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Having heard plenty of things about North Korea through the news focusing on the leader of the country and their war based rhetoric delivering constant criticism of the western world but very little is known about this countries people and what they must go through on a daily basis.
This book sees Barbara Demick, having done extensive interviewing and investigation, deliver a look at the lives of 6 residents of Chongin (the third largest city in North Korea) as we see them trying to survive life in North Korea and its totalitarian regime. The book is done in a style that enables for this to flow much like a novel would which means that although it is full of facts it is something which can be read by people not normally a fan of biography style books.
For me this was a really interesting book as it showed how bad things are and have been in North Korea but also manages to touch on the real lives of the people we know so little about. The fact that these people have managed to get out of North Korea is a huge accomplishment and something that they truly needed to do in order to survive as there is not only the lack of food to be worried about but also the military who are happy to make people disappear and as a country where you obey rather than question you are not going to ask where your neighbors have gone and due to this it is very difficult for people to be able to make anything approaching a meaningful relationship.
Overall a great book which touches on the lives of the people and sees how much struggle there is in North Korea but also allows you to see how they managed to overcome and have some nice memories of their lives in the North which is hard to imagine. The style of writing is really good and enables for a great flow that makes this an easy book to read which means it is not something that is set aside as one for a certain type of reader as I truly feel anyone could read this and take something away from it.
I'm very interested in East Asian culture, especially that of Japan and, more recently, South Korea. However, while South Korea is very much a modern country by Western standards, being an economic powerhouse home to recognizable electronic brands and an increasingly popular music scene, to the north of the border is a nation that is very much George Orwell's '1984' come ture.
The "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" (AKA North Korea) is a country cut off from most of the world, where films and literature that many would consider orthodox are banned or censored and everything is controlled in the name of the 'Glorious Leader'. North Korea regularly pops up in the news with reports of its nuclear testing and threats of war against the USA and South Korea, but it wasn't until I read articles and listened to a couple of interviews from North Korean escapees that I realised how the normal citizens of this nation live. I started looking at books on North Korea and came across 'Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea'. This book has been very well-received critically and, judging by its many 5-star Amazon reviews, seemed accessible enough to the non-historian like myself, so I soon snapped up a paperback version as part of a deal from Waterstones.
==---About the Book---==
'Nothing to Envy' is written by Barbara Demick, an American journalist for the Los Angeles Times who was formerly based in Seoul. During her tenure in South Korea, Demick interviewed several North Korean defectors about their life in North Korea and how they managed to leave the country have since managed to adjust to South Korean life. 'Nothing to Envy' focuses on the lives of six North Korean defectors Demick interviewed from Chongjin, one of the country's largest cities but still inaccessible to foreign tourists (Pyeongyang, the capital, is the only place open, which means that the city is presented to give foreigners a good but false impression). Rather than dedicating a chapter to each person, the book instead hops from one person's perspective to another over the course of North Korea's history, from the country's first decades of prosperity to the famine that devastated the country in the early nineties, to Kim Jung-Il's rise to power. I felt this was a great way of showing how their lives changed and what events caused these people to try and escape, instead of repeating the same timelines for each person over and over again.
The six North Koreans interviewed are of varying backgrounds, including a doctor, a secretly dating couple (consisting of a well-off academic and a "tainted" elementary schoolteacher), an orphan, and a woman who started off as a staunch believer in the Communist regime. In fact that last person- an initially well-off and proud woman named Mrs. Song- proved one of the more interesting accounts to read, because she so earnestly believed in Communism and Kim-Il Sung that learning how she endured the years of famine and the toll it look on her family and livelihood is very sad to read.
