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

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
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's review
Feb 16, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction, korea

I’m appalled and fascinated by North Korea. Given how closely they guard the details of their society, and how unsatisfying our general knowledge of their country is (with most of my impression of Kim Jong-il coming from the cartoonish propaganda posters in the history books, and of course, the Team America movie), I tend to snatch up any crumb of information about North Korea that looks remotely credible. I first heard about this book through a radio interview with the author, and have since noticed it in fairly high demand in my area. The book is fascinating if somewhat imperfect, and shines an illuminating, unforgiving light on the Hermit Kingdom.

Nothing to Envy chronicles the lives of six North Koreans, from the relative heyday of Kim Il-sung’s government through the famine of the 1990s, and describes in detail the hardships each had to endure until their eventual defections (a dangerous hardship in itself). The bombast of the infamously psychotic North Korean government serves both as antagonist and backdrop; the stories themselves focus on how these people, unfortunate enough to be born where and when they were, try to survive and find some semblance of normalcy. What we think of as mundane, everyday concerns- conversation topics, romance, travel, self-improvement- are all harrowing journeys with potentially deadly consequences. I was particularly struck by how the defectors have reacted to the “outside world,” as the realization of a life beyond the cocoon of Dear Leader’s whims seems to be both freeing and paralyzing to those who have never known that sort of self-determination. Moreover, the happy endings that one might expect from escaping are warped into surprising forms by the enormity of the culture shock involved.

Demick worked for years as a foreign correspondent in Seoul for the Los Angeles Times, and this book definitely has a journalistic flavor as a result, for good and for ill. The vignettes Demick presents for each of the six North Korean citizens offer intimate portraits of their struggles without being voyeuristic or sensationalist, and include only enough editorializing to draw out the sad facts within. That being said, I can see the seams between the news pieces that were stitched into a narrative, here. Demick follows the nonfiction convention of organizing her chapters thematically rather than sequentially, with each of the six stories blended into a constantly shifting perspective. On top of this, Demick has an unfortunate tendency towards redundancy, with the same factoids being repeated in separate chapters. I’m normally not too bothered by either issue, but together, they make for a book that can be somewhat hard to follow at times. Honestly, though, the content makes up for any stylistic quibbles I might have had, since I found the stories of daily life in North Korea so fascinating that I even consumed the chapter notes at the end of the book with fervor.

This is a fantastically interesting book, but it also instills a sense of disgust and sadness at what these people have to live through. Even if some of what is presented is exaggerated (which is a distinct possibility, since a lot of Demick’s information comes solely from the anecdotes of the disaffected), the existence of such a totalitarian regime on the basis of outright lies should be anathema to any person capable of independent thought. One particular passage from the book has stayed with me: one of the defectors discovered that 1984 was one of his favorite books, as he was amazed that George Orwell could understand so perfectly how the North Korean government could seize and maintain control over its people. I think there are people in our own country that should read this book and take note of the consequences of relentless animus, historical revisionism, and blind ideology. The horrifying social stagnation in North Korea says to me that 1984 is always the end result of such repression of contrary ideas, no matter which religious or economic creed drives the bus.
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