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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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tututhefirst's review
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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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 |
An infuriating, fascinating encounter with daily existence in North Korea in a city far from the capital, through the first-hand stories of six North Koreans from different walks of life. Based on facts gleaned from numerous defectors and extensive interviews with the main subjects, all of whom defected to South Korea, the book reads more like a dystopian novel than journalism, but maybe that's the only way to write about this strange, hermetically-sealed society.

It's heart-wrenching to read not just about cradle-to-early-grave propaganda and famine, but the small details of life, in which a courtship can continue for three years before the couple even dares to hold hands, for fear of the political consequences of their relationship, or a joke about shoes can land someone in a labor camp.

Who knows what the truth is about life in North Korea? But the author did an admirable job in trying to discover the truth, and present it without sensationalism. As one of the subjects stated, when he finally read "1984" after defecting, "Orwell had an incredible understanding of life in North Korea." No need to read dystopian novels, when you can read a lovingly-researched, beautifully written account of the real thing. ( )
2 vote Feign | May 9, 2013 |
Demick relates the lives of six North Koreans over the last thirty or so years. Since all lived through the terrible famine of the middle to late nineties, these lives are hard to read at times, as family members starve to death, but by the same token Demick personalizes the experiences of ordinary North Koreans. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
An insightful look at life inside North Korea as revealed by people who managed to defect. The everyday lives of ordinary Koreans is one of extraordinary hardship, misery, and oppression. ( )
  Sullywriter | Apr 3, 2013 |
My homegirl Susanna has a special sort of three-star review for nonfiction reviews. It doesn't mean it's a mediocre book, exactly; she'll gladly recommend it. She means, I think, that she wouldn't necessarily review it if you're not looking for a book about that specific time period; it's not like you have to read this book no matter what you're into. But if you are looking for a book about this specific topic, this is a competent book about it. Nothing to Envy is a classic Susanna three-star book. If you're looking for a book about what life in North Korea is like - as I was - this will do it. It's fine. I wanted to know, and now I do. ( )
  AlCracka | Apr 2, 2013 |
This is what school children sing in North Korea:

Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.
Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party.
We are all brothers and sisters.
Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid, Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy in this world.

These are some of the few propaganda slogans written everywhere in North Korea:


Sounds familiar? It may if you have read "1984" by George Orwell and/or “This Perfect Day” by Ira Levin. But even these two dystopias are nothing compared to the real North Korea. In “1984” and “This Perfect Day” at least the people got enough to eat in order to survive. On the other hand, “Kims of Korea” were/are incompetent enough to let their masses go hungry, everyday.

Now I am sure that none of us are crazy enough to visit North Korea (on second thoughts, I can’t vouch for some of you here). So for the rest of my friends here on GR, let’s just assume for the rest of this review that we are living in Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

So now that we are officially North Korean citizens (yay!), what should we do first? How about watching a movie? Now that we are all adults here, let’s go and watch an equivalent of R-rated movie. (There are movies in DRPK, yup). OH MY GOD! SUCH VULGARITY! LOOK, THEY ARE KISSING! ON SCREEN! WHAT? Ya I know we can’t actually see them kissing but still.. Don’t believe me? Read along:

Some movies were deemed too risqué for children, such as the 1985 film Oh My Love in which it was suggested that a man and a woman kissed. Actually, the leading lady modestly lowered her parasol so moviegoers never saw their lips touch, but that was enough to earn the film the equivalent of an R rating.

Boy, was that a crazy movie! So, let’s just go home and make fun of it. Nope, can’t do that. Because, comrade, you would be watched the whole time, even in your house.

People would be closely watched by their neighbors. North Koreans are organized into what are called the inminban— literally, “people’s group”—cooperatives of twenty or so families whose job it is to keep tabs on one another and run the neighborhood. The inminban have an elected leader, usually a middle-aged woman, who reports anything suspicious to higher-ranking authorities.

Ah, but we can at least read the newspaper peacefully, right? Nope.

North 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. When Kim Jong-il went to the DMZ, a mysterious fog descended to protect him from lurking South Korean snipers. He caused trees to bloom and snow to melt. If Kim Il-sung was God, then Kim Jong-il was the son of God. Like Jesus Christ, Kim Jong-il’s birth was said to have been heralded by a radiant star in the sky and the appearance of a beautiful double rainbow. A swallow descended from heaven to sing of the birth of a “general who will rule the world.”

