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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

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An eye-opening account of life inside North Korea--a closed world of increasing global importance--hailed as a "tour de force of meticulous reporting" (The New York Review of Books)


In this landmark addition to the literature of totalitarianism, 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 (the father of Kim Jong-un), 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 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. She 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.

Praise for Nothing to Envy

"Provocative . . . offers extensive evidence of the author's deep knowledge of this country while keeping its sights firmly on individual stories and human details."--The New York Times

"Deeply moving . . . The personal stories are related with novelistic detail."--The Wall Street Journal

"A tour de force of meticulous reporting."--The New York Review of Books

"Excellent . . . humanizes a downtrodden, long-suffering people whose individual lives, hopes and dreams are so little known abroad."--San Francisco Chronicle

"The narrow boundaries of our knowledge have expanded radically with the publication of Nothing to Envy. . . . Elegantly structured and written, [it] is a groundbreaking work of literary nonfiction."--John Delury, Slate

"At times a page-turner, at others an intimate study in totalitarian psychology."--The Philadelphia Inquirer

316 pages, Paperback

First published December 29, 2009

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About the author

Barbara Demick

6 books965 followers
Barbara Demick is an American journalist. She is the author of Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood (Andrews & McMeel, 1996). Her next book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, was published by Spiegel & Grau/Random House in December 2009 and Granta Books in 2010.

Demick was correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer in Eastern Europe from 1993 to 1997. Along with photographer John Costello, she produced a series of articles that ran 1994-1996 following life on one Sarajevo street over the course of the war in Bosnia. The series won the George Polk Award for international reporting, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for international reporting and was a finalist for the Pulitzer in the features category. She was stationed in the Middle East for the newspaper between 1997 and 2001.

In 2001, Demick moved to the Los Angeles Times and became the newspaper's first bureau chief in Korea. Demick reported extensively on human rights in North Korea, interviewing large numbers of refugees in China and South Korea. She focused on economic and social changes inside North Korea and on the situation of North Korean women sold into marriages in China. She wrote an extensive series of articles about life inside the North Korean city of Chongjin. In 2005, Demick was a co-winner of the American Academy of Diplomacy's Arthur Ross Award for Distinguished Reporting & Analysis on Foreign Affairs. In 2006, her reports about North Korea won the Overseas Press Club's Joe and Laurie Dine Award for Human Rights Reporting and the Asia Society's Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Asian Journalism. That same year, Demick was also named print journalist of the year by the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2010, she won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for her work, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. The book was also nominated for the U.S.'s most prestigious literary prize, the National Book Award.

Demick was a visiting professor at Princeton University in 2006-2007 teaching Coverage of Repressive Regimes through the Ferris Fellowship at the Council of the Humanities. She moved to Beijing for the Los Angeles Times in 2007 and became Beijing bureau chief in early 2009. Demick was one of the subjects of a 2005 documentary Press Pass to the World by McCourry Films.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 8,678 reviews
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,921 reviews290k followers
December 7, 2017
They don’t stop to think that in the middle of this black hole, in this bleak, dark country where millions have died of starvation, there is also love.

A painfully human look at North Korea (mostly) through the eyes of defectors now living in South Korea or China.

Demick peels back the layers of propaganda, parades and leader worship to expose the people and lives underneath. If you're anything like me, you'll find it hard not to be fascinated by this exceptionally secretive country and wonder what everyday life can really be like living in one of the strictest regimes on earth.

Of course, even in the darkest places there are love stories, hopes, dreams and family dynamics. We see a young couple courting in secret over many years, a woman who loses everything during the devastating famine of the 1990s - a famine which killed anywhere between a few hundred thousand and several million people - and a man sent to a hard labor camp for petty crimes. Families of defectors, no matter how innocent, are rounded up and shipped off to camps that may as well be called death camps.

Its was extremely interesting to get a look inside this closed country, and perhaps even more interesting to see the outside world through the eyes of those who escaped. I can't even imagine what it must be like to cross a border and discover that the world is nothing like you always believed.

I recently really enjoyed the fictional Korean story in Pachinko, which begins before the country's division and during the Japanese colonization, so it was great to see the history that so intrigued me expanded upon here. For one thing, I had no idea that traditional dress for Korean women was a head-to-toe veil, not unlike the burka. There were lots of small facts like this that I found fascinating.

Nothing to Envy reminds us of something important. That underneath all the craziness that is this regime and its deified leader, there are more than 20 million people just trying to feed their families, live their lives, and not get killed for it.

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Profile Image for Yun.
505 reviews18k followers
January 26, 2022
Astonishing and emotionally gripping, Nothing to Envy peels back the curtain and offers that rare glimpse into what life is really like in North Korea.

Reading this, I'm struck by how similar their lives are to ours and also how utterly different it is. They share the same ambitions for a fulfilling life, the same yearning for love and belonging, the same hope of better opportunities for their children. Yet, their lives are nothing like ours.

Not only do they lack any type of personal choice or freedom, but they also have to endure years of famine. Going in, I never really thought about what it means to go through a famine of this severity and magnitude. Every day, all day, their entire time and energy are spent going far into the woods to scrounge for grass and bark and rotten fruit, as all possible edible items nearby have already been eaten.

When situations get so hopeless and people become desperate, they start hardening their hearts against each other. That drive to survive extinguishes everything else, and it's awful to see the transition take place. The most innocent and trusting would often die of famine first because they don't want to steal or go behind the government's back to make a little extra money to trade for food. It makes me wonder what I would do if I had nothing to eat for days or weeks, let alone for years, if I wouldn't be forced to go against my moral code just to have a bite of food.

This book follows the lives of six North Korean defectors, and Demick really makes their stories and perspectives come alive. She shows how complex these people are, even in the face of total calamity. They retain their hope and dignity, and against all odds, eventually escape.

There is no easy solution for them that would solve all their problems. And there is no easy solution for North Korea either. Even if the regime is to eventually collapse, what will happen to all the people there? Assimilation will be a long and arduous process when they have spent a lifetime indoctrinated in a totalitarian regime.

This is one of those books that makes me think and also makes me so thankful for the life I have. By some random luck, I managed to get this life. But I could've easily have been born somewhere else, and maybe now, instead of having the opportunity to read books and share my thoughts, I'd be spending all day walking and scrounging for tree bark to eat. It's a sobering thought indeed.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,284 reviews119k followers
September 24, 2020
One thread of this riveting National Book Award finalist is a love story. Mi-san is an attractive girl from a family that does not have the right stuff, history-wise, her father having fought for South Korea in the war. They are considered “impure” by the North Korean government and society as a whole. Her prospects are only so-so. Jun-sang is headed to university in Pyongyang to study science. His future includes a good job, a membership in the party and a life of relative privilege. One enchanted evening, Jun, at age 15, sees her across a crowded local movie theater in the northeastern city of Chongjin, and is smitten. For the next ten years, they will dance a courtship ballet that is both heart-warming and horrifying.

Barbara Demick - image from the US Chamber of Commerce

Dr. Kim Ji-eun is a sprite of a woman, a true believer in a system that allowed her to become a doctor. But in time she comes to feel differently. Learning that all her extra work gains her nothing from her boss. Working in a hospital that loses all it’s electricity, its’ running water, it’s supplies, watching scores of children die of starvation will do that to a person.

Song Hee-Suk, or Mrs Song is another true believer in the North Korean way, volunteering for all sorts of party activities in addition to working full time and caring for her family. She embodies the entrepreneurial spirit here, attempting to put food on the table when there is no work. She keeps trying to start micro-small businesses, struggling mightily against the popular ethos that such activity is inherently wrong, selling all her family’s possessions for the money to start her enterprise.

Nothing to Envy is a riveting, grim portrait of perhaps the most repressive nation on earth, a personification of H.G. Wells’ dark authoritarian nightmare. Barbara Demick is a big time foreign correspondent, for the LA Times since 2001. She became the Times’ Korea bureau chief, and has written much on life behind this particular bamboo curtain. She follows the lives of six North Koreans, all from the northeastern industrial city of Chongjin, and brings us their oral histories. Ultimately all of them find their way to South Korea. It is through their eyes that we see the reality of life in the North. Their stories continue once they have crossed the border, and their tales of adapting to such a strange new world are interesting, but the real core here is the images we get of life in North Korea.

It is truly amazing to learn how complete was (and still is) the control of the authoritarian regime in North Korea, how effective the cradle-to-grave propaganda has been and how alarming the elevation of the Dear Leader to a god-like status. It is chilling to hear accounts of how the nation sank into famine, remarkable to learn what a doctor’s life entails, and infuriating to learn of the lives of homeless orphans, or wandering swallows, as they are known.

It is not at all surprising to see how neighbor eagerly turns in neighbor for thought-crimes. I mean we all went to school, and one can always count on there being those who seek advantage by undercutting others. But getting in trouble with one’s teacher is not quite the same as being transported to a slave labor camp, being marked for life as “impure,” being shunned, or worse.

I expect that most of us have a somewhat cartoonish image of North Korea, focusing on the mad king, sorry, party chairman, his dreams (and now reality) of nuclear power and the willingness of the North Korean people to believe all sorts of fantastical things about him. It merits knowing what the poor people of North Korea must endure. The horror there, the inhumanity, how the denial of reality affects real people, with real lives. It is no laughing matter.

Demick also offers a very insightful look at similarities between those who have escaped the north and holocaust survivors, an apprehension of the qualities one must nurture in order to survive in extreme conditions, and she notes the collateral damage from defecting. The people she portrays in Nothing to Envy are as masterfully portrayed as characters in a great novel. We come to care about their travails, and get to see their flaws as well as their strengths. These are indeed the ordinary people promised in the books’ title, shown in an extraordinary way.

There is indeed nothing to envy in North Korea, but it is important for us all to have some idea of what goes on there, if for no other reason than to be able to point to an example of how things shouldn’t be. No flattering autocrat-to-autocrat-wannabe love-letters should change our national stance towards this rogue dictatorship. Demick’s book will make you angry and it will make you sad. It should.

There is an impressive bibliography at the end for this book for any who might be inspired to read about this place in more depth.