Whilst snippets of the interviewee's dialogues are included in the book, most of the content is Demick's own engaging storytelling, explaining the various predicaments of the North Koreans as time goes on. We learn how each person endured the horrific famine in the 90s, and their interpretations of the regime imposed upon the citizens. Most North Koreans were not allowed to say anything bad about the regime or their leader out loud, should they risk being reported by a spy and sent to prison or, in less austere times, executed. It's worth nothing that most characters don't think anything bad of the regime at first; most grew up believing that North Korea was one of the best places to live in the world whereas Japan, the USA and South Korea (deemed as "America's lapdogs") were outright "evil", and if you cannot learn anything about these countries in comparison to your own, you would indeed think that you were lucky! It seems to be the famine of the 90s, and the economic meltdown that followed, that led to a change in views. The chapters based around this period were some of the hardest to read, as Demick explains how children died as they begged for food which nobody could afford to give them when they were so hungry themselves. One of the escapees, Mi-ran (the elementary schoolteacher mentioned above), noted how fewer children came to school every morning as they slowly died at home, and those present struggled to pay attention to the lessons that gave praise to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il for their "prosperity".
Towards the end of the book we begin learning how the North Koreans made their escape out of the country, mainly by escaping to China and then taking a flight to South Korea where they were offered asylum and freedom. Yet even after escaping not all the stories take a happy ending. Some find that fitting into the modern world is very difficult, and as such integration programmes are set up to help them begin their lives anew. It just goes to show that a lifestyle that we take for granted would prove difficult for North Korean citizens nowadays to comprehend.
Although this book was published in 2009 and there have been some changes in North Korea since then (the death of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un's succession), it seems amazing that this country's regime is still going strong while other, larger Communist countries fell and changed their political ideologies entirely. 'Nothing to Envy' is a true reminder of what the lives of everyday citizens are like in an isolated country where little seems to change even when the rest of the world does. If you are interested in North Korea then this book is an excellent starting point as it presents some harrowing accounts of normal people and their attitudes towards the regime. I will admit that it might not be the best book for historians as there is only a tiny bit of focus on the Korean War and how Kim Il-sung came to power, which I did want to know more about. Nevertheless, the accounts of these individuals feel very real and made me only hope that things get better for those who aren't as lucky enough to escape North Korea.
You can find 'Nothing to Envy' on Amazon for £4.63 (Kindle)/£6.99 (paperback) brand new.
This book follows several North Korean defector's physical and emotional journey. Nothing To Envy covers more than 15 years of each defector's lives. 15 years is a long time, ad in these years, the North Koreans saw their Great Leader, Kim Il-sung die, his son Kim Jong-il take his place, and a famine that wiped out around 1/5th of the population. This book is probably one of the best ones I've read so far, and I think it is because of the way the author captured the voice of each person.
There are many themes in this book, the most profound one being realization. In this book, each North Korean have at some point realized that their country was dirt poor, and that their Great Leader was not that great at all. For Dr. Kim, a nurse who worked a local North Korean Hospitable, realization hit when she first defected into China and saw a dog eat a full bowl of white rice and meat. She was hit with the fact that dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea. For a North Korean Solider, it was going out to sea and accidently picking up a South Korean radio wave. The radio board cast was complaining about not having enough space to park their cars. The North Korean Solider could not imagine having so many cars there would be no space to park, after all, in North Korea; nobody had their own private vehicles.
I think the most interesting part about this book would be the part that was focused on the great famine. During this famine, dogs were hunted to extinction. I live in a neighborhood with hundreds of dogs, and I cannot imagine a place with no dogs. In fact, North Korea did not have any animals left at all. Even the frogs were hunted to near extinction. But amidst all the famine, a new era was slowly coming up. It was the black market era. Hundreds of black markets were seen popping up all over North Korea, and by black market, I mean markets like the ones we have in Shanghai. In North Korea, you are not allowed to sell anything, so what we considered normal was what they considered a "black market". Barbara Demick writes about how even the most sincere believers slowly began to let go of their values and adapt into this new situation. After all, as she put it "The good die first."
Another interesting part of this book was how the North Koreans viewed their Great Leader. Most of them truly believed that they had nothing to envy in the entire world, that their beautiful Fatherland was the best in the world, and that all the countries around them were just as poor or poorer than they were. When Kim Il-sung died, their sorrow was not feigned for the first few days. After all, he was not only their leader, he was also their God. Hundreds and thousands of North Koreans went to visit the memorial sites, not only because they offered sticky rice cakes, but because they truly loved him. You many think them as gullible, as stupid, but they have been told that he was their Great Marshall, and that their country was the best since they've been born. IF you were in their place, won't you feel that way too?
