Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a work by journalist Barbara Demick. When I pick up a journalist’s book, the first thing I want is to be reassured the writing is as unbiased as possible — and I want some info about source material. Demick opens with a clear author’s note: she lived in Seoul, South Korea, in 2001 while working for the Los Angeles Times. She was able to visit North Korea, which is nearly impossible to do, but the regime only allowed her to see people/places. People are costumed and staged for visitors. Demick was not allowed to talk to citizens; one watcher made sure she saw what was approved, and second watcher made sure the first couldn’t be corrupted with a bribe from Demick.

However, back in South Korea, Demick located North Korean defectors and spoke with them over years. Most of them were from Chongjin, North Korea, so Nothing to Envy is limited to Chongjin residents. This gives the book more focus and allows the stories to be corroborated. Demick notes, “All dialogue is drawn from the accounts of one or more people present.” At the end of the book, Demick includes notes about where she got background information, which included a variety of books, articles, and photographs taken at great risk by average North Koreans. If she could not corroborate information from one of her interviewees, she admits this. Thus, I was confident in the integrity of Demick’s journalism.

The title comes from a slogan the North Korean government regularly trots out: the citizens have nothing to envy. It’s implied the government means compared to other countries. And even in the midst of a famine, North Korean citizens were convinced they were better off than everyone else — South Korea, China, the United States, because Kim Il-sung said so. How can a person weigh 80 pounds, have buried their family as one by one they starved to death, work for no pay, and still assume they have nothing to envy? It’s all in the history.

Demick has written a book that is highly readable, which is important because there are so many things to learn. Things I never knew. Korea was one country, a country that practically no one knew about. It was colonized by Japan for 35 years, but Japan suddenly left after WWII. As people in the U.S. may recognize, leaving a country with no government in place creates a hole where a regime may enter. The United States was worried that Soviet Russia would fill that hole, especially since Soviet troops were already in the northern part of Korea after Japan left.

To smooth things over, the United States let Soviet Russian control the northern half of Korea, where they were stationed, as a sort of “temporary trusteeship.” Looking for an easy way to keep Seoul under United States control, a negotiator slapped an arbitrary border at the 38th parallel, thus making an official North and South Korea. When North Korea tried to push the border further south in the 1950s, we got the Korean War.

Map of the Korean peninsula including North and South Korea and major cities.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, it no longer provided cheap fuel to North Korea, and the economy tanked. The United States tried to offer fuel in exchange for shutting down North Korea’s nuclear power struggle in the 1990s, but when North Korea wouldn’t comply, the United States refused to help. As of Demick’s publication of Nothing to Envy in 2009, North Korea was still angry with the United States for playing even the smallest role in their economic struggles. The main reason the economy collapsed is that North Korea was taking money from other countries and refusing to pay the bill. Everyone abandoned the stubborn dictator, Kim Il-sung — at the expense of the citizens of North Korea.

Demick’s book is mainly about the lives of five North Korea defectors. Some of them never swallowed Kim Il-sung as the Father of the country, the only one who could save them. Others were so convinced that they were part of the citizen watch groups that tattled on others for things like wishing their children had rain boots, a thought that could send a person to labor camp for years. The country seems very 1984 — and that’s not hyperbole.

It’s easy to remember certain moments in the defectors’ lives without highlighting passages. Dating was so forbidden by dictator Kim Il-sung that one teen girl would visit her boyfriend at night and walk. There was no electricity at night, so no one could see them. It took three years for them to hold hands. And another six for a kiss on the cheek. The girl didn’t know what sex was until she was twenty-six.

In the late 1990s, people in North Korea would only have electricity for a couple of hours during the day — not because it was forbidden, but because the economy was that bad. Most would be hard pressed to recognize a flash drive, nor did people know what the internet was in a time when more South Koreans had broadband in their homes than we did in the U.S. There were no cell phones or computers. North Korea was frozen in time in the 1950s, but even a luxury like a car was unheard of. As the famine in the late 1990s continued, people would cross the river in Chongjin and go to China. It was mostly women during the crisis of the Chinese One-Child Policy when men outnumbered women so greatly that Korean women would sell themselves as wives.

This was happening while I was watching Daria, going to high school, listening to the latest Korn album, and watching Shakespeare in Love. I didn’t know.

So many people believed Kim Il-sung when he said they had “nothing to envy” that even as North Koreans would walk around the bodies of people starved to death in the streets, only 923 North Koreans total had defected up to 1998. Demick compares this number to the 21,000 East Germans who defected west every year when the Berlin Wall was still erected. When Demick makes such comparisons to other dictatorships and countries, she really brings to life how frozen in time North Korea is.

The most interesting part of the book to me happened near the end. Though the people Demick interviewed suffered greatly in North Korea, they all explained how they were waiting impatiently for the regime to collapse, the 38th parallel to simply be a latitudinal line on a map. They want to return to North Korea and help people by going back to their jobs as teacher, doctor, and engineer. It’s 2019, and that hasn’t happened.

Nothing to Envy helped me understand global politics much more, and I highly recommend it to everyone. Dictatorships can happen anywhere.

Odd Fact: After Kim Il-sung died (known as “The Father” and “the first supreme leader”), his son Kim Jong-il took over. Kim Jong-il died suddenly in 2011, which meant that his oldest son was to take over as leader. However, that oldest son was caught trying to go to Disneyland in Japan — a sworn enemy of North Korea for colonizing them — and Kim Jong-un, at thirty years old, took over. His first step was to make North Korea seem fun, building water parks while citizens starved to death.

19 comments

    • I hope you read it, Karen. It’s an important book now, despite where you live. I know the U.S. is connected to North Korea a lot in the news because Trump keeps going over there or talking about going over there, but the human rights violations and method for suppression can manifest anywhere.

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  1. Excellent and informative review about what’s really happening in other parts of the world. It’s shocking to believe but see in a work like this some of the terrible things that still happen in the WORLD and that we should not be ignorant about such things. I’ll have to look this one up.

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    • Though the book was published in 2009, the last chapter is a 2015 update. I wonder if the author will update the book again some day and include Donald Trump meeting with Kim Jong-un. This current situation will easily be a book of its own, but that still wouldn’t include the stories of North Korean citizens like Demick did. They are the important ones to keep in mind.

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  2. Anything about North Korea is fascinating to me. Such a different place from what I consider “normal.” Thanks for including the maps, too, as it helps to understand the history that much more. I’m definitely going to have to read this one.

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    • It’s compelling, too. I have little page deadlines I set myself, and I always wanted to read past the goal when I had this book in my hands. Even though Demick includes five individuals and their families to shape the narrative, each person is easy to tell apart, suggesting to me that Demick really considered their humanity and individuality before her desire to write a book.

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  3. Sounds like a really well-researched book, I can see why you would read it. I think it’s so important to read books like this about other places, it makes one so grateful for what we have, plus it’s a good prompt for people to try to make a difference in the lives of others in the international community. I just finished reading a book about Russia and my god, this type of rule is terrifying!

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  4. This sounds absolutely fascinating! I’ve got a few other North Korea nonfiction books on my list to read as well, and I’m definitely adding this one to the list. Most of the books set in Korea that I’ve read have been set in South Korea, and they’ve all been historical fiction books – none of have been nonfiction reads. I’ve read nothing set in North Korea, but I’ve always been fascinated by the memoirs I see around. You make an excellent point about what you were doing in high school vs what was happening in North Korea at the time. Very sobering.

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    • Hey, I’m glad that you got a chance to read it too. I like that a journalist wrote about this subject. As much as I love and appreciate memoirs, sometimes you need a writer who can step back and be objective as much as possible.

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