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It's Grim Up North
Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea - Barbara Demick
Member Name: koshkha
Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea - Barbara Demick
Advantages: Fascinating and educational
Disadvantages: There are quite possibly people who LOVE living in North Korea but this book won't find them
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.
Summary: This book taught me more about North Korea than I could ever have hoped to learn
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