=============================EXTRA STUFF

2/13/12 - North Korea Agrees to Curb Nuclear Work; U.S. Offers Aid - The question is not raised in this New York Times article if any of the food aid will ever find its way to the general population or will be taken to feed the army and party officials

6/14/13 - GR friend Jan Rice, in comment #7 below, posted on June 13, 2013, included a link to an AP story about NK, particularly how schools are still promoting hatred of Americans. I was reminded, although to a much lesser degree, of how how we were all taught to hate the "dirty commies" back in my school days. Here is that link, again. IN NORTH KOREA, LEARNING TO HATE US STARTS EARLY By Jean H. Lee

9/18/17 - A riveting New Yorker Magazine article on the mindset in North Korea - must-reading, given the recent ratcheting up of tensions. Even a dotard could learn something here. - On the Brink - by Evan Osnos

7/23/2018 - Fascinating tale in GQ of the American who was returned from NK imprisonment with brain damage. much on fact vs fiction in reportage of that - The Untold Story of Otto Warmbier, American Hostage - By Doug Bock Clark
Profile Image for Shirley.
272 reviews207 followers
December 30, 2011
An amazing, unforgettable book about North Korea. Barbara Demick explores the most closed-off society in the world through the stories of six "ordinary" North Koreans who defect to South Korea beginning in the late 1990s. Through their stories, Demick covers a bit of everything (the pathological weirdness that was/is Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il and the cult of worship - and fear of reprisal - that made people cry harder at the former's death than they ever had in their lives, the role of a totalitarian government in the everyday lives of people, the deterioration of North Korea into blackouts/famine/starvation, South Korea's/China's reception of North Korean defectors) very skillfully without sensationalizing; the subject matter speaks for itself.

Here are both moments of beauty (the reminiscences of two of the profiled North Koreans about how the blackouts at night allowed them to chastely walk and talk outside their village for hours at a time) and, more frequently, moments of horror (families deliberately winnowing down their members, i.e., starving everyone else to spare the children, who as the only surviving members of their families then became homeless begging kotjebi - 꽃제비 - literally swallows). As a new mother, I could not imagine being in a position where I could not provide enough food for my young toddler - thinking about all the orphaned kotjebi made me have to put down the book, pause, and collect myself before I could proceed. Not the only such moment.

Demick also discusses the guilt and shame that many defectors have. One woman who left her children and ex-husband in North Korea mourns, "I sacrified my babies for myself." A mother who defects with one daughter is never able to forgive herself because, following their defections, her other two daughters who were still in North Korea were arrested and presumably sent to a labor camp. Another woman, now in South Korea with its plenties and excesses, is haunted by her husband's last words before he died during the famine, "Let's go to a good restaurant and order a nice bottle of wine."

I was especially moved by this book. It is completely heartbreaking in many places. I, already a sentimental reader (in case you, dear Goodreads readers, haven't already ascertained as much), tend to get even more sentimental when I read about Korea. Moreover, and more relevantly, my dad is from North Korea, and I can't help but wonder about the fates of relatives I don't even know about. This book should have great appeal beyond my myopically sentimental lens, fortunately, as it is extremely well-written and compulsively readable and deserves to be widely read and discussed.

Profile Image for Stuart.
Author 2 books145 followers
December 20, 2010
There are few books like this written today: concise, well-researched, plainly yet effectively written, and free of hyperbole. This book is a very personal account of six lives in the failed state of North Korea. The level of deprivation and humiliation these people endure is heartbreaking. The book reads more like an outstanding piece of social anthropology than it does cut and dried journalism. The author is to be commended for her ability to get inside both the hearts and minds of the people she has interviewed.

I think that Nothing To Envy is a landmark book, a study of a culture and political system gone horribly wrong, that will be read for decades. As the author notes, North Korea is the last of its kind, a state with an entrenched despotic, supposedly Marxist, leader who denies not only basic freedoms but also the basic provisions necessary to maintain any quality of life. Reading this book in the comfort of my own well heated home, I felt both pity for those that live in North Korea and anger for the inability of the rest of the world to do anything while North Korea's citizens starve to death. The impact of this book is both emotional and intellectual. I highly recommend this book to anyone concerned about the social welfare of people and the role that government plays in people's lives.
Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,568 reviews55.6k followers
February 26, 2022
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a 2009 nonfiction book by Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick, based on interviews with North Korean refugees from the city of Chongjin who had escaped North Korea.

In 2010, the book was awarded the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. It was also a nonfiction finalist for the National Book Award in 2010.

Demick interviewed more than 100 defectors and chose to focus on Chongjin because it is likely to be more representative than the capital Pyongyang. Demick briefly discusses the examination of one of the female interviewees into a position of Kippumjo. The events covered include the famine of the 1990's, with the final chapters describing the route that the main subjects of the book took in order to reach Seoul, South Korea, followed by an epilogue describing the effects of the November 30, 2009 currency reform.

تاریخ نخستین خوانش روز بیست و هشتم ماه ژانویه سال2017میلادی

عنوان: افسوس نمیخوریم - زندگی مردم عادی در کره شمالی؛ نویسنده: باربارا دمیک؛ مترجم: حسین شهرابی؛ مینا جوشقانی؛ تهران، تندیس، سال1393؛ در414ص؛ شابک9786001821349؛ موضوع گزارش از نویسندگان ایالات متحده آمریکا - سده21م

همه بسیار از دولت «کره ی شمالی» شنیده ایم که چه تنگناها و فشارهای باورنکردنی و احمقانه برای مردمانش میسازد؛ اما از خود مردم، از زندگی عادی مردم در این دیکتاتوری کمتر میدانیم؛

مردمان «کره ی شمالی» چطور عاشق میشوند؟

کمبودهای غذایی و قحطیها را چگونه تاب میآورند؟

چه فیلمهایی میبینند؟

نویسنده این کتاب میکوشند از راه بازنویس کردن زندگی پنج انسان عادی، که از «کره ی شمالی» بگریخته اند؛ تصویری دیگر اما بسیار غریب به دست دهند؛ نویسنده مینگارند: (در عکسها و تلویزیون، مردم کره ی شمالی مردمی ماشینی به نظر میرسند، که همیشه در حال ژره رفتن با یونیفرم، یا اجرای حرکات گروهی ژیمناستیک، برای اعلام وفاداری به پیشوای کره ی شمالی هستند؛ با نگاهی دقیق به تصاویری از این دست، سعی دارم از واقعیت ورای آن چهره های تهی خبر دهم...)؛

تاریخ بهنگام رسانی 09/03/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ 06/12/1400هجری خورشیدی؛ ا. شربیانی
Profile Image for David.
647 reviews293 followers
August 3, 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.
Profile Image for Maede.
263 reviews374 followers
March 18, 2022
یک کتاب از هر کشور: ۱.کره شمالی

ترجمه شده به نام "افسوس نمی خوریم" نشر تندیس

اگر فکر می کنید کتاب ۱۹۸۴ جورج اورول خیلی تخیلی و دور از ذهن نوشته شده
اگر فکر می کنید که جای بدی به دنیا اومدید
اگر فکر می کنید که مردم کره شمالی ربات های راضی ای هستند که در عکس ها می بینید
و اگر از قحطی و فاجعه ای که به بار میاره هیچ تصوری جز گرسنگی ندارید
باید این کتاب رو بخونید

شش فرد کاملا متفاوت داستان زندگی و فرار خودشون از بسته ترین کشور جهان رو با جزییاتی توضیح میدن که در طول کتاب می تونی در کره شمالی مسافر باشی. نظام کمونیستی سخت گیر، قحطی و محروم بودن از ساده ترین امکاناتی که انسان قرن ۲۱ در اختیار داره. ماشین، تلفن، اینترنت، لوازم برقی...برق

مردمی که سال ها فقط صبح و شب به تامین غذا فکر می کنند، نسل قورباغه ها رو منقرض می کنند، از علف ها و برگ ها تغذیه می کنند و برنج رو ارزشمندترین غذا و حتی گاهی دست نیافتنی می دونند. بچه ها و بزرگتر هایی که از قحطی می میرند و سو تغذیه ای که مردم کره شمالی رو بسیار کوتاه تر و ضعیف تر از هم نسل های کره جنوبی شون کرده

کشور های همسایه، چین و کره جنوبی، به قدرت های اقتصاد و صنعت جهان تبدیل می شن، وقتی کره شمالی هنوز در یک قرن پیش یخ زده

حتی کمونیزم، گرسنگی و عقب ماندگی فرهنگی هم نمی تونه بعضی چیزها رو کامل از بین ببره. زوجی که ۱۰ سال از تاریکی شب های بدون برق استفاده می کنند و قدم می زنند. عشق به سینما رفتن و فیلم دیدن با وجود فیلم های دولتی تبلیغاتی از بین نمیره
پشت عکس های سرد و زننده یا ساختگی کره شمالی زندگی هنوز در جریانه، هرچند به سختی

به شدت خواندنی، انقدر که ۴.۵ ستاره به ۵ گرد شد
Profile Image for Beata.
698 reviews1,059 followers
May 18, 2019
The ordinary people whose lives are presented in this incredible book lead no ordinary lives. They survive against all odds, despite the totalitarian system which aims at supressing everything that is called normal: normal working conditions, normal education, normal shops, normal family bonds etc. etc. So far I have watched only several short documentaries on North Korea, now I have read a book which is not fiction. Written ten years ago, it is a collection of accounts by those fortunate who had courage and opportunity to flee the last truly totalitarian state. It is unimagonable that a state can have such a power over their citizens and is able to suppress a slightest thought of resistance.
Profile Image for Shivesh.
130 reviews10 followers
October 5, 2010
A physician, possessing numerous years of education and selfless service to her people, comes upon a isolated farm in a dark field at twilight. The doctor is starving, malnourished and ravenous. She seeks crumbs, maybe a scrap of corn to eat. Slowly, she makes her way into a barn, musty with the odor of hay and equipment. She has not seen more than a handful worth of white rice in years. Indeed, white rice is a rare luxury in the world she comes from.

Suddenly, she sees in the dark of the barn a gleam of a beaten metal bowl with cold lumps of glistening meat, surrounded by heaps of bright white grains. Could it be rice? Dear God, is that fatty pork? How could this be possible? Why would all this rich food be just lying here, in the middle of the floor of a dirty cold barn?

Just then, she hears the dog.

As Barbara Demick icily observes at this moment in the book, "Dr. Kim now realized the truth: in China, dogs ate better than doctors did back in North Korea."

