Following news over the years, I’ve always thought of North Korea as a minor thorn in the side of the world, a rogue state with eccentric, perhaps crazy leaders. I’ve seldom thought of the cost that North Korea’s status has created for the country’s people. They live in a nation unlike any other in the modern world, a totalitarian regime without a more powerful or wealthy backer, once developed but now declining, funneling a tremendous percentage of national resources into military and advanced weapons at the cost of the people who suffer, sometimes even starve, to pay the bill.
If you read Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy, you’ll never discount the people of North Korea again. The title is an ironic choice, taken from a propaganda song that children throughout North Korea learn at a young age. In reality, they’ve got everything to envy about the lifestyles of others around the world. Demick follows several North Koreans through fifteen years during the 1990s and early 2000s. These are years in which the monomaniacal leadership of Kim il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-il, combined with the loss of financial backing from the Soviet Union and China, resulted in tremendous hardships for North Koreans. Famine and starvation killed millions. Basic services like electricity became increasingly rare and food and other basic consumer goods like razors, paper and pens disappeared. An elaborate system of police forces, rules, punishments, and propaganda kept North Koreans isolated from the world, blaming the South Koreans, Americans, and Japanese for all of their woes, unaware of how much worse their lives were than those of others.
Demick worked as a reporter in South Korea and interviewed as many defectors as she could to research her book. She visited North Korea as much as restrictive travel rules allow, and talked to other outsiders who were permitted inside its borders. What results is one of the most complete accounts possible of this secrecy-shrouded land. She tells the story of six people who eventually defect to South Korea: two students who fall in love but whose separate social statuses keep them apart as they pursue careers as a teacher and scientist; a state-defending mother forced by famine to work on the black market to feed herself and her family and the angry, difficult daughter who ultimately saves her; an orphan boy who scrounges out a meager existence as one of North Korea’s many homeless people; and a doctor who makes her own medicines and watches her patients starve as she does the same herself.
These are tragic stories full of heart-rending details. Lovers are kept apart by a system that makes no concession to individual needs. Families are winnowed down by starvation and political punishments. Each character follows a different path to freedom. Usually they make suspenseful, dangerous journeys through China to South Korea, where they can claim citizenship and benefits that will hopefully sustain them while they struggle to accustom themselves to a modern lifestyle completely alien to the meager existence that is all they have known.
This is nonfiction that is as exotic, exciting, and involving as the best fiction, a book that will make you painfully aware of all the privileges that you enjoy but rarely consider.
Check the WRL catalog for Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Try Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea as an audiobook