Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick

Review published on April 11, 2012. Reviewed by Elise Hattersley

Korea’s history is a chequered one; after the Korean War the country was split into two, with the Soviet Union installing a communist leader in the form of Kim Il-sung in the North and the United States administering the South.

From there on, North Korea embarked on a downward spiral reminiscent of nothing so much as Orwell’s 1984; neighbour was systematically turned against neighbour and faced with consequences so lethal that even the smallest infraction became something to hide from everyone. Husbands and wives, mothers and children; people were separated from each other by the simple expedient of being unable to discuss their most honest, genuine thoughts about the regime with anyone.

Meanwhile, socialist realism gives life to posters depicting the Glorious Leader and outlandish tales about his life are lifted directly from the Bible and inserted into the educational system. The inability to talk openly stunted social growth and intellectual development of theories to counter what the populace was being fed. Insofar as the product of such a brainwashing could be said to be genuine, the love of the North Korean people for their Glorious Leader was pure and true, untainted by reason or question.

Then the economy tanked and food which was previously not in great supply became a rarity. Teachers watched their students starve; doctors became helpless to heal their charges. An entire generation became deformed by the effects of prolonged malnourishment. What had been a remarkably occasional drip of defectors became a trickle of people willing to risk labour camps and even death to sneak across the border into China. Not for freedom; few, if any of the North Korean defectors were able to comprehend the difference living outside of North Korea would make to their lifestyles, at least before their first defection. Most were led simply by a need to be able to secure food for themselves.

Barbara Demick painstakingly interviewed a variety of North Korean nationals, painting a vivid, carefully constructed picture of life in North Korea that covers its history in an easy-to-read way. At the same time she chronicles the lives of the refugees so affected in a way that avoids the dramatic. Her factual, gentle way of recounting these tales imbues them with the dignity they deserve and helps the reader immerse him- or herself into the narrative.

Her stories follow North Korea’s history as she uses the life stories of those willing to talk to her to paint the country’s decline into famine and its subsequent ups and downs. As such, it becomes a remarkable volume; easily conveying facts and recounting events as seen through the eyes of the people, it is an indispensable book for anyone seeking to learn more about North Korea. Demick is clearly exceedingly talented, both at writing and at helping people tell their stories.

Despite its depressing subject matter, Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea is a brilliantly written book that will open your eyes and your mind to very different lives being led in the country time forgot.

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