It is a moment of epiphany, and one of six realizations that separate six defectors' lives from their existence in North Korea from their subsequent lives in the free world. It is almost ridiculous to think of China as a truly open and free society, but the constant suppression and fear of the North Korean regime makes it so for the residents that flee to the border. An interesting observation from this book and its collection of defectors' stories is that it wasn't the lack of freedom, or the lack of money, or even the lack of status that propelled people to defect from this state, but the wholesale lack of food. Without food rations, there simply was not any reason for people to stay at their assigned posts or cities - they simply drifted away, or plucked the surrounding hillsides clean of any grass or edible root, or with their last bit of strength, dared the dangerous borders to relative freedom.

If you need something to refocus your appreciation for your life, no matter how flawed or unsatisfactory it may be right now: read this book. It will change the way you think about North Korea, and definitely the way you might look at your own problems. Your life isn't so bad after all, huh?
Profile Image for Stephanie.
418 reviews31 followers
February 27, 2012
This book was simultaneously a page-turner and hard as hell to read. I had trouble falling asleep last night because of it, and when I did I had some unsettling nightmares. This isn't a book I can read, write an "oh that's nice, that definitely added to my life" type of review and go about my day. This is some seriously skillful nonfiction. It calls to mind being fourteen and reading Wild Swans. There's a similar structure to both works; history of a country to get the big picture, and memoirs of individual experiences to personalize statistics and news bulletins. And, this is harder to quantify or describe, both books gave me a sick, horrified feeling, even as I felt like parts of my brain were lighting up with brand new information. Some of the best non-fiction makes a reader feel like they can connect seemingly disparate facts together, and history makes a little more sense, and you can't remain distant any longer.

Straight off, I need to say that this is not tragedy porn. That's not why I felt so overwhelmed by this. Demick is respectful of the North Korean defectors that she interviews, and never ventures into the realm of the maudlin. The individual lives take center stage, illuminated by what we know of North Korean history. The reader isn't allowed to rest on their laurels. Capitalism doesn't make their lives 100% better when they escape, and pretty much right off the bat Demick clarifies that Nothing To Envy is not about "oh those wacky North Koreans!" Much of this book demonstrates how to brainwash an entire country into an entire ideology... as well as how, and when, the North Koreans discussed here realized they had been deceived. I was astonished by the ingenuity of every single one of the people profiled, both when it came to surviving the famine and when they had to escape. This book bring back individuality to a nation that's so often reduced to a horror story or a joke.

And, yeah, to circle back to my opening paragraph... The sense of individuality in this book will stick with me. I'm completely overwhelmed by just how many lives have been snuffed out in the North Korean famine. So many people with stories akin to those featured in Nothing To Envy. Gone.
Profile Image for JanB .
1,113 reviews2,165 followers
September 12, 2019
Far from a dry accounting filled with historical detail, this is a look into the lives of six average North Koreans who eventually defect, giving investigative journalist Barbara Demick access to their stories. We are given a peek into what it is like to live under an extreme totalitarian regime. Children are taught to sing anthems of praise where they "have nothing to envy in this world." They are taught that they live in the greatest place on earth, and they know so little of the outside world that they believe this to be true.

Demick excels in humanizing the North Korean people. We know the regime is evil, but the people are not. As she gets inside their hearts and minds, we see that there is much more that binds humans together than sets us apart. These are ordinary people. But their lives are anything but ordinary. Their individual stories are touching. The famine of the '90s is covered, which killed upwards of millions of people. It’s difficult to describe the horrors and deprivation they endure(d) on a daily basis.

Most defected out of desperation, not out of disloyalty. When they did so, their eyes were opened as they began to understand that everything they had been told was propaganda and a lie. The challenges continued as they learned to assimilate into a modern culture of which they knew nothing about. When one defector, a physician, realized that a bowl of rice and meat on the ground was for a dog, she was shocked that “dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.”

This is a must read for everyone. It left me heartsick over man's inhumanity to man, but it is not without hope. It renewed an appreciation and respect for the perseverance of the human spirit, gave me a new appreciation for our country, and put what I consider my 'problems' in perspective.

The narrator of the audiobook is excellent, which, combined with compelling content, made for a riveting listen. I can't recommend this highly enough. It's been in my tbr for years. My son-in-law and my Goodreads friend Jenna recently read and recommended it, which was the incentive I needed to finally pick it up. I'm only sorry I waited so long.
Profile Image for Iris P.
171 reviews202 followers
August 12, 2017
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

 photo Barbara Author 2.jpg-20130212_zpszoptyjca.jpg
Barbara Demick is an American author and journalist

"Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world. Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party. We are all brothers and sisters. Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid, our father is here. We have nothing to envy in this world."
Popular song taught to North Korean school children praising the Dear Leader

Six years after its original publication, Barbara Demick’s remarkable work of investigative journalism remains a very compelling, reader-friendly account of what is like to live and escape from one of the most brutal and repressive states in the world.

Reading Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, felt like stepping into a large-scale re-enactment of George Orwell's 1984. If somebody had intentionally set out to recreate the famous novel, they couldn't have done a better job than what this dystopian-like regime has become.

The subtitle of the book might as well have been called “How to make it as a Dictator in the 21st Century”.
For anybody that has such aspirations, this might be the best how-to manual available.
Be aware though, as despotic regimes go, the Kim dynasty, with their 70-year ruling over the so-called Hermit Kingdom, is a tough act to follow.

Here are some pointers on how to do it:

• Foster a cult of personality that raises you to a God-like status allowing you to harness the power of faith, invoke religious sentiments among the people and manipulate them at your will.

• Enforce a policy requiring that every household ostentatiously displays your photo. The Public Standards Police should make surprise visits to ensure strict compliance.

• When a devastating famine hits your country due to your failed economic policies, allow that up to 2 Million or roughly 10% of your people die of hunger. The first ones to perish would be the sick, the children and the elderly.

• Establish work labor camps that could manage as many as 200,000 political prisoners or the equivalent of 2% of your country’s population. Citizens might be taken to these camps for crimes as petty as failing to go to work.

• Use any medium available to relentlessly deliver propaganda, especially to children, demonizing the foreign “bastards”, namely, America, Japan, and South Korea.

• Use the threat of nuclear and biological weapons to coerce those same “foreign bastards” countries into providing billions of dollars in food aid to your country without any pre-conditions.

• Talking about weapons, be willing to spend up to 25% of your country’s GDP (versus the average 5% used by most developed countries) to sustain your military army and infrastructure.

• Make sure the population is blocked from getting access to any news or communications from the outside world. If they ever learn that their counterparts in the south have an income per capita 20 times higher than theirs, that your infant mortality is 7 times higher and that their life expectancy is at least 10 years longer, you could lose control over the people and who knows where that might lead.

So this is how you attempt to control a country of 24 million people, who continue to be the victims of their leaders utopian Stalinist fantasies.

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Chol (a pseudonym), a nine-year-old North Korean boy, shows a picture of the place where he was raised by his grandparents in North Korea- Photo by Katharina Hesse

In interviews, Demick has mentioned that her motivation to write this book was to find answers to questions many of us have: What happens to people living in the most totalitarian of regimes? Do they lose their essential humanity? What were they thinking behind the blank stares of the video footage we saw of mass gymnastics or goose-stepping soldiers? Were these people anything like us?

Nothing To Envy also gives the reader a condensed history of the Korean peninsula, how it got fractured and North Korea’s role as it relates to the major powers in the region, both with its allies (China and Russia) and its foes (Japan and South Korea).

Primarily though, the book focuses on the plight of the North Korean people right after the economic collapse of the late 1990’s and the brutal famine that followed.

Demick does a remarkable job at humanizing this story by introducing us to six North Koreans that fled the industrial city of Chongjin. There is even a love story, albeit one of the star crossed-lovers variety, as alas, a happy ending was not meant to be.

The author portrays these men and women with profound respect and sensitivity and painstakingly re-creates their everyday lives in amazing detail. Inevitably, one by one realizes that their government has betrayed them and that all they’ve been told throughout their whole lives have been propaganda and lies.

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Hating starts early- North Korean children line up to view anti-U.S. propaganda posters

One of the people we meet is Mi-ran, a sensible kindergarten teacher who is considered to have "tainted blood" because her father was born in South Korea.
Hers is one of the most heartbreaking of all these stories. As an elementary teacher, she is expected to teach her pupils the blessings of being a North Korean, the best nation on earth, while she watches them die of starvation.

Jun-sang, Mi-ran's boyfriend, has Japanese relatives that help supplement his family's income. This allows him to live a relatively privileged life. He attends one of the best universities in Pyongyang, and as part of an intellectual elite enjoys some small perks that include access to western literary classics such as Gone with the Wind and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

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A 20-year-old refugee from North Korea in a farmhouse in northern China hides his identity- Photo by Katharina Hesse

We also get to know Kim Ji-Eun, a 28-year-old pediatrician at a small district hospital who has been a lifetime staunch supporter of the North Korea’s Worker’s Party.
She begins to question her loyalty to the party after her father dies during the famine and her superiors give orders that compromise her Hippocratic oath.

The relentless search by ordinary citizens for food from any conceivable source - weeds, frogs, and insects - is a heartbreaking and constant theme of these stories. The accounts of Mi-Ran and Dr. Kim are particularly difficult to read because they involved starving children as well as the elderly.

One of the most powerful scenes in the book happens after Doctor Kim, who has just crossed the river into China, bone-tired, starving and dripping wet stumbles into the courtyard of a farmhouse. She is confused to see a bowl of rice and meat on the ground, just an hour out of North Korea she realizes that dogs in China eat better than doctors in North Korea.

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Kim Jeong-Ya (a pseudonym) a Chinese activist helps North Koreans defectors cross safely to China- Photo by Katharina Hesse

The majority of people become defectors by crossing the Tumen River which divides the two countries. That is not an easy undertaking since the Chinese authorities monitor the border and routinely repatriate defectors back to North Korea.

They also have to live with the reality that their escape may put the families they left behind in great danger as the government consistently retaliates by placing them in labor camps. The customary term is anywhere from six months to three years.

Reading the accounts of the defectors seems to suggest that a great deal of North Koreans is privately very aware and cynical about the leadership of their country and that they only play along out of fear of repercussions.

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The Tumen River - Photo by Katharina Hesse

Nothing I’ve read here or from any other source, suggests that this regime will collapse anytime soon. But in recent years certain improvements have surfaced and the country has experienced something of an economic revival, at least by North Korean standards.

This is mostly the result of the constant flow of information coming from China and South Korea that is making its way into the North.
Over a million people now have mobile phones, many have personal computers (the caveat is that there's no internet access), there are department stores with foreign goods and fancy restaurants in Pyongyang and the government has decided to "tolerate" small farmer markets.

