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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North…

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (original 2009; edition 2010)

by Barbara Demick

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1,6151064,497 (4.42)368
Ever since North Korean Communist dictator Kim Jong-il's death in December 2011, I realized I knew little about that country.  I had visited South Korea twice in the late 1980's and enjoyed the energy and unbridled enthusiasm for capitalism that I saw, but North Korea remained a mystery.

Barbara Demick, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, was assigned to Korea for several years, and found the North Korean enigma difficult to crack.  Unable to get any North Koreans to talk to her, she changed tactics and located defectors from North Korea who had managed to escape to safety in South Korea.  Her stories of the famine, the lack of work, electricity, transportation, clothing, basic health and opportunity, the lack of color and culture, the terror felt by ordinary citizens about anything and everything, the flourishing black market, the absolute lack of trust in anyone and the total control of "the party" over every phase of  everyday life painted a very clear but bleak picture of the lives of North Koreans from the end of the Korean War to the present.

She has chosen six different people to follow from their younger days in North Korea to their now settled lives in the south.  Their stories of escape, capture, imprisonment, and final flight to safety through China was every bit as engrossing as the first part of the stories when we see how utterly awful life was for people with no hope.  By detailing the process of repatriation to the south, through de-briefing, and a forced enculturation experience we are able to see how totally deprived the people of the north were. In the north, where most had never seen a telephone, they had no mail service, books, very little transportation, no writing paper, and basic hygiene articles were not easy to acquire.  Even a top engineering school graduate had never used the Internet before he was able to escape to the south.  Radio and TV (when electricity was available) was limited to a few pre-set and government approved channels.

This is not a pretty or easy book to read. It is gut-wrenching, appalling, and frightening.  It is also totally engrossing, and for me at least, very enlightening.  I was so anxious to read it that I grabbed the audio book that was available at the library.  I do intend though to get the print version, because there are illustrations that should enhance my mental picture of this 5 star report. ( )
2 vote tututhefirst | Apr 19, 2012 |
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This is not an easy book to read. I don't regret having read it, but I have difficulty recommending it. If you are at all sensitive to descriptions of others' suffering, approach this book with caution. In many ways it reminds me of the stories of Holocaust survivors.

The stories this book tells are intensely personal. The author's clear voice and strong opinions provide a window through the memories of a select few North Korean refugees. The horrors and pain of the North Korean experience bleed through into even the happy portions of the book. ( )
  wishanem | Jan 27, 2015 |
The title truly speaks what my sentiments evolved into as the stories came along. Nothing about the North Korean life portrayed in this piece was enviable or admirable... but it was a look inside an otherwise completely isolated and unknown world that I had never seen before. ( )
  ReverendMoon | Jan 26, 2015 |
Barbara Demick, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times who spent years interviewing defectors from North Korea (and who managed to make trips into the country itself), tells the stories of 6 defectors, while at the same time giving the reader a detailed and harrowing picture of what it is like to live in a totalitarian state. While it is obvious that the six main people make it to South Korea (otherwise, how would Demick have gotten their stories?), the grueling experiences most of them went through during the famine of the 90's and the general goings-on of the dictatorship was enough to keep me horrified and engaged in the book. It was really interesting to read each of their stories; how they came to realize the lies their government has been telling them, and the choice they made to defect.

I of course know that North Korea is ruled by an oppressive dictator (and has been for decades), but I had no idea what everyday life was like for these people, and how many of them accepted their situations and even viewed North Korea as the greatest country on Earth. I can't imagine how it must have been for people when they realized how stuck in the past their country actually was, and how horrible their way of life is compared to other countries. It amazes me that one regime can tell so many lies and keep their people in the dark. It really made me realize how much I take for granted as a white American. Demick provided many resources that she used when writing this book, and I am anxious to get my hands on a few books and articles that she cited.

This book was published in 2009. I would love it if Demick revisited this book, providing updates on the people she interviewed, as well as the state of North Korea since Kim Jong-un took over. Reading this book awakened a great interest in North Korea and its people. I highly recommend this book to all. ( )
  kaylaraeintheway | Jan 8, 2015 |
Thoroughly enjoyed this book. A vivid, novelistic account of North Korea through the eyes of defectors, extensively interviewed by the author. Also a fascinating study in state control and its ineffectiveness. It's only real success is the extent to which it kills its people off. HIghly recommended. ( )
  jdukuray | Dec 31, 2014 |
Barbara Demick has constructed an insight into life in North Korea through interviews with a number of defectors to South Korea. This book reads like a novel and portrays the hardships and isolation that North Koreans endured in the 1990's including near starvation, work without pay, and total government control. Fascinating yet alarming. ( )
  CarterPJ | Dec 9, 2014 |
What an eye-opener!

