Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

By Barbara Demick

ISBN: 9780385523905

Non-fiction, North Korea, social conditions, politics


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 come toward us, sweet children
     do not need to be afraid,
Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy in this world.

One of the many indoctrinating songs sung by generations of North Korean citizens.

North Korea is one of my favorite topics, and this is a very interesting look behind the curtain of everyday life in North Korea. Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DRPK) defectors (escapees?) over the course of fifteen years. In that time you see how people reacted to the death of Kim Il-Sung, the the rise of Kim Jong-Il, and the massive famine that killed twenty percent of the population.

This is an interesting look at the lives of ordinary citizens from Chongjin, a provincial capital,  located in the far northeast of North Korea. It is an industrial center, the third largest city in North Korea and offers a much broader cross section of life compared to Pyongyang (only Party Members and other elites are permitted to live in the capital). Barbara Demick creates a narrative following six individuals to create a history of North Korea from the early 1990’s to 2005 and beyond.

Mi-Ran – Student/teacher who’s father has the tainted blood of being a South Korean POW. Mi-Ran’s family is restricted to be at the bottom rung of North Korean society.

Jun-Sang – Engineering student. Has family in Japan, which could help support them in times of need. He had a chance at joining the Workers’ Party and elevating his whole family, but his romance with Mi-Ran could endanger that.

Mrs. Song – True believer, housewife, and worker. Popular and head of the neighborhood inminban (neighborhood watch group for the secret police).

Oak-Hee – Mrs. Song’s daughter. Rebellious and outspoken. Often points out things that are wrong with the State and around the neigborhood, much to her family’s dismay.

Dr. Kim – Doctor in North Korea. A believer of the regime, feels she owes the state for her education and training.

Kim Hyuck – A child from the streets. His father couldn’t support him and his brother so they were sent to an orphanage. Learned to steal to survive.

The romance between Jun-Sang and Mi-Ran is a tragic one, they started seeing each other as teens. With the differences in family place they can’t be together in North Korea. It took them 3 years to hold hands, six years for first kiss, but they had letters and notes passed between them for years. You see both of them having doubts about North Korea; Mi-Ran through the abject poverty that she saw in her students(starvation, malnutrition, families moving away, stealing) and in Chongjin in general. No salaries for anyone, factories closing, theft of everything. Disrepair for everything. For Jun-Sang it was the disparity between the students at his engineering university in Pyongyang and everyone else in the country. Where he had food and electricity people would be starving in the countryside (of Chongjin at least). Only the elite of DRPK could visit and living in Pyongyang. Elsewhere soldiers at less desirable posts would be starving and malnourished. He obtained a TV that could receive broadcasts from the outside world. At night he could fiddle and change the channel away from the state approved broadcasts and tune into South Korean news. He gained more of an education late at night with his ear pressed to the tiny speaker of his TV then he had at all his years of school. Both of them eventually want to defect, but cannot make a mention of it to the other for fear of discovery and also reprisal from the state for not turning the other in.

Eventually all of the people leave North Korea (via the near by Chinese border), some willingly in search of food, some grudgingly for work thinking that they’ll only stay for a while. Some go unwillingly; for Mrs. Song her daughter almost tricked her into defecting into China and eventually South Korea. For most North Koreans this is the first view of the world outside, and this exposure is what leads to the loss of faith in their country, and Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. For Oak-Hee getting to China and having all the rumors about the world confirmed. For Dr. Kim when she crossed the Yalu River and arrived in China, near frozen, starving and confused she found a dog eating a better meal then she had had in years.

Throughout Nothing to Envy you see people adapting to survive and in the process unlearning much of what they were taught about communism and the state. There is much suffering, and not everyone has a Hollywood-happy-ending it is still a fascinating read. You see the lives of true average citizens. It’s not the tightly controlled lives of citizens that are presented by the Kim regime, but you see people on a day to day basis, struggling to find their next meal. For the most part, you see the people continuing to adapt after they make it out of North Korea. Once the six make it to South Korea, they go through a complete life change, having to relearn just about everything and adapt to an alternate reality where people look similar, speak the same language but are in a different world.

Overall a really good read. Barbara Demick crafts a compelling narrative history of North Korea. It’s heartbreaking to see how people lived and died, with families sacrificing for the children. There was a chance for change when Kim Jong-Il passed away and his son Kim Jong-Un (the Great Successor) took over. Kim Jong-Un was educated in the west, and spent time at schools in Switzerland. But alas, it seems that he is continuing his father’s and grandfather’s legacies of oppression. It will be interesting to see what comes out of North Korea if/when the DRPK cannot sustain itself under the weight of oppression.

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