I suspect that if you are a well-informed reader on North Korea issues, Nothing to Envy might not provide any significant amount of new information, if like me you are looking for a great introduction to this most secretive and fascinating of places, I would definitely recommend it.


In 2014 PBS's Frontline produced a riveting documentary called "Secret State of North Korea". I think it makes for a great companion to this book and it provides an updated picture of North Korea and the changes that have been taking place there in the last few years.

You can find a link here. As of the date of this review the program is also available on Netflix.

You can find the majority of the pictures on this review here.
Profile Image for Lilo.
131 reviews347 followers
November 26, 2014
This book is a must read — an absolute MUST READ! It is inexcusable not to be informed about what has been going on in North Korea. What we hear on the news is just simply not enough.

There are great reviews of this book on Goodreads. So I won’t elaborate about the contents of this book.

What I would like to do is compare The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (in short DPRK, or just simply North Korea) to Hitler’s Third Reich.

Upfront: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is just as much democratic as Hitler’s “Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei” (National Socialist German Worker’s Party) was a Socialist Worker’s Party. Both designations are misnomers with the clear purpose to fool the population. Brutal dictatorships like to disguise themselves with terms that are well received. The word “democratic” had a good reputation after WWII, and the word “socialist” rang well in the ears of workers during the 1920s and 1930s.

I’ll take the liberty of using LeeAnne’s wonderful review of “Nothing to Envy”


as basis for my comparison of the two oppressive regimes.

LeeAnne writes: “North Koreans live in the most isolated bubble in the world”. This is very true. North Koreans cannot correspond with anyone outside of North Korea (with certain exceptions of relatives in Japan); there isn’t even any mail service across the borders.

During the Third Reich, Germans could correspond with anyone in foreign countries but might have drawn the attention of the Gestapo with such correspondence. Letters might have been opened, read, and censored. Were the contents criticizing the regime, the writer might have landed in a concentration camp.

There is no Internet in North Korea, and cell phones are banned.

Well, there was no Internet and there were no cell phones at the time of the Third Reich. There were even hardly any private phones. To make a phone call (usually reserved for emergencies), people had to go to the post office (unless they had any business owners as friends who let them use their phones). However, most urgent notifications were handled with telegrams. And for normal long-distance communication, regular mail was the way to go. Phones and mail were, of course, subject to wiretapping and interception. And I assume that there were informers at most (or possibly even all) post offices.

It is forbidden in North Korea to tune in on foreign TV and radio stations. The usual punishment for breaking this law is to be sent to the gulag (or concentration camp, whatever name for this North Korean institution you prefer).

It was forbidden in Hitler’s Germany to listen to the BBC or any other foreign radio station. (There was, of course, no TV.) Depending on individual implication of this law, noncompliance could earn the offender a heavy fine (best case scenario), a prison sentence, a concentration camp stay of indefinite length, or even a death sentence, unless the Gestapo would simplify the issue and shoot the offenders without any court procedure. — My family members took great risks by listening to the BBC. When my mother realized that I had become aware of it that they were listening to a foreign radio station, she cautioned me not to tell anybody, and especially not any Nazi neighbors. She stressed that if we were found out, the Gestapo would come and shoot us all, and if I happened to be spared, I would land in an orphanage. The problem: Unbeknownst of the danger, I, then 2 1/2 years old, had already told the two daughters of an SS relative of our Nazi landlady, who were 3 and 5 years old. Their father was a murderous SS criminal, who had bragged about throwing Jewish children onto the pavement from 4th-floor windows. Fortunately, the two girls never told their SS father (their mother was a decent person) nor our landlady; otherwise, I would not be here to tell. (These girls were not the smartest and did not seem to be interested in politics.) I spent the remaining three years of the war expecting the Gestapo to come any day to shoot us. I never told any of my family members. They all died without ever learning that our lives had hung on a thread.

There is no free speech in North Korea. The most harmless remark criticizing the leader or the regime will be punished by declaring the person who made the remark an “enemy of the state” and sending him/her to the gulag for life. The same thing happens to people who tell jokes about the leader.

There was no free speech in Hitler’s Germany either. Here, too, a person who criticized Hitler, the regime, or Nazi ideology would be declared an “enemy of the state” and would land in a concentration camp. Telling a Hitler-joke would draw the same punishment. And there is, at least, one case where a woman who told such a joke landed on the gallows. — My parents and their friends did tell Hitler jokes, and they were only so lucky that I (who I understood more than my family members were aware of) did not tell (or attempt to tell) any of those jokes to any Nazi neighbors. My adoptive grandmother (biological grand-aunt), called “Oma”, was very talkative (I must have inherited her genes :-)), so she once carelessly remarked to a not-so-well-known acquaintance: “Does this private [referring to Hitler’s low military rank in WWI] really think he can win this war?” The acquaintance turned out to be an informer. This remark was not only derogatory of Hitler, it also was a clear case of “Wehrkraftzersetzung” (= defeatism / undermining of military morale). Oma had to report to an SS official. Normal procedure would have been to turn her over to the Gestapo, which would, then, have hauled her to Dachau, the next concentration camp, or, more likely, would have passed her on to the “Volksgericht”, Hitler’s “kangaroo court”, which might have sentenced her to death because “Wehrkraftzersetzung” was a very serious offense, which was usually awarded with capital punishment. Yet Oma was lucky - VERY LUCKY! The SS official was the son of a farmer, whom Oma’s late husband (then, head of the local Internal Revenue Office) had saved from losing his farm by extending his taxes or even paying them out of his own pocket. The SS guy was grateful; he wasn’t going to send his family’s benefactor’s widow to the gallows. So he threw the report of the informer into the waste basket and released Oma with the advice to, in future, hold her tongue.

There is no free assembly in North Korea.

There was no free assembly in Hitler’s Germany.

Without free assembly it is next to impossible to start a revolt against a regime. How many people can secretly meet in someone’s bedroom? (And how can one organize a revolution in a bomb-tight police state without being found out and executed before the revolt can draw momentum?)

There is no religious freedom in North Korea, and North Korea’s rulers (dead or alive) are worshipped as gods.

There was religious freedom in Hitler’’s Germany — sort of. The Christian churches (Catholic and Lutheran) were strong. Hitler couldn’t dare to abolish them, so he used them for his own purposes. And once he felt that he no longer needed them, Hitler started to harass them and persecute any cleric who spoke up against Nazi ideology or Nazi practices, such as violence against Jews. — A grand-uncle of mine, a Catholic priest, whose parish was in a small village, kept ranting against the Nazis from the pulpit. After he had become too daring, his bishop forced him to retire so that he would not end up in Dachau. (He had already caught the attention of the Gestapo.) — Had it not been for the remaining power of the Christian Churches, Hitler would have also been built up as a god. He was already referred to as “messiah”, “successor of Jesus”, and “unser Heiland” (“our savior”), a term that had, so far, only been used for Jesus. Apart from this, “blood weddings” had started to replace church weddings. These were ridiculous, pompous celebrations that kept referring to Hitler similar to the way church weddings referred to God. (The murderous SS relative of our landlady had gotten married with such a pompous, pseudo-religious “blood wedding”, for which the organ had been confiscated from my hometown’s “Spitalkirche” (= nursing home church).

There is no free movement allowed to North Koreans, not even within their country.

There weren’t any travel restrictions within Hitler’s Germany, but during the war, it became difficult to leave the country without being arrested at the border.

There are no workers’ rights in North Korea.

I don’t think there were any workers’ rights in Hitler’s Germany either, and if there were, they were just on paper.

There is no independent media in North Korea. TV, radio, and newspapers are state-controlled. Instead of news and information, they spread propaganda, brainwash, and outright lies. — Propaganda and brainwash has turned the vast majority of North Koreans into ignorant robots.

There wasn’t any independent media in Hitler’s Germany either. Radio and newspapers were state-controlled, and there wasn’t any TV. News were tampered with and falsified. There was plenty of propaganda and brainwash, and there were also plenty of outright lies. So, for instance, when Hitler invaded Poland, the radio reported, right after: “Seit 8 Uhr wird zurueckgeschossen.” (“Since 8 o’clock [a.m.], fire is being returned.”), claiming that Polish troops had attacked German borders and that German troops had eventually returned the fire. — Propaganda and brainwash had turned roughly half of the German population into Nazis. (There is no way to obtain any exact figures because NSDAP membership wasn’t equivalent to political opinion. Not every true Nazi was a party member [some just never bothered to join], and not every party member was a true Nazi. Some non-Nazis joined the party to further their career or not to lose their jobs. And there were other opportunistic reasons to join the NSDAP.)

It is estimated that about one fifth of the North Korean population has starved to death during the 1990s. People ate tree bark; that is, if they could still find any. Those who weren’t able to tend a private vegetable garden, if only so small, had the least chances to survive.

There was no famine during the Third Reich. However food was very scarce once the war had started, and those people who had to solely rely on the food obtainable with food ration cards would be in serious trouble. Not only was the amount of food allotted with ration cards insufficient; the ration cards were rather useless when the food wasn’t available in the stores. (I should mention, however, that the food/goods supply differed a bit from region to region.) Most people resorted to illegally trading goods with farmers and to foraging in the woods for wild mushrooms and berries. Older, fragile, or poor city dwellers, who weren’t able to make it to the country or didn’t have any bartering goods, would suffer badly from malnutrition or, in some cases, even starve to death. Many such pitiable people raided garbage cans to search for potato peels and other food remnants that more fortunate citizens (some of them privileged Nazis) had discarded. And an unknown number of city dwellers succumbed to illnesses that would not have killed them had they not been undernourished.

Since there was no chemical fertilizer and hardly any livestock in North Korea during the famine (and may not even be today), human feces were (and might still be?) collected on a large scale to fertilize state-grown crops. There were huge campaigns, assigning people to these dirty jobs and have them carry the buckets filled with feces for miles, on foot, to collection plants. Hygiene was (or is?) obviously a non-issue.

Even though there was no famine in Germany, there was no chemical fertilizer available for crops because all chemical fertilizer was used to make explosives. There weren’t sufficient amounts of animal manure. Thus, human feces (while not collected in buckets from toilets, as done in North Korea, but siphoned from outhouses and sceptic tanks) were also used on commercial crops and in private vegetable gardens. This resulted in people getting internal parasites. (I still remember being dewormed with carrot juice.)

