided by the government solely for the visit. Other Koreans reunited with long lost relations were at nearby tables. Many had brought gifts of linens, food and clothing. He quietly admitted that gifts were pointless as their intended recipients would probably never see them again.

My mother never talked too much about the visit. After a lifetime apart what do you say? Her brother is relatively affluent by North Korean standards, a professor who has raised a large family. Still, his face was gaunt, his teeth stained and crooked. His hands trembled constantly.

I thought about my uncle a lot while I was reading "Nothing to Envy". In it author Barbara Demick pieces together the lives of 6 North Koreans who eventually defect to South Korea. It is an incredible and difficult read, especially the chapters outlining the devastating famine of the 1990's which claimed almost 10% of the population. The stories are riveting and framed beautifully. This isn't some dry recounting of facts outlining the poverty of North Korea but wondrously intertwined narratives that don't end with pat answers once they reach South Korea.

Great read.
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02/14/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Zöe Yu it's sad...


message 2: by Heidi (new) - added it

Heidi thank you for sharing your story too


message 3: by Wm. (new) - rated it 5 stars

Wm. A. Thanks, Mr. Yoon; it's good to get the insight from someone with a personal connection.


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