In conclusion, this book as The Philadelphia Inquirer says it: "At times a page-turner, at others an intimate study of totalitarian psychology." There is no other way to describe this deeply moving book. I honestly hope you read it and enjoy it as much as I did.
"Nothing to Envy" by Barbara Demick is a collection of personal true life stories about lives in North Korea. Before reading this book, I knew little about the nation, apart from the fact it was ruled by a dictator.
This book really opened my eyes to things going on in this forbidding nation. The harsh economical realities of being a nation relying on external support are explored in this book with personal accounts from North Koreans.
The stories are a collection of personal accounts from people the author has encountered in her research on the country. These tell stories of lives in North Korea including very romantic love stories affected by social standing and laws of the country.
--Personal opinion of the book--
It was a page turner, I really couldn't put this book down. I was recommended it by my other half for an insight into North Korea. I found out so much new information about the country, including how false the displays in Pyongyang are for Westerners visiting the country and how many people risked their lives to take themselves and their families across the border to China and the extent of the famine in the country, with people eating everything they could, even resorting to cooking sticks and dirt.
The story turns to that of a lady, whose family is dying about her of starvation and of prosecution for civil unrest. It tells of the rise of the black market produce and how people made and sold things on illegal markets to feed their families.
A beautiful love story tells of a couple who are in different social classes, one has to go away to a military school in Pyongyang and one who works as a school teacher in the countryside watching her pupils gradually starving to death unable to do anything.
The struggle is encapsulated by the storytelling of the desperate measures people took to hear news from the outside world, including listening to an illegal radio turned down incredibly low under cover of darkness in order to get some news from China.
The story gives a real insight into life in North Korea, that shadowy nation including all the details of propaganda inspiring passion for the leaders and the lies believed by the nation as to the greatness of their country and the masked famine problems.
It really explains how the nation has got away with its policies so far, and suggests varying opinions on the leadership from first hand experiences.
What stands out about this book is the personal accounts. It is incredibly difficult to find people who are willing to talk about their country due to the nature of the oppressive regime, it is dangerous to talk, especially for those with families left behind. The author did a great deal of research around her topic which made the book fantastic.
--Where to buy and price--
I think ours cost about a tenner for a large paperback copy. You can get it from Waterstones and Amazon. I have just discovered you can get a copy from eBay for £2.45! Someone buy that copy quick!
It was worth every penny (had I bought it, it belongs to my boyfriend but I think he felt the same way :))
There is also a website at nothingtoenvy.com for those interested.
Read this book!! It was absolutely brilliant and kept me hooked from start to end.
Imagine a land where everyone has been brainwashed into believing that there's no better place to live, no place where the leader loves his people more or looks after them better. Imagine growing up with a sense that your land is beleaguered by hostile neighbours and evil enemy influences, all of them jealous of you because your land is so clearly the best place on earth for any lucky person to live. Imagine a land where there are no shops because there's no need to buy anything because the benevolent state will supply all your needs - but also make sure that you know nothing of the possessions and services open to people in other countries. If you can afford a television or radio it will be programmed to offer only the local stations so that your imagination and your experience is controlled by the lack of access to information.
Welcome to the state of North Korea - their past, present, and - God help every one of them - probably their future.
~Truth is Stranger than Fiction~
The author mentions that she spoke to a North Korean who asked her how it could be possible that George Orwell had written about his country even before the Kim-family had turned it into their very own version of his book '1984'. When you read 'Nothing to Envy', you can't help but see the parallels.
Buying non-fiction is always a bit risky. Some of the most memorable books I've ever read have been about the lives of real people whilst some of the worst have also been about the lives of real people. It's not always the case that an interesting place or time or even an interesting person guarantees a great book but undoubtedly in the case of 'Nothing to Envy' by American journalist Barbara Demick, the tales of ordinary people in an extraordinary country have been collected and delivered in a compelling and fascinating examination of life in one of the most repressive regimes in the world.
