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

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
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Jun 12, 14

bookshelves: non-fiction, read-in-2011, ebook, politics, history
Read from September 18 to 20, 2011

On December seventeenth in 2011, Kim Jong-il has died. Known to the world as the supreme leader of the world's most closed society, the "hermit kingdom" which encompasses the northern part of the Korean Peninsula, he has received the posthumous titles of the Eternal General Secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea and Eternal Chairman of the National Defence Commission. His death has been mourned by the population in a dramatic and uncontrolled way, with people crying helplessly and expressing their despair. One might wonder how much of it was real. Kim's father, Kim Il-sung is well known for being the country's Eternal President. Both are treated with great reverence. Will Kim Jong-un, the current leader of North Korea, complete the Trinity?

There is a video on YouTube titled "Good Morning Pyongyang" (which you can see if you click here) that can serve as a good illustration of what North Korea is about. It opens with a Pyongyang sunset, slowly revealing tall concrete buildings and some cranes. One immediately notices the complete lack of automobiles of any sort; if a person appears, he or she is walking. However, what immediately captures the attention is an image of a female traffic controller. Dressed up in full regalia, she is standing at a traffic control post in the middle of the street, under a big umbrella . Although there are no cars and the streets are basically empty, she performs her job: turning around, ordering throngs of invisible cars to pass, stop, pass again, stop again, from left to right and right to left, from all sides, never stopping, never resting, forever busy managing the nonexistent traffic. I think that this image better than any other raises the question of how democratic the Democratic People's Republic of North Korea really is, and is it really a kind of society which takes good care of its citizens?

North Korea seems to be the country which fell out of the world, as you can see if you'll take a look at an satellite photograph of the Far East taken at nighttime, you'll see Japan and South Korea, and even China; but you'll also see a black spot. That's DRPK. It's literally a black hole, where 23 million of people have to manage their daily lives, often living without what we take for granted: running water, heating...media, entertainment, freedom.



Nothing to Envy is a record of six refugees from DRPK who fled to the South and their experiences of living in both countries. Althought the book is completely gripping, it is also very hard to read at times - remember that this is non fiction, and all of this actually happened - the stories of the defectors are very moving, like the story of two young North Koreans who fell in love, and thanks to the complete blackout were able to take long walks, and very tragic - stories of people dying from starvation (can you believe that during the time from 1994 to 1998 as much as 80,000 (that's eighty thousand) to 3,500,000 (that's three and a half million) people died in a famine? Through the individual lives of these defectors we are able to see a broader picture of life inside the DRPK, and although the society is a collective one the theme of individuality is the one which carries the book: each defector has a separate and fascinating story to tell, shocking and gripping. They're escape to the South is not the end of their problems, as one of the defectors mourns that she has left her children behind; some North Koreans find themselves unable to exist in a society which we would call "normal"; two soldiers from the North who accidentally crossed the border have asked to be send back to the DRPK. The book shows how an individual is affected by an opressive regime, and how a whole nation can be brainwashed to accept an ideology. A nation where people die from hunger, but which is among the world's most militarized nations; which disappears from sight during the night, but has active nuclear and space programs. A nation where ordinary lives have been turned into a grim horror story or a macabre joke; where stories like these take place every day.

This is a book I can't recommend enough for people interested in North Korea, because of the unique individual perspective it gives. It's never maudlin, sentimental or manipulative. It is honest, and brutally so. It is heartbreaking when one thinks at how many lives are still trapped, and moreover don't even know that they are trapped. Nothing to Envy shows how people believed in their country, only to discover that they have been told lies. One might call them naive, but in what position are we to make this judgement, in our conditioned apartments with broadband internet connections? In a world where we are able to talk about this? Imagine being born and brought up in a subterranean bunker, where the outside world is barely mentioned or brought down with negativity. This is the world that North Koreans live in today, at this moment, and this is a book which deserves to be read for people to understant it.
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Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Bondama (new) - added it

Bondama This is an incredible review, Maciek - but not because of your own writing. DRPK is indeed the "black hole" of the world today. Your description (and Youtube video) are absolutely surrealistic, almost. Your line about the direction of invisible traffic being conducted is a stunner.

If the purpose of a review is to interest people in reading (or avoiding) new books, you have succeeded enormously. I plan to get this book ASAP, I just have to read it. Thanks again for calling it to our attention - and you so rarely give 5 stars!!


Maciek Thank you, Bondama. I found the Pyongyang video when I was browsing films made by tourists in North Korea. The image of the traffic controller is grotesque and haunting, the kind of image which stays with you.

Thank you so much for your kind words. I tend to be pretty liberal with my ratings, but now I seem to reserve the 5 stars for novels and books which really affected me. This one certainly did, and I hope you'll enjoy reading it - though I'm not sure if enjoy is the right term. It's certainly unique and honest in its approach, as it covers both the defectors life in DRPK and then in South Korea, which is not all that rosy.


Betsy I just finished reading Nothing to Envy and I agree whole heartedly. Amazing book, could not put it down, and I can't believe this is happening now. I cried when Mrs. Song left North Korea, flew on the plane, and made a new life for herself. A must read for everyone! Betsy/Minnesota


Maciek Thank you for your comment, Betsy! I agree about the importance of this book and wish that more people read it.


Betsy I recommended it to my book group, and almost all read it, and felt it was great book, so important to read! We all learned so much. Your review was very articulate and accurate. Nice work. I will check other books you've read. How old are you, your photo makes you look quite young.


Maciek Thank you, Betsy. I'm 25. My age is in my profile. Please feel free to browse my shelves and reviews!


Callinda Great and profound review. Reading "Nothing to envy" feels like reading Orwell, though it's not fiction. And that is what saddens me the most.


Maciek Thank you, Callinda! This is a haunting book indeed, as it shows scenes from a place shut out from the world, whose people are silenced and forbidden to speak.


Callinda The epilogue makes me wonder how many of the North Koreans mourning the death of Kim JongIl actually felt devastated, considering the statement of one of Demicks' escapers, that people of NK are fully aware that The great Kim is responsible for the tragic economic situation.


Maciek Oh, a lot. While it's certain that many North Koreans are aware of what is going on in their country, the propaganda machine is working strong and a lot of them are genuinely convinced of the inherent goodness of their leader. You might find this book interesting: The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters - it discusses the North Korean propaganda and the beliefs of North Koreans. Also Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty is a lengthy portrayal of the two Kims, written by an American who has visited North Korea and been among its people.


Callinda Thank you Maciek for the recommendation, but now I will rather jump to more optimistic books. After reading "Nothing to envy" I need to take a break from oppresive systems and focus on the brighter side of life :) But whenever I feel the desire to put myself down, I'll reach for the books you recommended.


Maciek I understand and feel the same way :) This was too depressing in its realism! I hope that you will enjoy these books when you'll reach for them - they're more of a study and less of a personal experience, as opposed to this one.


message 13: by Ania (new) - added it

Ania Oh, Maciek I absolutely love your review. Before reading it I knew I wanted to read this book, but now I just cannot wait:)So thank you for this and the video, which was quite haunting and very surreal.


Maciek Thank you, Ania! :) This is an unique book - it contains true stories of real defectors of DPRK, instead of being a scholarly study of the country. It's immediate and accesible, and I think it should be read widely to give a better understanding of the country and its people.


Karen A great documentary to check out is Red Chapel. A filmaker takes a fake comedy troupe to NK to make a mocumentary about NK, but they find out there is nothing funny about the DPRK. Highly recommend if you are interested in this subject.


Maciek Thank you very much for the recommendation, Karen! - I googled it and it looks fascinating. Will definitely watch it soon!


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