There is severe fuel shortage in North Korea. Only few institutions (amongst them schools) and private homes can be heated in winter. There are no street lights, and the availability of electricity is limited to very few hours weekly. People have cut down all accessible trees for firewood. Parks are stripped bare. Private cars and motorcycles are nonexistent.

There was also considerable fuel shortage in Germany during WWII. Coal and firewood was rationed. Electricity was off at certain times. “Kohlenklau” (coal thief)-posters were all about, vilifying people who weren’t frugal in their use of coal. Kids ran after coal wagons, picking up after them. People went to the woods to gather firewood and, yet I never heard of any trees in parks being cut down. The only cars I was aware of in my hometown (of some 5,000 inhabitants) belonged to the two family doctors and to Nazi party officials. (There also might have been an ambulance, but I never saw it.) — All in all, I would say that the fuel shortage in North Korea is way worse than Hitler’s Germany had ever experienced. — Yet we also suffered during the cold months. There wasn’t enough fuel to heat any bedrooms. Thick feather beds and hot water bottles were a necessity. Water was only heated as needed. The hot water boiler in the bathroom was only heated up every second Saturday (for every family member to take a bath). And the living room temperature could only be kept at minimum comfort.

There isn’t supposed to be any unemployment in “the communistic workers’ paradise” of North Korea, but there is (or rather, eventually came to be).

There was little unemployment in Hitler’s Germany, once Hitler started with rearmament (to prepare for WWII).

When anyone is shipped to the gulag in North Korea, his or her blood relatives (parents, grandparents, children, siblings, aunts, uncles) are usually shipped along with him or her (unless they are party members in very good standing or they are protected by some party big shot).

Hitler had also imposed “Sippenhaft” (liability of all members of a family for the “crimes” of one member). Yet he did not differentiate between blood relatives and non-blood relatives.

Sippenhaft of any kind makes it rather impossible to oppose a regime. Even when someone is ready to risk his own life, he or she is rarely ready to risk the lives of family members and relatives.

LeeAnne writes: “People are expected to work 7 days a week, even if they are unemployed. It is not unusual to be employed and working 7 days a week but not receive a paycheck for years.”

I don’t think that Hitler’s “Reichsarbeitsdienst” was an equivalent of North Korean practices. I just know that it was voluntary before 1939 and compulsory after 1939. And I do not know if there was any financial remuneration.

North Korea does not allow everyone to join the North Korean Workers’ Party (the only existing party). Being allowed to join this party is a privilege, and applicants are not only required to have a history of absolute loyalty to the regime but must also have a spotless family background. Career advancement is only possible with party membership.

The NSDAP also did not allow everyone to join. Yet there were few restrictions. Unless someone had a criminal record, a politically suspect past, or politically suspect family members or relatives, they did not have a problem to join “The Party” (the only existing party, after all other parties had been banned once Hitler had come into power). In Hitler's Germany, too, party membership furthered careers.

The living conditions in North Korean gulags (concentration camps) are horrific. There are different types of camps. Those for minor offenses offer a tiny chance of survival. Those for higher graded offenses are designed for life sentences, and due to the conditions in these camps, the convicted can be rather sure that their lives won’t last very long.

Hitler’s concentration camps were similar. Ordinary camps, like Dachau, were not necessarily meant for life sentences. Jews (and also some non-Jews) were shipped from Dachau to death camps, such as Auschwitz. Ordinary inmates (like unimportant socialists, communists, or “enemies of the state” [who might have told Hitler jokes or criticized the regime) were kept indefinitely or released and rearrested at random. They had some chance of survival, yet many died of starvation, exposure, or untreated disease, or were outright murdered by sadistic SS personnel. And had the war ended later, only a fraction of the inmates could have been expected to survive. Most of those who were early released by the Nazis or freed by the Allies at the end of the war, suffered life-long health damage. — What happened in death camps was worse. Those inmates who weren’t useful as slave workers landed in the gas chambers, and slave workers were worked to death (or sent to the gas chambers once no longer useful), unless they were lucky enough to survive until the end of the war. Even then, most survivors perished during so-called death marches.

The main difference between North Korean and German concentration camps is that the North Korean ones don’t have gas chambers, yet some of the inmates may wish that they had, for their tortured existence cannot really be called “life”.

Summa summarum: North Korea and Hitler’s Germany deserve both to be called “hell on earth”, North Korea is just a little different kind of hell. You really would not want to have to choose. (As an Aryan non-Nazi, I would consider Hitler’s Germany the lesser of two terrible evils. As a Jew, I would not be so sure.) Hell is known for containing devils who make hell what it is, and North Korea as well as Hitler’s Germany have/had plenty of those.

Something else: North Korea, even though a small country, has a huge and highly efficient military. Every North Korean male has to serve 10 years in the military. This makes a lot of military experts. And North Korean’s leadership pumps immense sums of money into armament. Thus, North Korea’s military force has to be taken seriously.

Hitler’s Germany was also a small country, yet it was a very powerful military force. Maybe Hitler’s Germany wasn’t taken seriously enough because of Germany’s relatively small geographic size. If this should have been the case, such mistake should not be repeated with North Korea.

The question remains: What can the outside world do against such hellish boils on this globe, which not only treat their own citizens in a barbaric way but also pose a serious danger to the rest of the world?

There was a time when Hitler could have been stopped by the governments of other countries, especially the U.S. This was before he proceeded with the rearmament. The chance was missed. We all know the result.

There was a time when North Korea’s regime could have been reigned in (or ousted) by the Chinese government. (Yet the Chinese appreciated North Korea as a buffer between China and the Western-oriented South Korea.) The chance was missed. Meanwhile, China feels herself threatened by North Korea.

Once a totalitarian, oppressive, belligerent regime is armed to the teeth, trying to stop it means war (in our day and age probably nuclear war).

So what can we do at this point? I don’t know. Does anyone have an answer?

Profile Image for Maciek.
558 reviews3,228 followers
July 14, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Caroline.
497 reviews555 followers
June 13, 2015
North and South Korea at night

Marvellous. I would say a must read.

This book has several threads....

Firstly it discusses the general idiosyncrasies of life in North Korea under the guru gaze of Kim il-sung and then Kim Jong-il. Think Gulliver's Travels mixed with Alice in Wonderland, then give it a good shake.... I could hardly believe what I was reading. It's another world, and not in a good way.

Secondly, it follows the lives of several people who ultimately defect to South Korea. These people give us great insight into life in North Korea. They also give us insights into the major challenges of being a refugee - particularly in taking the massive step from the repressed society of North Korea, into the freedom and modernity of South Korea. Their stories make a great contribution to the book, bringing us a wonderfully personal and intimate view of wider events.

Thirdly, it describes the economic failures and famine of the 1990s, followed by continuing under-nourishment in the 21st century. Starvation, poverty, desperation - plus resourcefulness and an unbelievable tenacity and will to survive. Lots of people didn't make it though.

And fourthly it describes just what a horrible warmongering little nation this is, thanks to the obsessions of its leaders. Most industrialized nations spend less than 5% their gross national product on the military. North Korea's defence budget is 25%. It keeps one million men under arms, that's the fourth largest military compilation in the world - and this for a tiny country, no bigger than Pennsylvania. Anti-American and anti-Japanese propaganda flourishes, even for schoolchildren, and this in spite of the fact that much of its humanitarian aid has come from the US.

For me reading about North Korea was like reading about a crazy sect, headed by a power-hungry, omnipresent leader. Except this is a sect of almost twenty-five million people.

I thought this book was superbly constructed and well written, giving an excellent picture of what life is like for the people in this troubled country. Highly recommended.

Some notes for my own record......mostly just extracts from the book



And here is a link to an album of photographs taken in North Korea, by the brilliant photographer Eric Lafforgue. This album is a marvellous document of life in that country, and the photographs are superb. I highly recommend it.



BBC Documentary

And here is a link to an excellent TV programme done by Panorama (BBC), on an extraordinary private Western university* that has opened in North Korea. It gives a lot of insight into the culture generally, as well as the work of the university.


*The Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST).

Picture at top was taken from the book.

Profile Image for Carol.
822 reviews477 followers
August 8, 2017
Correct, 4 stars. I know, I know, I don't give stars but I've decided that when I have little to say or add to the many superior reviews of a book, perhaps the stars and a few words from me will suffice.

I have been meaning to read something, anything about North Korea for some time now. With the strife between our countries it seems paramount now. What better than to hear personal stories from the people who live there to give me a better understanding of mindset?

Though Barbara Demick's book was published in 2010 and many of the people she follows tell their stories from the 90's, I believe I have a better picture of the country and people as a whole. This does not mean I can stop here. I really need to read more and if you have a suggestion I'm open to it.

If I took anything at all from this book it is that there is nothing to envy" in North Korea, but much to learn from the ordinary lives of its inhabitants.

Powerful reading.
Profile Image for Caroline .
406 reviews550 followers
December 21, 2016

The subtitle is “Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” but “Extraordinary Lives in North Korea” may be more fitting. Author Barbara Demick chose to approach the topic of North Korea smartly--by interviewing at length a handful of North Korean defectors from various walks of life. Actually, “interviewing” feels inaccurate. She presented the kinds of intimate details exchanged between confidants. North Korea is unlike any country on Earth, and the subjects of this book are very unlike the average person.

It’s pretty much common knowledge that North Korea is its own oppressed and highly mysterious world. Demick stated that the fact that it’s managed to remain as it has for this long is surprising. Communism fell in Germany and then in the Soviet Union; it would seem North Korea isn’t far behind, yet it continues to operate miserably and hopelessly as it has for decades. She believes its fall is imminent.

Nothing to Envy isn’t exactly about North Korea, though. It isn’t the best book to read to learn about North Korea’s history or anything detailed about Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Demick explained little about them, mostly focusing on how beloved Kim Il-sung was (a fascinating example of how thorough North Korea’s brainwashing is) and how important such love and admiration was to him. She says much less about Kim Jong-il beyond explaining that he was less capable than his father and fairly disliked by the North Koreans. She described North Korea’s landscape more than she delved into the country’s history. She wrote little about the prison camps not because of any oversight; it was because, as she explained, those prisons are for life. No one is freed (or manages to escape) to provide a description.