I might well have not noticed the book in a small bookshop if it hadn't been for the death of Kim Jong-il just before Christmas. It made me realise - with some shame - that I knew the square root of bugger-all about North Korea. Watching the mass mourning of uniform-clad North Koreans, blubbing like they were having a 'who can cry most impressively' competition, I wondered how much of it was due to sadness and how much to fear of not being seen to be energetic enough in their mourning. Were they truly upset or just well trained to do what would be seen as 'the right thing'? 'Nothing To Envy' was my attempt to fill the embarrassing gaps in my knowledge of another 'axis of evil' country.
Demick interviewed North Koreans whom she met in South Korea because it's not possible for outsiders - especially evil Americans - to speak openly with local people in the North. A journalist in North Korea will be accompanied by not one but two security agents - each is there to keep an eye on the visitor and to make sure that his colleague doesn't say anything he shouldn't or accept any bribes. Like the East German regime with their Stasi and network of informers, nobody in North Korea trusts their friends, neighbours and even their family. Secrecy means survival when you don't know who might be an informer.
Keeping in mind that her interviews are with quite literally 'the ones who got away', we could very easily have been fed a biased picture of their lives before they fled the country but Demick has selected an interesting mix of people who offer contrasting views of their life in the North. Some of them were very committed to life in the North and had to be practically 'tricked' out of the country, they strove to excel and win favour with the Workers Party, volunteering for extra work to demonstrate their commitment. Others couldn't wait to escape the poverty and hunger of their homeland. We learn that despite the egalitarian claims of the leadership, North Koreans are far from 'equal' with the Kim family creating their own form of class or caste, with 'tainted blood' in one generation preventing the next few generations from advancing in society. The people we meet in the book are from a mix of backgrounds and statuses within Korean society - from the daughter of a captured South Korean who was considered to be in the lowest sector of society, to the son of a well off Korean family who chose to leave Japan and move back to their emotional and ethnic homeland. There's a woman who's the pillar of her local community and her factory, a young doctor who works long hours in the hope that her boss will put in a good word for her with the party and a young orphaned scavenger who lived on the streets. There's little these people have in common except for their defection.
~The Dark Ages~
There's an interesting photograph at the beginning of the book which shows us the contrast between North and South Korea. It's in black and white - but that's OK because it's a satellite photo taken at night time. There's a line across the photo beneath which all is light and bright. Above the line is almost total darkness. The line follows the border between North and South Korea. North of the line 23 million people are literally and metaphorically sitting in the dark.
Things were not always awful. In the immediate aftermath of the Korean war the North was more successful than the South and the 'nothing to envy' claims were perhaps not so ludicrous as they seem six decades later. But everything went wrong, with Kim-Il Sung convincing everyone that he knew everything about everything, he trotted around the country telling people how to run the farms and the factories despite knowing nothing more than the man in the street. Over time North Korean factories and homes started to have power cuts, then as time passed there was more time without power than with. The factories had to shut because there was no power to work the machines. The farms couldn't make enough food and gradually the population started to starve. Demick says that roughly 10% of the population died of starvation. Her interviewees all came from the city of Chongjin close to the Russian border and about as far as it's possible to be from the capital where it's estimated that one in five of the population died in the prolonged famines. As devoted Kim-loving citizens watched their children and parents die, as they went hungry day after day, getting up early to pick grass and look for weeds to eat, or ground up wood pulp to add to what little food they had, it became harder and harder to keep believing that they lived in the best of all possible worlds. Especially when their leader was investing in the technology to develop nuclear weapons.
~A real page turner~
Demick offers us an introduction to six very different people and tells us of how they came to flee their homeland. Unlike many writers who would be tempted to divide the book equally and run six stories in rotation, she chooses instead to start with just one couple, then introduce the next character, eventually bringing in some of the others quite near to the end. I found this a much more effective way to present a multi-character story since we get plenty of time to get to know each character before the next is introduced.