How have I been so naiive about what has been happening in North Korea all this time? Well, I'm so glad I downloaded this audiobook, because now I am very much more aware of events in this culturally isolated country. The opening statement, that Google Earth shows the country as nothing but darkness because electricity is not the norm in people's houses, was just a taster for the repression and struggles that the population has endured.

Although I originally struggled with the Korean names, after a while I began to recognise people reappearing in this non-fiction account. Every one of them endured a battle for survival that progressively got worse and worse. Their imprinted visions of North Korea gradually started to crumble, as famine and detentions in the gulag became more and more prevalent.

Although the author did manage to visit this closed country on a couple of occasions, her characters were people who had eventually managed to escape, and allowed her to interview them in the relative safety of their new homes. Their survival, however, had frequently been at the expense of other family members remaining behind, who would have been made to pay the price.

The book covers the period from the rise and subsequent death of Kim Il-sung, in 1994, through the ensuing rule of his son Kim Jong-i, who has since died (2011), but was still in power at the end of the book. This was a period of time during which 20% of the population died of starvation, but the country refused to allow outside help. The attempts that these people make to try and live some sort of normal life throughout this time, is heartbreaking.

A well told account of unbelievable deprivation and determination to survive. ( )
  DubaiReader | Nov 14, 2014 |
'N Korea remains the last bastion of undiluted communism in the world', September 2, 2014

This review is from: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Paperback)
Realising that she could never get an insider's view of N Korea from her trips there (the country 'takes the precaution of assigning two 'minders' to foreign visitors, one to watch the other so they can't be bribed'), the author instead focusses on telling the lives of several defectors whom she met in S Korea. The tale they tell of the bizarre regime is horrific: a Big Brother style security police; fearsome jails; a system of wreaking revenge on 'wrongdoers' by penalising their family....and an economic system which, although overtaking that of the South in the 50s, has slowly ground to a halt, resulting in major famine.

Current events told from a framework of personal narratives makes for an extremely readable work. Central to the whole story is the remarkable cult of the 'Dear Leader':
'Kim Il-Sung closed the churches...and appropriated Christian imagery and dogma for the purpose of self-promotion...N Korean newspapers carried tales of supernatural phenomena. Stormy seas were said to be calmed when sailors clinging to a sinking ship sang songs in praise of Kim Il-Sung....If (he) was God, then Kim Jong-Il was the son of God. Like Jesus Christ, (his) birth is said to have been heralded by a radiant star in the sky and the appearance of a beautiful double rainbow.'

Informative and utterly fascinating read. ( )
  starbox | Sep 2, 2014 |
This is a fantastic book that I highly recommend. Demick is a journalist, I think currently for the LA Times, who wrote a series of articles based on interviews with North Korean defectors currently residing in South Korea. From these interviews she created this book, looking at the lives of 6 North Koreans. This is such a fascinating and horrifying book. We've all heard a lot about the famine, sanctions, and antics of Kim Jong-il, but this puts a human face on all of the rhetoric. She manages to stay away from too much discussion of politics and focuses on the lives of average North Koreans. The lives of these six people and the things they've seen are horrifying. I've read books about other dictatorships, famines, wars, etc. but this is happening NOW. Pretty much the only way to have any inkling of what the average North Korean is going through right now is from these people who've gotten away, since no one else, not even aid workers, are allowed into the country with any amount of freedom. Demick does a great job of humanizing the issues but she doesn't try to say that everything is easy for these defectors after they make it to South Korea. There they face challenges of trying to get used to modern life and deal with the guilt of being somewhere safe with food to eat when they all left children (yes, their own children, some still young), parents, or siblings behind. ( )
4 vote japaul22 | Aug 10, 2014 |
Non-fiction account of life in North Korea: living through the 90s famine, the ongoing hardships, and the varying success of a handful of interviewees who escaped and set up life in South Korea. Not for the tender-hearted. ( )
  KRoan | Jul 25, 2014 |

It's almost unfortunate that Demick wrote this book before Kim Jong-un took power from his father. Stating, as she does, the extreme difficulties of managing survival basics in North Korea, and particularly the effort to dissuade public opinion that this is true, her opinion on how Kim Jong-un's leadership is progressing would be invaluable in regards to this book.

Having been a reporter in Asia for many years - and in fact, she cites her works in the notes repeatedly - she certainly seems to be the right person to have written this. The main thrust of it is to inform about the conditions in North Korea, particularly during the famine of the 1990s, that led to mass starvation, struggle and desperation, and caused an increase in defections.

