Book Review: Nothing To Envy: Real Lives in North Korea By Barbara Demick

To many people, North Korea is a rogue state, a threat to the entire western world, a malevolent force in the world that needs to be controlled and stamped out. We focus so much on the leadership – the theocratic Kim family who have ruled the country for nearly 60 years, the rhetoric, the amusing propaganda and the oppressive nature of the last Stalinist state.

What we rarely get to hear about, are the lives of ordinary people. Though that has changed in recent years since the BBC and other organisations go undercover or have permission from the North Korean regime to observe life behind the Bamboo Curtain. Nothing to Envy focuses on the lives of six people who eventually escaped the regime – how they grew up, their families and the tales of their eventual escape. No other source has ever given up such an intimate look into the North Korea we think we know.

Written like a rather lengthy news report, Barbara Demick has carefully crafted a story:

  • Of the country from its rise following the division after the Korean War, a dividing line that had had no historical significance to the country – simply an arbitrary line concocted by the USA
  • Of the Japanese and Chinese communists who migrated to North Korea, believing it to be a pure communist state
  • Of how successful it was in its early years, economically superior to the enemy to the south (which would change in the 1970s)
  • Of the rise and dominance of the Kim family up to and including the early years of Kim Jong Il (this was written before his death)
  • Of the death of The Dear Leader Kim Il Sung and the fact that everybody remembers what they were doing when they found out. They thought he would never die
  • Of the tragedy of the 1990s famine that was as bad, if not worse, than anything seen in Africa during the 1980s
  • The children’s songs with lyrics like death to the “Japanese bastards”, South Koreans and their “American Puppet Masters”

Yet in amongst all this, we hear stories of people falling in love, people hoping for a place at the country’s top university, of scraping out a living and of the rigid strictures of the caste system that has existed in Korean history and not discarded with communism. It could easily be a biography of interconnected people anywhere, but the fact that it is from the horse’s mouth from people who escaped makes it even more incredible.

Yet all the while we find ourselves rooting for these very real men and women, we are persistently reminded of the rules of the country in which they live and struggle to imagine ourselves living there too. Were it not for the fact that North Korea was so oppressive, some of the attitudes would be amusing quirks – such as that every home is required to have a portrait of the two leaders (now three) and given a government-issued cloth with which to clean it (that must not be used for anything else).

Barbara Demick focuses on the work of what a journalist is supposed to do, she reports the facts. At no point does she judge the country, the people she has interviewed or their friends and family for any of their actions which are sometimes born out of frustration or desperation – during the famine, theft, abortion and prostitution became necessities out of a desperate need to survive. It’s a simple human story when we cut to the bare bones. I flew through this in a matter of days which is a testament to how easy it is to read despite the subject matter.

If you want to learn more about North Korea, this is the perfect place to start.

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