We learn also that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the razor wired demilitarised zone. Escape is not the end of the story for these people but just the beginning of the next chapter. Demick tells us that many of the defectors are not entirely comfortable in their adopted homeland of South Korea. By self-selection she suggests that the people who leave are the ones who refuse to fit in and are likely to struggle to fit in when they get to the South. Some are the victims of the sort of prejudice that East Germans saw in the west after reunification - treated as somehow more primitive, less sophisticated, teased and looked down upon. Due to many years of malnutrition, the northerners are on average much shorter than the southerners, their physical differences marking them out as not like their new countrymen. Others adapt quickly, get a fashionable wardrobe, get their hair cut in a trendy style and leave their past behind.
'Nothing to Envy' took me from totally ignorant to pretty well informed in the space of 316 pages. I would recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about North Korea but doesn't want to have to plough through a dull, dry academic tome. This is a real page turner and you'll find you care deeply about what happens to the people Demick tells us about.
North Korea is a country that everyone has heard of but yet very few are familiar with. The reason for this is that very little is revealed to the outside world and even less of the outside world is allowed to be seen in North Korea. This is the reason for the title of the book: Nothing to Envy. This is a phrase used within the country to suggest that lifestyle is as good as anywhere else and with the closed borders and propaganda heavy media the general population may never have reason to dispute this.
Barbara Demmick was a journalist for the Los Angeles Times whose limited time in North Korea consisted of typically state orchestrated trips. Foreigners in the country are a rarity and they tend to be given tours by 2 minders that show carefully selected sites and that do not allow interaction with the locals. There is even talk of people being moved off the streets to maintain or create an image of an idyllic country. This extreme act led the author to use a more novel way of creating the back-drop to her story. Her method was to befriend 6 former residents of North Korea who had defected to South Korea and to listen to their stories. All were from a City called Chongjin, the 3rd largest in the country and hundreds of miles away from the capital Pyongyang. This selection consists of a teacher, an academic, a doctor, an advocate of the countries regime, a communist and a boy who was orphaned at a young age.
These remarkable tales tell of love in the ultra conservative society and how a young couple had to sneak around in the dark and how daring it was for them even to hold hands. It also tells of a terrible famine in which lack of nutrition meant that the average 18 year old male was something like 4 foot 10 inches tall.
We learn of a society in which people are brainwashed into such support of the regime that they will spy on and turn in family members that they suspect may be against it. The internet is not freely available to maintain the denial of the rest of the world and the country has human rights records that are among the worst on the planet.
Almost all industry within the country is state owned and the dynastic Kim family provide the leadership. The 'Cult of Personality' is such that they are almost revered as Gods and the mass, though orchestrated, mourning which greeted the recent death of Kim Jong-Il was evidence both of this reverence and also the need to conform and to cry loudest etc in order not to be seen as a traitor.
Demmick's writing is first class and the ability to tell a humanitarian story amongst the facts really shines through. It is difficult to imagine a better book to describe the effect of the totalitarian Government in what is officially and laughable called the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Think George Orwell's 1984 and you get the picture. Unfortunately though, this is for real.
*This review is my own although I may post it elsewhere.
This book not only gives you the daily life perspective of the people of North Korea, but puts the harshness of life into perspective, with great insight into the history, politics and Korean culture. The author tells the stories of several people from all strands of the North Korean social classes, with each story more harrowing than the last. Set in an industrial town far from Pyongyang, we witness a city and a life almost unseen by foreign eyes.
The writer describes how the oppressive regime infects every aspect of daily life, with most of her 'characters' defecting into China or South Korea. The writing is captivating, and after a while its easy to find yourself feeling bonded with the characters, which made me unable to put this book down! It would be interesting both to those who already have a great interest in the region, but those who have no knowledge would find this book both informative and entertaining. A thoroughly impressive book and the best book I have read on North Korea.
Every month I read a book which I would be unlikely to choose myself. Why, you ask? For my reading group. We all take turns making suggestions, and while you can see patterns in what some of us suggest, occasionally there is a book which knocks me sideways out of surprise. Nothing to Envy is one of those books.
