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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North…
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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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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 |
http://tinyurl.com/pu7tado

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 |
Stunningly and sadly on target. I lived in South Korea from 1989 to 1991, and I kept finding myself nodding my head "yes" to so many things. A book that may not be completely comprehensible ("surely it can't be THAT bad"), but very, very accurate. ( )
  limamikealpha | Jun 5, 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 |
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:

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.

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.

BUT DON’T WORRY COMRADES! OUR GREAT LEADER IS NOT REALLY DEAD!

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.

WAIT! WHERE ARE YOU ALL GOING?! COME BACK! COME BACK TO OUR GLORIOUS FATHERLAND!

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 |
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