This book is about the people. Demick kept the humanity in their stories, and this is the book’s strength. She wanted her readers, no matter who they are, to relate to her subjects as easily as they do their own friends. These people differ greatly. They range from an overworked doctor to an incorrigible teen thief. The result is a satisfying, full portrait of what life is as a citizen of this country. To read Nothing to Envy is to walk in the shoes of a North Korean, especially a North Korean during the country’s famine, which lasted from 1994 to 1998 and killed as many as 3.5 million people. It’s to eat a concoction of salted water bulked up with tree bark, sawdust, and weeds from the backyard; to hurry past emaciated corpses at the train station daily; to witness a man be publicly executed for stealing copper wire off a dead phone line.

Demick was shrewd in her choices, because these stories are equally interesting. Her writing is accomplished but not complicated; she transitioned logically from one story to another; and the book as a whole never gets dry. What’s especially outstanding is that she deftly wove facts about this unusual country into the personal stories when the facts are relevant to those stories, so all learning about North Korea feels natural. This technique really works. Focusing primarily on the inhabitants is almost always more engrossing in a nonfiction about a country.

Nothing to Envy can probably be considered the benchmark for understanding what it’s like not just to live but to survive in North Korea. Those the least bit curious should open this, look at that shocking map heading chapter one, and try to resist the pull.
Profile Image for Jenna ❤ ❀  ❤.
743 reviews1,108 followers
September 1, 2019
The Koreas at Night (PT)
Satellite image of the Koreas at night, by the Expedition 38 crew

What is it about North Korea that commands our attention? I find it hard to resist books written about this strange country, ruled by the iron fist of an even stranger dictator and his strange predecessors. When I started this book, my fiancee asked why I wanted to read another book about North Korea; after all, there probably isn't much more to learn that I haven't already in other books. This closed off country doesn't exactly exude information and so much of it is a black hole. I think that is part of the mystique, part of the reason why I'm drawn to books about it, because there isn't a plethora of information to be gleaned about this country. Anything new fills in that black hole just a little. It is not easy to read about North Korea and its suffering citizens and yet I am compelled to.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
is an incredible look into the lives of several ordinary North Koreans who have been able to make the dangerous and difficult journey to South Korea, where they are now trying to build the best possible lives for themselves. The author, Barbara Demick, spent seven years living in South Korea where she got to know people who had defected from North Korea. This book is their stories. It is written with much insight and compassion and I feel like I really got to know the people she wrote about. Ms. Demick shares with us their lives, their hopes and dreams and fears, the suffering they endured and the suffering they still endure even though they are now "free". Many (most?) books that are written in this way, with several individual human interest stories rather than concrete facts, annoy me. And yet. And yet for a country so cloaked in secrecy as North Korea, I think books like this are the best way to learn about it. It is not easy to learn about; the suffering of these people is incredible. It is difficult to read and difficult to contemplate. Difficult to even write a review. Nothing I can say can so much as hint at the level of suffering in North Korea.

I've read several books about North Korea, and I think this one is my favourite. If you're interested in getting an inside look at the lives of North Koreans, this book is for you. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Michael Gerald.
378 reviews45 followers
March 24, 2021
If you thought that George Orwell's satires Animal Farm and 1984 are just works of fiction, think again. Look at a map and find North Korea. That's a present-day, real-life Animal Farm.

But, since it's written by an American, it should still be read with a grain of salt.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
464 reviews580 followers
May 12, 2014
"It is not easy for somebody who has escaped a totalitarian country to live in the free world. Defectors have to rediscover who they are in a world that offers endless possibilities. Choosing where to live, what to do, even which clothes to put on in the morning is tough enough for those of us accustomed to choices. It can be utterly paralyzing for people who've had decisions made for them by the state their entire lives."

These are the stories of North Korean defectors: people who risked everything to escape a totalitarian country.

It was impossible to read this nonfiction book and not be reminded of George Orwell's 1984.; difficult to read Demick's recount of how she gathered the information without seeing traces of Laura Ling's Somewhere Inside: One Sister's Captivity in North Korea and the Other's Fight to Bring Her Home.

Demick was a journalist and Bureau Chief for North and South Korea when she gathered information for this book. It took her fifteen years of research, interviews, and writing to get us these heartrending stories. Forgive me as I dare to suggest that you could read all you want about North Korea, but you will never see it the same after reading the accounts of these people who actually lived there. Nothing you've seen in the media can prepare you for the lives behind the scenes of this regime.

"Our Father, we have nothing to envy in this world." (The name of this book is based on this chant from North Koreans to their father-dictator).

They were not allowed to watch televisions or listen to radios. Daily activity and speech were monitored. They were told that the rest of the world were evil capitalists whose ideas of individualism had them living in seclusion, hiding from each other in fear of being killed. Speaking up against "the great leader" was a serious crime.

Again: think, Winston in 1984. Oh Orwell, you psychic genius.

What Demick does well here is structure individual stories around facts on North Korea: history about the separation of Korea after the war, and statistics that will stun you (i.e.: on poverty). The research is thorough and the interviews came together like a story that unfolds well. I was particularly stricken by the information about daily diet and the starvation that forced some Koreans to eat grass just to stay alive. My surprise wasn't because I was naive to think that poverty isn't a worldwide problem, but because what I was reading about (or rather hearing through the beautiful audio production by Karen White on my iPad) was what one would expect in a war torn country. Yet there I was, reading about the intentional crippling of an economy.

There are no words to describe the brave defectors who risked everything to escape to South Korea: some left families and their families were taken to labor camps; those who started over and found a way to mingle with a free society; those who struggled to find confidence and independence. There is a couple in love, a matriarch who was once loyal to the regime, a doctor who had to restart medical school when she escaped, a young businesswoman.

Read this and you'll worry about the future of world politics.
Profile Image for LA Cantrell.
423 reviews540 followers
February 17, 2017
How can any book about North Korea and its people not be fascinating? This one is a composite tale of six people who defected from this very bizarre country and were interviewed at length, off and on for a period of years. Because I read a surreal work of fiction by Adam Johnson called The Orphan Master's Son, a novel that was very well researched (and which I highly recommend), there were probably not as many surprises for me as for another reader who knows even less about North Korea.

Because we get very personal histories, it was interesting to find out that a class system is alive and well there, making it impossible for young people in love to marry one another if one has some sort of shame in the family. The shame might be to have relatives living in China or South Korea - this offense taints the family bloodline for three generations, regardless of the intellect or talent or physical status of the person. If one of your distant relatives had somehow defected to China or to South Korea, his immediate family would be thrown into prison, probably for life. Those related to the defector - but not by bloodlines - could keep their freedom, but the next three generations would be hard pressed to find education or to marry above their station.

The class system also rewards those with good lineage and good service with a bit of extra food or acceptance into university. What was darkly amusing was the experience of one person who had achieved a high level of scholarly pursuit, but when he finally made it to South Korea, he realized that he indeed was very progressive in his knowledge - knowledge tied to the 1950s and 60s! Everything he knew and instructed university students in had been obsolete for decades.

While I had heard of the food shortages in the 1990s, I had no idea how desperate a famine it really was. Like the people in the Siege of Leningrad who were starved for hundreds of days, the North Korean families died of starvation or were stunted in their growth and development for a decade. By the late 90s, North Korean men only had to reach 5 feet in height to be admitted to the armed services - with the exception of the ulra elite, everyone was underweight. This book was published in 2010, and at that time it appeared that food was still scarce. People could still be seen on their knees by the side of the road, pulling weeds aside to look for edible plants.

There are a few stories about the work prisons which were not all that surprising except for the fact that a tiny offense, a joke made about the great leaders height for example, could send you to prison for over a year. The six individuals that the author interviewed over the years were all from a city close to the Chinese border called Chongjin, and while a couple of them did spend time in prison, most of the story is based on life in the city during the starving times of the 90s. Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il were in power during the timeframe that is covered by this book, so you will not find anything about Kim Jong-Un here. Who knows what fresh atrocities are happening now? Like his father and grandfather before him, what funds he has goes into weapons instead of providing food for his people. All three generations of dictators color the Americans as evil, so all of the defectors were stunned to eventually discover that what food did appear came from humanitarian efforts that the US and UN provided.

This was an interesting and eye-opening book, however I would highly recommend that you not listen to it by audio as I did. The narrator is extremely staccato in her pronunciation and quite slow to boot. One thing that occurred to me is that perhaps she is tightly spoken by intention. There may be Korean readers listening to the book in English, and if the words are slowly and clearly spoken, then it would be easier for them to absorb.

The first half of the book reads as a bit dry, and there are a handful of phrases that repeated throughout chunks of the book (she had arrived...he had arrived) in such close proximity that they were noticeable. The style of storytelling is not particularly compelling in the first half, but the lives of these ordinary people certainly are.

It is absolutely horrifying to know that there are millions of people living in such strange and horrific circumstances, and the irony is that they are so encapsulated in their country, that they believe the entire world is in the same boat with them. Say a little prayer for the people of North Korea. They are bright and hard-working and dedicated to their families, but are locked in a cult like state with a third generation madman ruling them. God bless them.
Profile Image for Metodi Markov.
1,249 reviews285 followers
February 13, 2022
Ледена пот ме облива целия, като се присетя, че и моя живот можеше да е така непоправимо съсипан, както на множеството севернокорейски граждани.

В книгата на Барбара Демик познах кошмари от детството ми, за мой късмет не толкова ужасни, но все пак натрапчиви и светоизграждащи - страхът от следене и репресии, невъзможността дори в семейството си да говориш свободно и да изразяваш мислите си, контролираната мизерия и двойния стандарт за повечето граждани на "справедлива и процъфтяваща социалистическа България", липсата на перспективи в обозримо бъдеще, невъзможност за пътуване извън страната, и още много...

Принципно не одобрявам промените в оригиналните заглавия на преводните книги, обаче "Химн на смъртта" в едно словосъчетание описва този безмерен ужас, наречен Северна Корея. Незнанието не е оправдание, но всъщност външния свят не знае почти нищо за безумния комунистически режим унищожаващ севернокорейците и в момента. Два пъти повече ме е срам, от гнусните заигравания на бившия американски президент Тръмп с представителите на този престъпен синдикат. Гнус ме е от това мекотело, този продажник и абсолютен срам за демокрацията и свободния свят, паднал до там, да се мазни на тлъстия комунистически диктатор трето поколение и да му е доброволен съучастник! :(

Книгата трябва да се прочете задължително от всякакви левичари, марксисти, анархисти и подобна паплач - ето ги ваште идеи, претворени в реалност! Глад и канибализъм, духовна мизерия и беднотия, нехуманно отношение към хората и животните, доноси, репресии и убийства, и прочие хубавини. Лесно е да си червен и социалист, удобно чучнал на топло в осигурено отвсякъде общество, без никакви грижи и проблеми, освен желанието да изпъкнеш и да се имаш за по-висш от заобикалящите те хора. И да си убеден, че точно ти ще си хванал приклада на революцията, а няма да си изправен пред дулото на взвода за разстрел!