Written by journalist Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea is a collection of true stories about life in the country under the regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, told by defectors who have left North Korea. Demick opens by discussing what we know of the country, which is really very little - it is in her introduction that she mentions the fact that North Korea is a "black hole" on satellite photos of Asia at night, a fact which I hadn't realised and which captivated me. What could life be like in a country like that, a country which we know so little about except that it is "closed"?
Difficult, tense and horrific are the easiest answers. Prior to the famine in the 1990s, life for the average North Korean was difficult and worrisome, but they were fed, clothed and housed by the Communist government. There was the constant worry that someone in the family might say the wrong thing against the party or the leader, leading to the whole family being taken off to a labour camp. There was also the problem of social status, which could not be changed and was determined by a family's history - one of our protagonists, Mi-ran, has a low status due to her father having been a South Korean POW who was eventually allowed to live normally in North Korea. Mi-ran cannot hope to raise her status.
However, the famine brought widespread death and disease, as well as a change in the ways things were done - people defied the rules and set up markets, sold their homes and possessions, just in order to feed themselves. An escape trade opened up over the border to China, with many trying to leave - although some went back and forth over the border to make money or buy food. There was no food to be had in North Korea, and the people had to resort to picking grass and weeds to survive. Needless to say, this led to malnutrition, and a generation of North Koreans have stunted growth and poor health. It is telling that another protagonist, Dr Kim, had her wake-up call just over the border in China: she saw a dog's food bowl filled with rice and vegetables, better food than she had eaten for a long time.
There really is only one way to describe Nothing to Envy: eye-opening. After the Korean War, North Korea was more advanced than South Korea, but the situation is reversed now. The North Koreans who defect to South Korea struggle to acclimatise, they have no concept of almost everything which is part of daily life there. To read about what these people have been put through by their leaders is painful. North Korea has the fourth largest army in the world, and a nuclear weapon programme, yet its people lack the most basic of human needs. We read about North Korea and Kim Jong-il in the news, with the country portrayed as somewhat of a villain on the world stage, but we don't hear about the people of the country - and so perhaps we don't consider what their lives may be like under such a ruler. Demick has done more than consider it - she has found out, and written the stories down so that more of us can be aware.
There is a noticeable journalistic style to Nothing to Envy, which is to be expected given Demick's background, yet for a journalist she is very good at getting inside the characters of those she writes about. You can feel a connection with many, if not all, of those she has interviewed in order to write this book.
It is hard to sum up my feelings about this book. I am glad I read it, but I don't think I would say that I enjoyed it - it is not a book which you can truly enjoy, given its subject matter. I do feel that my eyes have been opened, and I feel somewhat shell-shocked by what I have learnt. Demick has written a hard yet necessary book with Nothing to Envy, and it is one which needs to be read.
This review is also available on www.curiousbookfans.co.uk
Before reading this book, i had, rather embarrassingly, no real knowledge on the topic of Korea. I work in a bookstore and as soon as i saw this title i knew that it would be well worth a read. Never before had i seen an attempt to delve into the world of North Korea with first class, solid journalism at its heart. From the onset i became hooked and after completely devouring this book, i can honestly say that it is an outstanding, masterfully written text that deserves to be read by many.
American journalist Barbara Demick takes us on a journey of North Korea, using six citizens and their stories to unfold the sinister and alarming goings on within this repressive state. Demick wastes no time in showing the stark differences between North Korea and its surrounding civilized and somewhat more liberated countries. The first thing we see when opening the book is a satellite photo of North and South Korea by night. We are soon informed that the area of darkness is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. This shocking start to the book ensures complete captivation, as a whole can of worms is opened up before us. Why is North Korea plunged into darkness? Why is it so far removed from its neighbouring countries? and who is responsible for this? All of these questions and plenty more, are raised and answered in Demick's terrific account of her time spent interviewing the defectors.
From the cult like following of oppressor Kim Il-Sung, to the warm and tender relationships of the Korean people, Demick succeeds in showing a balanced and fairly non-biased view of North Korea and one which focuses just as much on the intelligence, devotion and love that its citizens share as on the oppressed and stagnant development of the state.