Naturally, it's impossible to write this with zero bias, since Demick has not lived inside North Korea, only having visited what the North Korean government deemed appropriate to visit. But I don't see that the defectors she spoke with have any reason to lie about the difficulties of living and surviving in North Korea - except perhaps to further the agenda towards reunification, in order to finally be reunited with their family and friends. And since she includes defectors who didn't actually have reasons to defect per se, the descriptions of life in North Korea are that more substantial and trustworthy.

I would recommend this book. However, it's heart-rending to read about seeing dead bodies in the street, and homeless youths stunted by food deprivation, and the continued faith in the leadership through all of this. It's fast, fascinating reading, but it's difficult to read for those reasons. ( )
1 vote khage | Jul 18, 2014 |
Journalist Barbara Demick interviewed and befriended several defectors who fled the DPRK when their lives were threatened. She interviewed them meticulously, with sensitivity, and amassed invaluable information about daily life in North Korea. She spoke with an ordinary family in the rural region and met with a privileged scholar who was rising through the ranks of Pyongyang's elite. All of these stories have been woven together as a large-picture saga of people trying to get by in a dictatorial necrocracy, their moment of revelation, and their ensuing flight from the fatherland.

This is an excellent first book for any novice who is curious to learn about North Korea, without wanting to wrestle with dense academic historical prose. ( )
1 vote sxoidmal | Jul 9, 2014 |
Everything you want to know about the sorry state of the last bastion of totalitarian/communism, in the soul-numbing, automaton version imagined in Orwell's 1984. Told by the former L.A. Times Seoul-based correspondent through the stories of several defectors, whose bleak circumstances lead them to make harrowing efforts to escape. The iron curtain drawn between the "Chosins", as they call their countries, is much thicker than the wall that divided the Germanys. Astounding that the regime survives. I was glad to see her follow through with their assimilations into South Korean society. (The book was marred only by some unedited repetitions in a couple of places that I find inexcusable.) ( )
  JamesMScott | Jul 8, 2014 |
Barbara Demick has written a thorough engrossing account of life in North Korea, one of the world’s most isolated countries. By following the daily lives of ordinary people, she demonstrates the seemingly limitless power of the government over its citizens. Yet, as the reader will learn, the human spirit doesn’t give up without a fight. I highly recommend this book. ( )
  JoStARs | Jun 15, 2014 |
A fascinating portrayal of life in North Korea and how people survive in extreme circumstances. Demick does a very fine job of showing the universality of human emotions and what is going on behind those blank faces that we see in pictures taken in North Korea. The last section about how defectors fared in South Korea were equally interesting. The qualities that helped them survive (and escape from) North Korea, also helped them, after a time, adapt to a completely new and rather baffling country. ( )
  eapalmer | May 18, 2014 |
Like most people in the world, I know next to nothing about North Korea. In fact, until last year, I admit that all my knowledge about North Korea derived from the US media coverage of their nuclear threats and militaristic actions, which invariably led to uninformed blanket statements like, "Ugh, why don't we just preventatively nuke the entire country and get it over with?"

To anyone who thought like I did a mere year ago, I recommend NOTHING TO ENVY. This is probably the most accessible book for the general public that depicts the lives of 20-million-plus people who aren't part of Kim Jong-Il's bravado-wielding troupe. In it are people who, for most of their lives, rarely, if ever, gave a thought to the hypocrisy and brainwashing of their country's "educational system." These are people who are merely struggling to survive, to attain a job that supports them in an era of famine, that pleases their parents, that makes themselves happy as well. These are people trying to fall in love in an anachronistic society where social "castes" basically still exist and are deadly to cross.

To understand North Korea, you need to understand the gulags, the 21st-century concentration work camps. You need to understand the party insiders that surround and build upon the Kim family's paranoia and delusions. And you need to understand the ones who get the least coverage in our media: the ordinary citizens, people who, but for a cruel twist of fate (if you believe in that stuff), are forced to live in North Korea, and not in another country where they could be free. ( )
  stephxsu | Apr 12, 2014 |
This book chronicles the lives of several ordinary families from North Korea, first describing their lives there in detail in the North, then telling of their escapes through China and finally, briefly, of their new lives in South Korea. It is an amazing job of reporting. The author respects the lives and stories of the individuals who must have spent hours telling her of their past. Each story remains the person's own story while also adding to our knowledge of the bleak but mysterious world of North Korea. ( )
  gbelik | Mar 14, 2014 |
This is an incredible work of narrative reporting. It’s also a vital document that gives voice to the citizens of a nation that’s committed probably the worst repression of free will in modern history--a nation that keeps its people believing they have “nothing to envy” and that things are much worse in the rest of the world. It’s assembled from a series of interviews with a handful of North Koreans who defected to South Korea at enormous risk, and their stories give a deeply human dimension to what everyone in the first world knows mostly through headlines alone.

