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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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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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Drawing on the histories of North Koreans now living elsewhere, the author characterizes life under the North Korean regime in the last 60 years and talks to the various political situations: China's needs and worries, Mongolia, the South Korea integration process, and so on. Fascinating and important stuff, if sometimes emotionally hard to read.

One of my biggest take-aways here is that under such extreme hardship, the most upstanding and morally driven people die first. The survivors all did things they aren't proud of. Somehow in all my childhood Holocaust memoir reading, this truth didn't sink in until this week. It makes sense, and I see it too in the altruism and trust shown by people with enough money in the United States, and the distrust and expected back-stabbing I've heard from people from poorer communities: when there's not enough to go around, you don't survive unless you're ruthlessly self-interested, and you expect others to be the same.

I'd been wanting to read this book for many years. I'm glad I got to it. ( )
  pammab | May 1, 2016 |
North Korea invites parody.

And that is often the way North Korea is presented to the world. Through these parodies, it is easy to forget the individual human faces which make up North Korea. We hear about the executions of generations, the punishment for one making offhand remarks about people in power. We see the pictures showing the stark differences between North and South Korea at nighttime. We deplore the people in power having lavish meals while millions starve. Occasionally we read about the journeys of the ones who managed to defect. But what about the everyday life of the ordinary people? What do they think about? What are their childhoods like? How do they pass the time? How do romantic relationships evolve in such an environment?

Here, Barbara Demick skilfully combines these familiar facts and answers these questions and more in relation to the compelling everyday lives of people, whose backgrounds range widely from the ideologically faithful to the privately rebellious to the resigned hopeful for ascension in the social ladder. It is due to Demick's writing prowess that she avoids all the dryness of fact-telling and weaves together a readable oral history, with such flair that the sudden photo of Mrs Song shocked me into remembering the reality of the characters.

A minor relief from the constant distress of just reading about North Korea is the knowledge that the interviewees must have eventually successfully defected. The intricate insights into the history and psychology of North Korea and its inhabitants, whether it was individually or collectively studied, through their daily life in the relatively prosperous sixties or the devastating famine in the nineties - The killer targets the most innocent, the people who would never steal food, lie, cheat, break the law or betray a friend- , make this troubling book a highly-recommended read for anybody, high-schoolers and up. ( )
  kitzyl | Jan 29, 2016 |
A very depressing account of the lives of 6 ordinary citizens of this strange country. How can a dynasty of megalomaniacal crackpots hold 23 million people hostage and meddle with every aspect of their lives. The accounts of the famine and how these people managed to cope thru it is very heart rending.
  danoomistmatiste | Jan 24, 2016 |
This was a great insight into the lives of people in North Korea. ( )
  Jen.ODriscoll.Lemon | Jan 23, 2016 |
This was a great insight into the lives of people in North Korea. ( )
  Jen.ODriscoll.Lemon | Jan 23, 2016 |
So, I read B. R. Myer's book "The Cleanest Race" a few months ago. This is a great follow-up. The Myer's book concentrated on the Official Story of North Korea -- their government-sanctioned origin story, history, and outlook. "Nothing to Envy" is about the actual lives of the people, constructed from interviews with a handful of defectors, mostly from the Chongjin area. It's a good read. Tragic, but well-constructed with moments of tension, surprise, and even a bit of humor. I flew through it quickly. If you find North Korea interesting, I'd recommend it. (Oddly, it's the second book I've read this year where everyone's starving through most of the story -- the other being "City of Thieves.") ( )
  chasing | Jan 18, 2016 |
A very depressing account of the lives of 6 ordinary citizens of this strange country. How can a dynasty of megalomaniacal crackpots hold 23 million people hostage and meddle with every aspect of their lives. The accounts of the famine and how these people managed to cope thru it is very heart rending.
  kkhambadkone | Jan 17, 2016 |
Great! I was worried at points that the interpersonal drama would water down the picture of North Korea, but that never happened. The book is much more approachable than Bradley Martin's Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, and a great introduction to the bizarre world of NK. The best compliment that I can give the book is that I was at times genuinely worried about the survival of main characters, even though it was an obvious conclusion that they survived and escaped NK to tell their tales. ( )
  gregorybrown | Oct 18, 2015 |
I'm not sure if you can call a book about the breakdown of entire society and the death of thousands as 'wonderful', or 'great', but I'm going to anyway ... ( )
  bherner | Oct 18, 2015 |
A really good account of what life is like for many in North Korea. Much of it was so horrific, I couldn't believe that it was actually happening. It seemed more like a dystopian novel, as Becky said. I would recommend it, although parts were quite depressing. ( )
  klburnside | Aug 11, 2015 |
Prior to borrowing this title from the library, I'd had only the vaguest idea of what life appeared to be like in North Korea: urban areas were drab and purely utilitarian, its citizens were indoctrinated to revere their leaders as divine, and the leaders themselves were not only nutty but dangerous. The greater reality, at least by the collective accounts of defectors, is even more strikingly shocking and dismal. The severity of famine, the degree of state surveillance, the ways in which citizens are encouraged to police one another, and the permanent psychological and physical damage being done to generations of Koreans made me want to weep. Barbara Demick has written a powerful, infuriating and heartbreaking book. ( )
1 vote ryner | Aug 7, 2015 |
The hardships of living in a once modern country that no longer has enough reliable electricity to cool its citizen’s home refrigerators or run the now defunct factories where they used to work are more than I could have imagined and heart-rending, but there is at least one advantage. When the sun sets the country goes completely dark, it’s a blank spot on nighttime satellite photos and the starry sky must be amazing to see, which provides cover to young teenage lovers who otherwise would be prevented from meeting by their scared conservative families, their class conscious society, and their frighteningly punitive government.

