Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea – Barbara Demick (2010)


“Our enemies are using … specially made materials to beautify the world of imperialism… If we allow ourselves to be affected by these materials, our revolutionary mind-set and class awareness will be paralyzed and our absolute idolization for the Marshal (Kim Il-sung in this case] will disappear…”

This intriguing non-fiction read has been sitting on my TBR pile for a while – a fact that I rather regret now as it was a good read. In it, Demick follows the lives of six fairly typical people who were born and lived in North Korea. What adds another level of interest is that they have all defected to South Korea – which is the only way that Demick could ever get an opportunity to have this kind of access to interview them for the book. There is no way that she could have had that sort of unfettered access whilst they were living in North Korea as it’s such a government-controlled environment with regards to free speech and other civil rights (i.e. there aren’t many civil rights) – many individuals have served years in hard labor camps (similar to the gulag) or even been executed for saying something that was not supportive of the ruling powers.

Korea_mapAs the reader learns more about each of the book subjects, Demick structures the narrative to deliver startling descriptions of life under a communist dictator and his administration. In this day and age, it’s pretty astonishing to read about the trials and tribulations of its ordinary citizens, and you learn just why people stay in such a hostile environment. If it’s so bad, why not just leave? But, as with many things, it’s never that simple for the average citizen. Potential threats of execution and government-controlled education and media (along with high levels of poverty) narrow the available choices of such a populace and clearly demonstrates how the denial of reality by a whole government controls the future of a nation.

kim-jong-unHistorically speaking, North Korea (or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as their government calls their country) has been held back from progress for decades, experiencing widespread famine in the 1990’s and poverty of resources and optimism for its people. Until reading this, I did not fully comprehend how powerless its people really were and how few choices or opportunities for change there really were in this particular environment (or weren’t which would be more accurate in this case). This, combined with news of the recent nuclear talk et al. by current leader Kim Jong-un, made it a very relevant read for me (which made me love it even more).

However, Demick does not take pity or feel sorry for her subjects. Instead, each person is allowed to keep their dignity and their individual lives are presented with journalistic objectivity which makes the descriptions of their very grey world even more powerful to Western readers.

Some of the notes that I made included the following:

  • If you (as an individual person) made a slight against the government (or their “Great Leader” as Kim Jong-un is called), not only would you be punished but also your whole family would be punished for three generations to get rid of the “tainted blood” (i.e. your parents and your children would be included in such punishment as was deemed necessary). This sort of thing doesn’t really encourage open communication about things, does it?
  • People need a travel permit from the government just to travel to the next town.
  • People who worked for the state (and everyone works for the state) didn’t get paid for months at a time and so almost the whole population were struggling for enough food, power, or shelter in a pretty harsh environment, weather-wise. Ugh. Even if the working folk had been paid what they were owed, there was still very little of anything to buy for the average citizen.
  • Despite this widespread famine and shortage of living necessities, the government still managed to scrape together enough funds to build a large and impressive building in Pyongyang just to house the permanent exhibit of “Kimjongilia”, a flower named for Kim Jong-il who was the leader of North Korea for half of the twentieth century. His grandson is the leader nowadays. (Him of the really bad haircut if you’ve seen pics.)
  • Also related to the famine: there are now significant physical differences between the populations of North and South Korea. Demick reports that due to significant childhood malnutrition, the average 17 year old male in North Korea is approximately five inches smaller than his counterpart in the healthier South Korea.

Demick is a prize-winning author and reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and was stationed in Seoul (South Korea) as their bureau chief. She is also the author of Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood (2012).

National flower named after Kim Jong-Il, leader of North Korea in first half twentieth century.

National flower named after Kim Jong-Il, leader of North Korea in first half twentieth century.

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