NOTHING TO ENVY by Barbara Demick

Book Quote:

“North Koreans learned to swallow their pride and hold their noses. They picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals. Shipyard workers developed a technique by which they scraped the bottoms of the cargo holds where food had been stored, then spread the foul-smelling gunk on the pavement to dry so that they could collect from it tiny grains of uncooked rice and other edibles.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (MAR 27, 2010)

There is much earthy wisdom in the saying: “One death is a tragedy; a thousand is a statistic.” By narrating the life stories of six North Korean defectors and their daily struggles, author Barbara Demick underscores this point beautifully. Her moving book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, lets us look at the human angle behind the news headlines.

We hear about North Korea and its repressive regime in the news but it is through these six stories that you can tell the true impact of the totalitarian state—one that President Bush famously labeled one of the three “axes of evil”—on ordinary people.

The participants are drawn from Chongjin, a town in the Northeast that once was home to thriving industries that are now in a severe state of disrepair. Chongjin is also a better representative of North Korea than the showcase capital city, Pyongyang.

The assortment of interviewees is mixed and represents a good cross-section of North Korean society. There’s Mi-ran a young kindergarten teacher whose father’s roots trace back to South Korea and whose family is therefore stained. “The only mobility in the class system was downward. Family status is hereditary. Stained people are called beulsun—tainted blood or impure,” Bemick writes. Mi-ran narrates the details of her first love and how as a teenager, she and a neighborhood boy, Jun-sang, went for long walks after dinner in the dark. The bright Jun-sang eventually heads for college in Pyongyang to study science and the two continue their romance from afar.

Then there’s Mrs. Song, a party faithful who keeps at her job in a local factory till the very end even when the wages and the work have dried up. Their narratives and the others’ are set in the 1990s—a time when North Korea fell off the map in terms of development and meeting basic human needs. “North Korea faded to black in the early 1990s,” Demick, a correspondent for the LA Times, writes. “With the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up its old Communist ally with cheap fuel oil, North Korea’s creakily inefficient economy collapsed.”

Demick’s interviewees detail the slow decline of the country and this is extremely tragic to bear. The confluence of many events lead to severe shortages of supplies and eventually to famine. Demick, through the voices of her interviewees, narrates the heart-wrenching details of how famine affects families. Each one of the interviewees is affected. Mrs. Song loses her husband and her son to famine—in the end when she is forced to choose between food and medicine for her son, it is hard not to get choked up as you read. It is also hard to ignore the fact that when America was in the roaring 90s, millions of people in North Korea were scraping bark and eating sawdust to survive. These images are searing and will remain in my mind forever. “By 1998, an estimated 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans had died as a result of the famine, as much as 10 percent of the population,” Demick writes. “Between 1996 and 2005, North Korea would receive $2.4 billion worth of food aid, much of it from the United States.” But only minimal food reached where it should have gone. Most of it ended up in military stockpiles or sold on the black market.

The famine forced young mothers into prostitution desperate to get food for their children. All they were looking for was a bag of noodles or a few sweet potatoes as payment, Demick writes. Elders skipped food insisting that the young ones be fed first. This lead many older folks to die and thousands of children were orphaned. Kim Hyuck, one of the interviewees, was a “wandering swallow” – one of many homeless orphans left behind by the famine.

Nothing to Envy also gives us details of what ordinary life is like in North Korea. Everything, including shoes and clothes, were provided by the government. Major purchases like watches or record players—had to be approved. There is propaganda everywhere you see—television sets are rigged so only one national channel is streamed. Secret police conduct random checks to make sure this procedure is enforced in houses. Even the math problems are worded as propaganda. “Eight boys and nine girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim Il-sung. How many children are singing in total?” is one example.

The book’s title comes from a song that all North Korean children are taught—it sings the praise of the government. Propaganda posters in Pyongyang declare: “Long Live Kim Il-sung; Kim Jong-Il, Sun of the 21st Century; Let’s Live Our Own Way; We Will Do as the Party Tells Us; We Have Nothing to Envy in the World.”

Nothing to Envy shows us just how much irony is loaded in that last statement. A country that has been in the dark for so long both literally and figuratively, might not realize just how much it does have to envy—not just in terms of material comforts but in essential human rights. This is a moving and important book—a must-read for anyone who cares about the plight of fellow world citizens in a country that most of us know little about. Demick’s remarkable book reminds us it’s time we sat up and paid attention.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 62 readers
PUBLISHER: Spiegel & Grau; 1st Edition edition (December 29, 2009)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AMAZON PAGE: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Barbara Demick
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee


March 27, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Korea, National Book Award Finalist, Non-fiction, y Award Winning Author

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