North Korea is one of the most culturally isolated nations on the planet, which makes this poignant and descriptive book about the personal lives and families of six former residents of Chonhjin, a city in a northern outpost of the country far from what any foreigner would see, a testament to Barbara Demick’s patience, perseverance, and humanity. While working as a journalist in South Korea Demick was able to meet and spend considerable time with of many former residents of that region--her reasoning was that she would be able to verify facts more easily if she talked to people who were all connected to one place--and she’s created a surprisingly complete and moving picture of their lives.

Part of what makes the book so interesting is how varied the six people Demick profiles are. Some lived on the fringes of North Korean society even before the famine and infrastructure breakdown, others were formerly loyal party members only gradually disillusioned by the dysfunction and corruption of their government, and two were teenage lovers who could only meet in darkness.

The North Korean government does not come off well in this book, but neither do the Allied powers who made such a mess of Korea after WWII and then followed it up with the devastating Korean War. Dystopian fiction pales next to the gripping real stories told in Nothing to Envy, but since the people Demick talked with were resourceful during their almost unimaginable difficulties and have all escaped to make new lives in South Korea the book isn’t flatly bleak. ( )
1 vote Jaylia3 | May 23, 2015 |
I thought I knew a little about what life was like in North Korea before reading this. Many years ago I saw photos of a super highway with no cars on it, and a poster advertising the government permitted hairstyles. I had no idea that this was merely scratching the surface, and that most of the country remains in abject poverty. Like the years of the famine in the 1990s (2 million people died - I had no idea), as of 2010 people were still hiking out to the countryside to find grass and weeds to eat, with most people living in a constant state of starvation.

Having finished the book, my head is still trying to get around this, and moreover that the Western world allows this to go on. I wonder would things be different if it was a country rich in oil reserves...

North Korea, the ultimate closed state, was always going to be an interesting read, but I think Barbara Demick did a fantastic job with this book. By taking the lives of 6 defectors, she brought a human narrative to a non-fiction subject, and these 6 people became fascinating real life protagonists, with love stories and personal tragedies.

It's sad there's no happy ending to this book, and that if anything the country is declining further backwards.

4 stars for a fascinating and shocking read. ( )
3 vote AlisonY | May 21, 2015 |
This non-fiction work takes a look at the repressive and dysfunctional North Korean regime of Kim Il-sung and his successor Kim Jong-il through the stories of individual North Korean citizens who ultimately defected to China and South Korea. The stories told by those that survived the economic collapse and subsequent famine are chilling.

I’ve read several works focusing on North Korea, and all face the same hurdle of getting reliable information from such a tightly controlled, xenophobic culture. Indoctrinated at a very young age, citizens literally starve to death while continuing to idolize and worship the very people responsible for the barbaric conditions in which they try to survive. It is the individual stories that help to bring an understanding of how such a thing can happen and provide the most reliable account of what life in North Korea is actually like.

The time frame of these accounts spans approximately 15 years, including the period encompassing the death of Kim il-Sung, the ascension of his son and the disastrous famine that ensued. It ends in about 2009, prior to the death of Kim Jong-il and the current regime. ( )
  santhony | May 6, 2015 |
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. ( )
1 vote 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. ( )
2 vote khage | Jul 18, 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 |
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