Ahhhhh…. Damn it! Okay, let’s just do something else. Hey, we are a crowd here, right? So it is possible that today might be someone’s birthday. Hell, let’s just celebrate this day because your birthday comes on the same day after six months. Nope, can’t do that either!

North Korean children, they didn’t celebrate their own birthdays, but those of Kim Il-sung on April 15 and Kim Jong-il on February 16. These days were national holidays and they were often the only days people would get meat in their ration packages.

Okay people, let’s not get excited here. Let’s just procure a radio (equivalent of a high end music system in DPRK which only plays North Korean stations) and have a party. WHAT? A RADIO? DO YOU HAVE A PERMISSION?

There was a food shop, a stationery shop, a clothing shop. Unlike in the Soviet Union, you seldom saw long lines in North Korea. If you wanted to make a major purchase—say, to buy a watch or a record player—you had to apply to your work unit for permission. It wasn’t just a matter of having the money.

How in the hell such a country survive for such a long time, you ask? Because it was not like this all the time. Read on:

Merely to feed the population in a region with a long history of famine was an accomplishment, all the more so given that the crude partition of the peninsula had left all the better farmland on the other side of the divide. Out of the wreckage of a country that had lost almost all of its infrastructure and 70 percent of its housing stock in the war, Kim Il-sung created what appeared to be a viable, if Spartan, economy. Everybody had shelter and clothing. In 1949, North Korea claimed to be the first Asian country to have nearly eliminated illiteracy. Foreign dignitaries, who visited in the 1960s, often arriving by train across the Chinese border, gushed over the obviously superior living standards of the North Koreans. In fact, thousands of ethnic Koreans in China fled the famine caused by Mao Zedong’s disastrous “Great Leap Forward” to return to North Korea. North Korea put tile roofs on the houses and every village was wired for electricity by 1970. Even a hard-bitten CIA analyst, Helen-Louise Hunter, whose reports on North Korea from the 1970s were later declassified and published, grudgingly admitted she was impressed by Kim Il-sung’s North Korea.

So what happened really? For one, communism in USSR failed and countries like China also made some reforms. Majority of aid and loans came from these two countries which dried up after the fall of USSR. And there was famine in North Korea in the 90’s which was fueled by some crazy ideas of “Kims of Korea”.

“Kim Jong-il’s on-site instructions and his warm benevolence are bringing about a great advance in goat breeding and output of dairy products,” the Korean Central News Agency opined after Kim Jong-il visited a goat farm near Chongjin. One day he would decree that the country should switch from rice to potatoes for its staple food; the next he would decide that raising ostriches was the cure for North Korea’s food shortage. The country lurched from one harebrained scheme to another.

So, comrades, there is a food shortage in our most advanced and richest country in the whole world. So let’s ask our government the reason for us being going hungry even though we are the richest country (yoohoo!)in the whole world.

The North Korean government offered a variety of explanations, from the patently absurd to the barely plausible. People were told that their government was stockpiling food to feed the starving South Korean masses on the blessed day of reunification. They were told that the United States had instituted a blockade against North Korea that was keeping out food.

What now? You all are still hungry? You filthy little imperialistic pigs! You all are a disgrace to the fatherland! I hope your stomach bursts, you gluttonous pigs!

Enduring hunger became part of one’s patriotic duty. Billboards went up in Pyongyang touting the new slogan, “Let’s Eat Two Meals a Day.” North Korean television ran a documentary about a man whose stomach burst, it was claimed, from eating too much rice. In any case, the food shortage was temporary—agricultural officials quoted in the newspapers reported that bumper crops of rice were expected in the next harvest.

Ah whatever. But you ask, there is still one thing nobody can deny you right? Sex. Whao! WHAT? YOU WILL HAVE SEX ONLY WITH SOMEONE WHOM YOUR BOSS CHOOSES FOR YOU! AND EVEN THAT AFTER MARRIAGE ONLY!

The country doesn’t have a dating culture. Many marriages are still arranged, either by families or by party secretaries or bosses. Couples are not supposed to make any public displays of affection—even holding hands in public is considered risqué. North Korean defectors insist that there is no premarital sex.