Барбара Демик е извършила огромна проучвателна и подготвителна работа, срещнала се е със стотици бежанци и ни е предала правдиво и талантливо историите им. Книгата е написана чудесно и се чете бързо, в края ѝ има подоробен списък с допълнителни книги, източници и материали, разделен по глави - така всеки може да научи допълнително за конкретно заинтригували го части от това изследване. На няколко пъти аз мислех да я оставя недочетена, не можех да понасям събитията описани в нея - няма нищо по-ужасно от реалността...

Не знам как могат да съществуват наистина тези изроди - севернокорейските комунисти и тяхната система за "социална" класификация на населението… Няма път нагоре, децата са виновни за "греховете на родителите си", ако някой съгреши пред властта, пропадат в концлагери всички до трето коляно. Оруел и китайците са просто аматьори в сравнение с тия!

Не може и няма да има оправдание за комунистическите престъпници, тънещи в лукс и охолство, а оставящи да умрат от глад децата на народа си… В края на XX век, че и в наши дни. :(

Около 40% от севернокорейците гладуват постоянно, преди няколко години в организма на избягал в Южна Корея войник намериха двуцифрено число различни паразити - доказателство, че често се е хранил с каквито боклуци и треви е могъл да намери и погълне. Сравнението с тринайстата икономика в света, тази на Южна Корея е просто невъзможно, за пореден път виждаме как се развиват свободните страни и тези газени от съветските и подобните им комунистически идеологии и режими.

Северна Корея не може да съществува без външна подкрепа и я получава от Китай, Иран и Русия - също гнусни диктатури, не се свенящи да използват в инфраструктурни и рискови проекти севернокорейски роби в замяна на помощта си - такива например строяха стадиони за световното по футбол, проведено през 2018 година в РФ.

Най-лошото е, че дори този ужасяващ ��ежим да сегромоляса още утре, щетите нанесени на севернокорейците ще им пречат още десетилетия и поколения напред. Подобни проблеми имат много от успелите да избягат от страната - те просто не могат да се адаптират и носталгията ги измъчва жестоко. Защото човешкия ум е устроен да потулва и забравя лошото, но да помни дори и инцидентните добрини, които никога не са се повторили.


"Тъй като всички външни публикации, филми и предавания били забранени, Ми-ран смятала, че никъде по света хората не живеят по-добре и че вероятно дори са много по-зле." Познато и за мен усещане, този мит рухна точно за 3 минути на белградската гара през лятото на 1988 година.
Profile Image for Lisa Vegan.
2,734 reviews1,200 followers
July 26, 2016
I started reading this book as a buddy read with a Goodreads friend, but she decided it wasn’t the right book at the right time for her, so I continued on alone, grateful that it had been her suggestion and I got it off my to read shelf, and I’m so glad that I did.

There is a helpful map and I love maps in books, though I wish it had been even more heavily labeled as many places were mentioned didn’t appear on it. I also appreciated the photos. Each chapter started with one photo, though I wish that that many more photos were included. Why there are so relatively few is certainly understandable though.

I found it helpful to read the notes for chapters that are at the end of the book as soon as I read their corresponding chapters. They’re not long and I think that there is great benefit to reading them when the chapters’ contents are still fresh in the reader’s mind.

While I wanted more, more people and more updates on each person and more information, it’s just because what’s there is so good.

When I read books such as this I go back and look at what I was doing, eating, etc. during the periods and on the days mentioned. (I have schedule books going back to 1977.) I’m always stunned to read what some people have gone through during my lifetime, and unfortunately that includes now.

Somehow this feels like a perfectly crafted book. It’s non-fiction that reads like fiction, so much so that a few times I caught myself thinking something such as oh that’s too bad but it is realistic, and then realizing of course it’s realistic because these are real people’s real stories. The reader really gets to really know the six main people and gets a clear sense of how it was for others mentioned and also for the general populace.

While a tremendously upsetting account, it helped me to know that the six people focused on had all gotten out of North Korea (though it’s impossible to not think about the people still there or who were stuck there and are likely dead and those who did die) but these are brave and strong people, and there was some humor, and the storytelling was so riveting, that despite the horrors, it wasn’t exactly a depressing book, though there were plenty of heartbreaking events I will likely always remember. I felt a lot of suspense wondering how people were going to manage to escape. The way their stories were told did not disappoint.

This is an excellent book. I had none of my usual contemplating whether it should be 4 or 5 stars or whether I needed to include a half star. 5 stars it was, and I knew that most of the way through. It would have had to go way downhill for me to give it anything other than 5 stars and that never happened. Top notch! Very hard to put down! It’s a true page-turner and always engaging. Very well researched. It didn’t improve my mood about people or governments though, including the North Korean and also my own United States government. I already knew a few things about how things were in North Korea, but I learned so much more about the country, and while much of what was described was highly disturbing it was also fascinating. It helped that for the most part the people were likeable and at least relatable, even with the cultural differences and often experiences vastly different from anything I’ve experienced.

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. The author’s other book also looks intriguing. She certainly chooses interesting and challenging topics. I’m eager to see what she will write next.
Profile Image for Marialyce (absltmom, yaya).
1,909 reviews727 followers
September 12, 2019
This was an extremely well written book about the ills that are experienced by those who live in North Korea. Operating under a regime that would make "big brother" proud, these poor people suffer from inhumane living, working, and survival elements that make those of us use to freedom and free choice cringe. The author, Miss Demick, follows the lives of six people whose lives are so controlled that they are not even permitted to embrace in public. Living under a dictatorship, the only other than Cuba that has survived, one can't help but see an environment that is totally demeaning, fostering their values and totalitarianism on its people.

Looking at the lives of starvation, deprivation, and demanded loyalty to their leader, one wonders why they do not revolt. They are so indoctrinated against the west or any forms of freedom that the people just fall in line and accept like blind sheep following a master. These people lead an existence without modern conveniences that we are so use to. Everything modern is banned and the punishment for disobedience is swift and cruel. Even families of people who do wrong are punished by the government. This engenders fear in the populace for even if one wants to disobey or defect, there is overwhelming concern for those left behind.

This is a look at the failures of communism and the way in which a people have been held back and not allowed to enter the 21st century. The reader feels ever so appalled at the conditions these people live under and does by the conclusion of the book, feel quite grateful to be living within a culture that allows free choice and the ability to feed oneself and make one's own decisions. Hopefully, some day the people of North Korea will be able to live the life which they are entitled to, without fear and have the ability to feed themselves and enjoy a freedom of spirit.
Profile Image for Zöe.
Author 4 books54 followers
February 14, 2013
This is an incredible book! I rarely cry for books though am a greedy reader. "Nothing to Envy" makes me cry many times. I can't stop reading it.

I never try to understand North Korea, for Chinese people like me, North Korea is ignored. We are proud of our market and economy, meanwhile making jokes of North Korea partner. But I don't know North Korea people live in such a condition in 1990s, when I was a troubled teenager.

Some of the stories sound familiar, yes, it happened in China and CCCP before, and I can't believe it is still happening. I can't believe there is still a life without electricity, or a smart phone.

I am addicted to East Germany and West Germany stories. I thought that's not the worst version, but close enough. Because you've got people escaping even with blimps. Barbara told me, no. German people are lucky, they put the Berlin Mauer down. How could a country like this still exist??? HOW? When I was reading, a Caterpillar dragging half of Lenin's bronze sculpture across the sky -- a scene from Goodbye Lenin keeps hitting my mind, will North Korean people be able to see that? Previously I don't feel too much from that scene, only get a little bit angry because a writer from HongKong depicts that scene by mistake, and calls the movie "Goodbye Lemon". Well, a person from Hong Kong, who is always shouting to the authorities, is understandable. He may have little sense of CCCP or Lemon, he was allowed to make that mistake, but still funny. Like a kid in US ask "do African kids use Facebook?"

From the book, I am reassured again that people could be touched by the most subtle happenings in their lives, even those who are brainwashed. People change because of small things. People change their minds completely not because of huge event, but trivia. A meal of a dog, a wandering swallow singing a song, an electronic pot for cooking rice, etc. Small things are triggers for them to make their decisions to leave North Korea, even the true believers of the regime. Small things touch the deepest feeling in their hearts, and give the strongest echoes.

My attitude towards DPRK and South Korea changed. CCCP, China, Germany, Korea, four countries, 3 nations, full of stories, tragic enough to tear you apart, but strong enough to pull you together.
Profile Image for Teresa.
Author 8 books755 followers
March 25, 2019
It’s one thing to read dystopias like 1984 and theoretically visualize an authoritarian government; it’s another thing entirely to read of real people who actually live under totalitarian rule. If the reading of a classic like the former is perhaps a more powerful reading experience, this nonfiction work proves a more empathetic one.

Demick writes in an ‘easy’ style, making this a work anyone can (and perhaps should) consume. The details of the rough lives of her six subjects and their resourcefulness in the face of utter hopelessness (and danger) are novelistic; the book is a page-turner. I became invested in these lives and wished I knew even more of them.

One of the defectors is a former university student, a voracious reader, and is given by Demick a copy of 1984. The young man is amazed that George Orwell understood so well North Korea’s “brand” of totalitarianism.
Profile Image for Woman Reading .
420 reviews254 followers
May 9, 2021
5 ☆ Horrifyingly fascinating
North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world.

I had finally gotten to George Orwell's works about a year ago. His iconic novels were startling enough, but my dismay was elevated to a whole new level by Nothing to Envy, which is the real life manifestation of Orwellian themes. Based on oral histories collected from six defectors during interviews from 2001 to 2008, Demick's book detailed the lives of common people in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), otherwise known as North Korea. Most of the people lived within or close to the industrial city of Chongjin, far from the spit-polished gloss of the capital city Pyongyang.

At end of WWII the US was mystified what to do with Korea, Japan's obscure colony of 35 years. Two US army officers arbitrarily imposed a partition, without any input from Koreans, along the 38th parallel. To appease the USSR, which had sent its troops into northern Korea before Japan had surrendered, the Soviets were given the northern half to administer in a temporary trusteeship. Political impasse eventually resulted in the 1948 formation of two separate nations on the peninsula - the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
The line along the 38th parallel would solidify into a 155-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide thicket of concertina wire, tank traps, trenches, embankments, moats, artillery pieces, and landmines.