One by one, these North Koreans--Oak-hee, Mrs. Song, Mi-ran, Hyuck, and Jun-sang, among others--come to face a snowballing misery: theirs is a country without electricity, industry, or even privacy, abandoned by once-Communist nations turned westward, wracked by starvation, and blanketed with the constant threat of execution for even a whiff of dissent to Kim Jong-il’s delusional, nuclear arms-obsessed regime (which still refers to the dead Kim Il-sung as “eternal leader.”) But out of hunger and desperation--and as untold hundreds of thousands (and eventually as many as 2 million) of their countrymen die of famine--these increasingly intrepid North Koreans come to “unlearn a lifetime of propaganda” and conjure the will to survive. Their dramatic escapes, and their struggles to start bewildering and often seriously disorienting new lives in South Korea, are hallmarks of one of the most enthralling awakenings anyone could imagine.

Highly recommended. ( )
  Hanneri | Feb 22, 2014 |
Well-written account of everyday life for people in North Korea. While my ignorance about the collapse of North Korea's infrastructure and the terrible famine during the 1990s can be partially excused by the fact that their own government works hard to conceal these things, I am embarrassed by how little I knew. The lives Demick describes are not primarily of downtrodden oppressed people who burned with the desire to overthrow the system or even to escape the system, but of people who truly believed in communism and Kim Il-sung and were bewildered by how wrong it all went. In this "information age", it was truly frightening to learn how isolated the North Korean people are with no access to information other than what is provided by the government, especially outside the capital. Unlike the students in Tianmen Square, these people have no Internet access and most don't have even state-run television or radio.

Demick does a good job of showing how people adjust as things went from good to not so good to terrible. These are the stories of survivors & I am fairly sure that I would not have been able to cope with the deprivations and restrictions that these people faced. The ingenuity and resiliance displayed is amazing, heart-wrenching and yet uplifting... ( )
  leslie.98 | Feb 17, 2014 |
I thought that the individual stories were an effective way of communicating how people survive (or not) in North Korea - the same facts told in a more abstract manner would not have had the same impact. I found all of it affecting, and the section on the famine almost unbearable. Because it follows the lives of six defectors, it is gripping and accessible.- you see behind the rather disturbing scenes of goose stepping and mass hysteria and begin to have an inkling of what living under such a regime does to people. ( )
1 vote vestafan | Jan 15, 2014 |
This book took me ages to finish, but not because it wasn't a great book! Rather, it is such a candidly written piece of non-fiction that I had to take it in pieces, as often the situation of the individuals in the book were so horrific I had to take a break from reading.

If you are interested in Political Economy, Poverty, Human Rights, or international development READ THIS. It's a great demonstration of how the decisions of the Governing directly affect the Governed. ( )
  VikingBunny | Dec 20, 2013 |
Loved this book, such great insight into the lives of North Koreans! Amazing how much I learned from this book!! ( )
  Sierra1977 | Oct 8, 2013 |
I admire the restraint in Demick's reporting: She lets the "ordinary lives" speak for themselves. Also appreciate frank discussion of the difficulties North Koreans can face adjusting to life in South Korea. A reminder that life under oppressive circumstances can follow its survivors in insidious ways. Chilling to think family of mine have lived (and probably died) in the conditions depicted here. ( )
  amelish | Sep 12, 2013 |
Even despite the gruesome subject, I absolutely loved this book! Impressive research comes here along with great journalism and skillful yet sensitive and considerate storytelling. The characters of the defectors as well as the places described here are coming to life as we read about them while the events and mishaps really tear at your heartstrings. But most importantly it’s a shocking account of one of the last regimes of the 21st century, one that we would know very little about if it wasn’t for books like this one. It was genuinely hard to put down and made me often compare my own life with those of North Korean citizens. Highly recommended to anybody interested in non-fiction. ( )
  justine28 | Sep 5, 2013 |
Demick did a great job with limited resources...she found a telling variety of subjects and allowed them to tell their own stories while still managing to maintain just enough dramatic tension. ( )
  bookweaver | Aug 7, 2013 |
This is a book about surviving North Korea. Even if one expects a grim account of daily life in the country, shocking insights remain in the details - the way, for example, that the government gave each citizen portraits of their leaders and a cloth to clean them with - in addition to regular inspections to check that the portraits remained dust free. All the accounts feel entirely believable. Given what these people have been through, the are 'down to earth' almost by definition, and their stories feel honest and unblemished by exaggeration. In recounting defector's histories, the book gives the lie to the notion that North Koreans are so indoctrinated that it would be impossible to change them now. There is indoctrination and it goes deep but it relies heavily on a lack of knowledge about the outside world. In almost all cases, as soon as the individuals in this book saw something of life elsewhere, they simply gave up their illusion and tried to adapt. ( )
  freelancer_frank | May 24, 2013 |
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