But comrades, whatever its follies, you can proudly say that North Korea abides by communism like none other, right? Wrong! Why? North Korea holds the record for the first hereditary succession in the Communist world.OH MY GOD BUT THAT MEANS OUR FATHER IS DEAD!

Those waiting in line would jump up and down, pound their heads, collapse into theatrical swoons, rip their clothes, and pound their fists at the air in futile rage. The men wept as copiously as the women. The histrionics of grief took on a competitive quality. Who could weep the loudest? Who was the most distraught? The mourners were egged on by the TV news, which broadcast hours and hours of people wailing, grown men with tears rolling down their cheeks, banging their heads on trees, sailors banging their heads against the masts of their ships, pilots weeping in the cockpit, and so on. These scenes were interspersed with footage of lightning and pouring rain. It looked like Armageddon.


The North Korean propaganda machine went into overdrive, concocting ever weirder stories about how Kim Il-sung wasn’t really dead. Shortly after his death, the North Korean government began erecting 3,200 obelisks around the country that would be called “Towers of Eternal Life.” Kim Il-sung would remain the president in title after death. A propaganda film released shortly after his death claimed that Kim Il-sung might come back to life if people grieved hard enough for him.

Excerpt: When the Great Marshal died, thousands of cranes descended from heaven to fetch him. The birds couldn’t take him because they saw that North Koreans cried and screamed and pummeled their chests, pulled their hair and pounded the ground.

Ah but we can still live properly even in a country like N. Korea if we studied hard enough and become something like, say, a doctor. Right? Wrong.

Because of a shortage of X-ray machines, North Korean doctors often must use crude fluoroscopy machines that expose them to high levels of radiation; many older North Korean doctors now suffer from cataracts as a result. They not only donate their own blood, but also small bits of skin to provide grafts for burn victims.

Making one’s own medicine is an integral part of being a doctor in North Korea. Those living in warmer climates often grow cotton as well to make their own bandages. Doctors are all required to collect the herbs themselves; Dr. Kim’s work unit took off as much as a month in spring and autumn to gather herbs, during which time the doctors slept out in the open and washed only every few days. Each had a quota to fill. They had to bring their haul back to the hospital pharmacy, where it would be weighed, and if the amount was insufficient, they would be sent out again. Often, the doctors had to hike far into the mountains because the more accessible areas had already been scoured by ordinary citizens who sought to sell the herbs or use them for themselves.

Darn it. Let’s eat something shall we? That is, if you are not too picky. And if you can “pick” the food out of anything to eat!

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. On the beaches, people dug out shellfish from the sand and filled buckets with seaweed. When the authorities in 1995 erected fences along the beach (ostensibly to keep out spies, but more likely to prevent people from catching fish the state companies wanted to control), people went out to the unguarded cliffs over the sea and with long rakes tied together hoisted up seaweed. Nobody told people what to do—the North Korean government didn’t want to admit to the extent of the food shortage—so they fended for themselves. You woke up early to find your breakfast and as soon as it was finished, you thought about what to find for dinner. Lunch was a luxury of the past. You slept during what used to be lunchtime to preserve your calories. Ultimately it was not enough.

Let’s catch something filthy that nobody would eat in normal circumstances but at least we won’t go hungry, right? Sorry, no such luck Comrade.

By 1995, virtually the entire frog population of North Korea had been wiped out by overhunting.
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. In Chongjin, where food supplies were cut off earlier than the rest of North Korea, the toll might have been as high as 20 percent. Exact figures would be nearly impossible to tally since North Korean hospitals could not report starvation as a cause of death.

And comrade, while you are at it, look carefully before you eat. There might be human flesh in your bowl. Ok. WHAT?!

There were strange stories going around about adults who preyed on children. Not just for sex, but for food. Hyuck was told about people who would drug children, kill them, and butcher them for meat. Behind the station near the railroad tracks were vendors who cooked soup and noodles over small burners, and it was said that the gray chunks of meat floating in the broth were human flesh.

But at least it is better than Auschwitz right? Comrades, one defector of our fatherland, Hyuck, does not believe so! THAT FILTHY BASTARD!