With support from Moscow, Kim Il-sung declared his nation's new name as the DPRK and became its "Great Leader." Kim Il-sung had two major goals - to secure absolute control and to become beloved by his people. He methodically organized the inhabitants by their political reliability into 51 categories, especially funneling out those with beidsun ("tainted blood") because of their past religious or military activities. Neighbors would spy upon their neighbors to ensure conformity. The ownership of televisions and radios was determined by people's social ranking and the electronics had been jiggered so that they wouldn't receive any transmissions from outside of the DPRK. Kim Il-sung established a personality cult by brain washing, requiring his portrait in every home, and erecting an estimated 34,000 statues of himself.
...the strength of the regime came from its ability to isolate its own citizens completely.

The level of repression in North Korea was so great that no organized resistance could take root. Any antiregime activity would have terrible consequences for the protester, his immediate family, and all other known relatives. Under a system that sought to stamp out tainted blood for the generations, the punishment would extend to parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, niece, nephew, cousins.

Pure Communistic ideology weakened in the world during the 1980s. The DPRK's two greatest friends - China and the USSR - grew intolerant of the DPRK's long inability to pay its debts. As they withdrew their economic support, the DPRK headed for collapse because the Great Leader had spent money on his family and on building an enormous military capacity. Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and named his son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor.

The economy's first sign of deterioration occurred when electricity became sporadic in the early 1990s and eventually flickered out. Then indoor running water followed suit. Hillsides became deforested as people sought fuel to burn for heat during frigid winters. Food had been guaranteed by the state, but food deliveries stopped. Many in the countryside hunted frogs for food until they disappeared. Stray dogs became scarce by 1996. Soon, whispers of cannibalism of homeless orphans surfaced at the black markets. To save face, the DPRK didn't make their plight known until 1995 when spring floods wiped out the crops. From 1996 to 2005, the DPRK received $2.4 billion in food aid, most of it from the US, but they rejected all the foreign aid workers. It's likely that the military siphoned off the food aid and put them up for sale in the black markets.
It is axiomatic that one death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic. 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.

By the end of 1998, the worst of the famine was over, not necessarily because anything had improved but, as Mrs. Song later surmised, because there were fewer mouths to feed.

By 1998, the UN estimated that 600,000 to 2 million died from starvation.

Even the most diehard believer spouting the evils of capitalism would drop those beliefs if it meant staving off death by starvation by another day. It's unsurprising that the number of defectors surged. The easiest route out was by crossing the Tumen River, which separated them from China.
Guilt and shame are the common denominators among the North Korean defectors; many hate themselves for what they had to do to survive.

Up until that moment, a part of her had hoped that China would be just as poor as North Korea. She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world. The beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime would be vindicated. But now she couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.

Nothing to Envy was a well-written and balanced look at the realities under a totalitarian regime. When Kim Jong-il died in 2011, his son, Kim Jong-un, ascended to the throne. The title is from a motivational song "We Have Nothing to Envy in the World" that is taught to the children. Demick also described the public policy stances of China, Mongolia, and South Korea toward the North Korean defectors. I read this because I knew very little about North Korea aside from a few headlines and the rare special news reports. I recommend reading this if you want to know why President Bush had denounced the DPRK as an "axis of evil" in 2002 and why the 45th POTUS's special friendship with Kim Jong-un is anything but heartwarming.
North Korea remains the last bastion of undiluted communism in the world.
Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,525 reviews1,772 followers
February 21, 2017
North Korea reminds me of the old kingdom of the Zulus, in that it seemed only possible for both states that only one man could ever be fat, the nation's strategic fat reserves carried for security on one person, rather as the Merovingians made long hair their distinctive marker of royal status so these modern states had the male pot belly.

Journalist Barbara Demick has sown together a narrative account of six North Korean lives from the city of Chongjin in the north west from the 1990s through to their defection and settlement in South Korea. Her intention was that the lives told would overlap and verify each other, at least in general outlines.

The broad picture is not surprising, but the resultant account easy to read. I reached for it off the shelf for the rather irreverent reason that I am attempting the increase the number of books I read that were written by women and Mme Demick gave every appearance of fitting the bill. I knew very little about Korea and most of that from Steve's reviews, which admittedly don't appear on the surface to have much in common with the contemporary situation. But as is generally the case, even curiously extreme states can have deep roots, or draw on native traditions. Ultra Confucian might be one way to think of the pre 1989 North Korea, focused on a benevolent if Spartan, Paternalistic leader who provided bi-weekly rations and biannual suits of clothing to a doting and dependant subject people. The deep problems were that this basic level of subsistence was heavily subsidised by other communist states, and the country lacks sufficient land suitable for agriculture to meet the population's calorific needs. The story really begins then with the side into chronic malnutrition and starvation with the authorities gambling such resources as they did have on developing rockets and weapon's grade plutonium presumably in the hope of threatening their neighbours into providing food stuffs.

There was a Darwinistic element to the famine, those who felt that stealing was a sin were among the first to die, those who could digest any ground plant matter were better placed to survive.

I was curious that Demick mentioned the stripping of copper from railway lines to be sold as scrap by free marketeering individuals - surely that happens in all countries, or maybe it is a habit peculiar to Britain with its fierce entrepreneurial spirit nourished by the Juche necessities of Brexit that such unconsidered trifles are snapped up by the bold and the free, in any case the point is rather that North Korea didn't have the resources to replace such losses nor provide its soldiers with socks. The country was literally asset stripping itself in an effort to survive in the 1990s.

There is then for all Demick's sources a side into hunger, poverty and loss, circumstances that lead them to do something relatively exceptional for North Koreans according to Demick, which is to defect over the river border with China and from thence to South Korea, via Mongolia or airports. Malnutrition really saps a person's abilities to do anything including committing thought-crimes, and this a close approximation to a 1984 state, with the leadership rewritting history all the better to control the future, so the small number of defections is not to be sniffed at.

I was curious at the relation of women turning to prostitution because it was hard within the scope of this account to imagine many men having access to the spare cash or food to purchase said services, equally one woman was sent out from her factory to collect dog shit shortly after Demick had told us how rare dogs were in North Korea as food source or pets leaving me to imagine one might be more likely to happen across a lump of ambergris on the beach than a piece of canine excrement in North Korea, perhaps this simply underlines the futility of the exercise.

Demick says :"The sad truth is that North Korean defectors are often difficult people. Many were pushed into leaving not only because they were starving, but because they couldn't fit in at home. And often the problems trailed after them, even after they crossed the border" (p260), every society has its winners and its losers, Demick's informants were mostly for a variety of arbitrary, if meaningful in a north Korean context, marginalised people. The interesting and sad part of the story was their difficulties in adapting to life in the South, were the authorities have even developed a half-way house campus complex to train defectors for their new lives in the hope of developing expertise and the necessary techniques in the event of national reunion. Their endings are happyish, survival in harsh circumstances is not the most pleasant business, and somebody always has to pay for the lunch.
November 7, 2021
گزارش شش تا از پناهنده‌های کره شمالی درباره زندگیشون در کره شمالی، رسوم و باورها، فجایع شدید قحطی و مرگ و جنایت.


دوران راهنمایی درباره موضوع حساسی (که یادم هم نیست چی بود، احتمالا درباره امام علی بود) با همکلاسیم حرف زدم. گفت: «هیس! خطرناکه می‌گیا...» دقیق یادم نیست، فکر کنم درباره این حرف زدیم که افراد ضد ایدئولوژی دولتمون اعدام می‌شن. نکته مهمش برای من این بود که اینقدر راحت و با خنده گفت اینو نگو، دارت می‌زنن! و چند دقیقه بعد سر کلاس از نظام دفاع می‌کرد.

نمی‌خوام کشور خودم رو مشابه کره شمالی نشون بدم، می‌دونم که اصلا نمی‌تونن کنار هم قرار بگیرن. هردو کمبودهایی دارن، اما کره شمالی فاجعه‌ست. ولی حقیقت اینه که این گزارش‌ها رو حس کردم و بهشون نزدیک بودم.


چند روز پیش با یک دوست درباره برنامه‌های آینده حرف می‌زدم: «ولی من واقعا نمی‌تونم تا آخر عمرم این طور. خیلی غمگین می‌شم.» حسم ترکیبی از رنجش و عصبانیت و غم بود. انصاف نیست که من سگ دو بزنم برای چیزهایی که یکی دیگه به طور پیشفرض داره. انصاف نیست برای چیزهایی تلاش کنم که حقوق اولیه‌من. انصاف نیست جزئی از توده باشم: ازدواج کنم، بچه بیارم، بمیرم، فقط جزئی از توده باشم و به کم راضی، وقتی... آدم‌ها خیلی دوست دارن در جواب این جور غرغرها بگن: «حدس بزن چی، زندگی انصاف نیست!» ولی نمی‌شه فقط چون زندگی منصفانه نیست این‌ها رو پذیرفت. حقیقتش با وجود این‌همه تاریک بودن این کتاب، آدم رو امیدوار می‌کنه که یکی تونسته از این حجم غیرمنصفانه بودن فرار کنه. تو که شرایطت خیلی بهتره.


خیلی از مدت خوانش حس می‌کردم دارم نمونه‌ی زنده‌ی 1984 رو می‌خونم. آخه شباهت‌هاشون هم در این حد نیست که اینا بدبختن اونا هم بدبختن. گاهی تا جزئیات باورنکردنی شبیهن. به قدری باورنکردنی که الان به زور احساسی برای این مردم دارم، چون اصلا باورم نمی‌شه هنوز چنین نظامی و چنین مردمی وجود داشته باشن. صرفا باورم نمی‌شه.


بدیهی است که مرگ یک نفر تراژدی است و مرگ هزاران نفر فقط آمار.
(به یاد «کشته‌شدگان معادل چند سقوط هواپیما بودند» می‌افتد)


آزادی و عشق
دو چیز که باید داشته باشم
برای عشقم، زندگی را فدا می‌کنم
برای آزادی، عشق را فدا می‌کنم

(خیلی غم‌انگیزه که این همه فداکاری کنی تا به چیزی که حقته برسی)


بریم یه رستوران خوب و یه شراب خوب سفارش بدیم.
و خدانگهدار.
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