Thanks to parodies in Team America and South Park, one could most likely identify our neighbor to the north’s leader, Kim Jong-il, as the short, “ronery” looking guy with the oversized glasses and a jumpsuit.
But with all the Kim Jong-il jokes aside, the average person probably doesn’t know much else about the past or present situation in North Korea. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, (Spiegel and Grau, 336 pages, 2009) by award-winning journalist Barbara Demick, recounts the lives of six North Koreans from Kim Il-sung’s reign to the present day living as defectors in South Korea. Each story is as captivating and heartbreaking as it is educational, a telling analysis of their closed-off motherland, a country of constant mystery to any outsider.
We meet Mi-ran first, the daughter of a South Korean prisoner of war (POW) turned mine worker. South Korean POW’s are naturally politically suspect to the North Korean government and therefore lumped together at the bottom of the social classes, right next to female entertainers, fortune-tellers, and pro-Japan people. Through Mi-ran and her father’s story, we gain insight on the harsh classification system imposed on North Korean citizens that never allowed for advancement, and limits every opportunity in life for generations.
Then there’s Mrs. Song, a factory worker, mother of four and most devout citizen of the “Great Leader.” She believed with all her heart the red propaganda signs reading, “WE HAVE NOTHING TO ENVY IN THIS WORLD (?? ???? ??? ??!)” When news of Kim Il-sung’s death in July 1994 reached her, she felt more grief than when her own mother had died. “She rushed down the staircase… many of her neighbors had done the same. They were on their knees, banging their heads on the pavement. Their wails cut through the air like sirens.”
When a grave famine hit in the mid 1990’s, the government pushed a “one bowl of rice per day” campaign. The famine which killed anywhere from 600,000 to 2 million citizens left even the most devoted feeling disillusioned. Many had no choice but to participate in some sort of black market capitalism to come out alive. People became numb to all the suffering surrounding them. “In order to get through the 1990’s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food…She (Miran) could pass a five-year-old on the verge of death without feeling obliged to help.”
Jun-sang’s story represents the experience of one with the opportunity to attend a top university in Pyongyang. Sheltered from the terrible famine, Jun-sang began having doubts about his great leaders and country as well when he was able to secretly pick up a TV signal from South Korea. But these thoughts could never be discussed, not even with his best friend and childhood love.
Oak-hee’s hard life at home sent her on a dangerous flight across the Tumen River into China. Like Jun-sang’s exposure to South Korean television, Oak-hee discovered the truth about her motherland when she crossed the border. “Our whole lives we have been told lies. Our lives are lies. The whole system is a lie.”
Demick spent years in Seoul as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, covering both Koreas. Experiencing the same set itinerary and rehearsed foreigner friendly show put on in North Korea every time she was allowed to visit, she turned to North Korean defectors living in South Korea or China to gather the stories and information for her articles. A compilation of those eventually led to Nothing to Envy.
Although Demick is a trained journalist, her book does not read like a series of extended reports on the topic of North Korea. She gracefully and smoothly weaves together each subject’s uniquely touching story, including necessary reporting on the history and political context as a backdrop. Too many times to count, you will notice unnerving parallels to George Orwell’s infamous fiction book, “1984.” Unfortunately, this is reality for North Koreans. By the end of Demick’s book, you’ll feel deeply invested in the well being of each person, springing all kinds of intense emotions. You’ll want to discuss this book with foreigner and Korean friends alike, as it is sure to spark engaging conversations.
You can find Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea online at What the Book?