Afterward he toured Auschwitz and noted the parallels with his own experience. In his labor camp, nobody was gassed—if they were too weak to work they were sent to another prison. Although some were executed and some were beaten, the primary means of inflicting punishment was withholding food. Starvation was the way the regime preferred to eliminate its opponents.

Okay Comardes, ENOUGH! I will take you all to China to show you how poor they are! And then we will come back, right? RIGHT?

Dr. Kim staggered up the riverbank. Her legs were numb, encased in frozen trousers. She made her way through the woods until the first light of dawn illuminated the outskirts of a small village. She didn’t want to sit down and rest—she feared succumbing to hypothermia—but she knew she didn’t have the strength to go much farther. She would have to take a chance on the kindness of the local residents. Dr. Kim looked down a dirt road that led to farmhouses. Most of them had walls around them with metal gates. She tried one; it turned out to be unlocked. She pushed it open and peered inside. On the ground she saw a small metal bowl with food. She looked closer—it was rice, white rice, mixed with scraps of meat. Dr. Kim couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a bowl of pure white rice. What was a bowl of rice doing there, just sitting out on the ground? She figured it out just before she heard the dog’s bark. Up until that moment, a part of her had hoped that China would be just as poor as North Korea. She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world. The beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime would be vindicated. But now she couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.


On a more serious note, North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people. But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung’s divinity. Who could possibly resist?

This book follows the events of six defectors and their families. It is very well written and it reads like a novel rather than a non-fictional account. There is love, sacrifice and liberty in their tale. Let us hope that someday North Korean regime would fall and its people would be liberated from one of the cruelest totalitarian regimes in the history of the world.

Liberty and love,
These two I must have.
For my love I’ll sacrifice My life.
For liberty,
I’ll sacrifice My love.
( )
  Veeralpadhiar | Mar 31, 2013 |
Utterly fascinating/horrifying story of ordinary people living in North Korea. Wish I'd written this review earlier when the details were still vivid, but I can say that I found it almost impossible to put down. Finished it off very late at night, reading on my phone in bed. ( )
  epersonae | Mar 30, 2013 |
Demick uses the life stories of several North Koreans as a framework to give shape to and personalize a history of North Korea, and the effects of that history and politics on these storytellers' lives. This creates a more intimate and nuanced account than many, rendering daily life in North Korea more accessible to the outside reader. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
A very depressing read, but one that at least leaves a little help for all those suffering in the Hermit Kingdom. ( )
  HadriantheBlind | Mar 29, 2013 |
The book made me so grateful for every little freedom I enjoy. It's so well-written, I actually stopped to cry and clap when Mrs. Song finally 'arrived' in South Korea with her eye surgery. My favourite story was the one of Jun-Sang and Mi-ran. Heartwrenching book. Great job by the author. ( )
  zvatie | Mar 29, 2013 |
I've read a fair amount about North Korea over the years, including a few books, but I found this book to be superior in the way the author interwove different situations together. The six people whose lives were followed gave a greater understanding of their relationships to each other and the government than some other books available on the subject. Instead of focusing on just children or prisoners, the book presents the viewpoints of:

•Mrs. Song - a pro-regime housewife, head of the block's inminban [a neighborhood watch-like group that reports to the government]
•Oak-Hee - Mrs. Song's rebellious daughter
•Mi-ran - an elementary school teacher; part of the "hostile class" and considered to have "tainted blood" due to her father's South Korean roots which disqualifies her from advancement in many ways
•Jun-sang - a student with Zainichi Korean ancestry and Mi-Ran's boyfriend in North Korea
•Kim Hyuck - a "wandering swallow" or street-boy whose father had committed him and his brother to an orphanage when he could no longer care for them
•Dr. Kim - a female doctor

If you are looking for a book about the history of Korea, this doesn't have a lot of that, but the coverage of the 1990's (including the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise of Kim Jong-il, and the famine) is well done. ( )
  crmass | Mar 13, 2013 |
It’s the story of six people living through the great famine of the 90s in North Korea and their eventual escape to South Korea. Fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time in its description of people navigating this autocratic psychotic communist crossover of 1984 (complete with loudspeakers in private apartments for community announcements) and a rigid feudal system.

The title comes from the song every North Korean child has to know- ‘we have nothing to envy in the world’. If you're familiar with the dystopian world from The Giver by Lowry and the oppressive environment of 1984, this is startlingly close to reality in North Korea.

The best non-fiction book of the year for me. ( )
  Niecierpek | Feb 17, 2013 |
Six-word review: Surviving in a starving Communist society.

Extended review:

When I read The Orphan Master's Son two months ago, I wondered how much of its depiction of life in North Korea was based in fact and how much of it was fanciful speculation. After reading Barbara Demick's vivid account of the lives of six defectors, supported by exhaustive journalistic research into the social, economic, and political environment they fled, I've concluded that Adam Johnson's novel embodies more truth than fiction. Even the clearly imaginative story elements appear to depict the truth in a way that trumps literalness.

However, the realities of life in a famine-ridden land where a person's efforts to subsist are seen as crimes against the state are even more extreme in the factual narrative than in the fiction.

Nothing to Envy is a window into a world so repressive that despite mountains of corroborating detail it is virtually impossible to imagine. State-controlled media promote idolatrous adoration of the godlike leader and deliver nonstop false reports that no one can counter. People don't dare to whisper the faintest hint of adverse opinion even in private; the most innocuous joke can get you sent away for life if it sounds to someone like a criticism of the leader. Anyone can be a spy, and denouncing one's neighbors is a routine fact of life.

The electrical grid is defunct and so homes, streets, and entire cities are dead dark at night. Starving people grind corncobs, bark, grass, and weeds to fend off death by malnutrition and its many complications. Sweethearts can't marry if the low status of one person's family could destroy the career aspirations of the other. Orphaned children roam the streets in rags and live by such desperate means as to make Oliver Twist's street life look like luxury. Bags of rice sent by the U.S. as humanitarian aid to the hungry people are confiscated and sold by the military even as America is condemned as the evil aggressor.

Among the people of this impoverished, aching nation there still remain true believers who trust that theirs is the best and happiest country in the world. "We have nothing to envy in the world," they sing, and they believe it. Or at least maintain such a perfect guard over themselves that no one can suspect otherwise.

A stirring moment of truth occurs when a young college student looks around at the blank faces of his classmates during an ideological lecture and realizes that he himself wears the same vacant expression--all revealing nothing, all concealing the same thing: the knowledge of the lie.

The collapse of North Korea's government was predicted not only by North Korea watchers and pundits but also by ordinary citizens even before the death of "Great Leader" Kim Il-sung and the installation of his son, "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il, in 1994. Yet still it hangs on. This book was published two years before the death of Kim Jong-il and the succession of his son Kim Jong-un. Author Demick does not offer any guesses about the future of this nation or its people. The stories that she tells are unfinished because they are those of real people who are still living. Nevertheless they offer an astonishing insight into the structure and character of a surpassingly alien society that sees us as the ultimate enemy. ( )
2 vote Meredy | Feb 3, 2013 |
I decided to listen to this book on the way home before Christmas and, it being 12 hours long, it took me longer to finish it. First off, I want to say that the reader (Karen White) is fantastic. She made me care more about the people in this book more than I might have while reading it. She basically brought them to life in my car. There were times when I was crying while I was driving because the stories she was reading were so heart wrenching.

Life in North Korea is hard -- think of the hardest part of your life you've had and then multiply it by 1000 and it's still not as hard as living in NK. Demick spent a long time (seven years, I think) living in Seoul and researching North Korea. She talked to many defectors and these are their stories. They are moving, thoughtful, harsh and loving. They can make you laugh and cry, but they will also move you profoundly. Her writing, combined with White's skills as a reader, makes Nothing to Envy one of the best audio books I've ever read.

As with Escape From Camp 14, Demick's book ends unfinished, because the lives of the people in her book aren't over. They still have futures, people they love (inside and out of NK) and also because there are still hundreds of thousands of people trapped in NK. This is at once one of the most darkest and most inspiring books I've ever read/listened to. I highly recommend it. ( )
  callmecayce | Jan 4, 2013 |
Powerful, relevant journalism. Reads like a novel. Can't recommend highly enough. ( )
1 vote catalogthis | Dec 29, 2012 |
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