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

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North KoreaEver since my best friend told me about the blog Kim Jong-il Looking at Things, I’ve been wanting to learn more about communist dictator Kim Jong-il and his father and predecessor, Kim Il-sung. I knew the basics of life in communist North Korea: no internet access, not much food, no television or radio beyond the government stations, and absolutely no criticizing the Dear Leader. But I didn’t know much about Korean history, or about the particulars of everyday life there.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is written by Barbara Demick, the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. Here’s an excerpt about her from the book’s website:

Barbara Demick has been interviewing North Koreans about their lives since 2001, when she moved to Seoul for the Los Angeles Times. Her reporting on North Korea won the Overseas Press Club award for human rights reporting, the Asia Society’s Osborne Eliott award and the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Award.

Demick tells the stories of six North Koreans — from “normal” life under Kim Il-sung, to life during the famine of 1994-1998, to their eventual defection to South Korea — with great care and respect.

Mural: Kim Il-Sung with the North Korean people
Mural: Kim Il-Sung with the North Korean people (via

What struck me throughout the book was how incredibly strict and regulated pre-famine life in North Korea was — yet the North Koreans believed they were living fortunate lives of plenty. They were completely indoctrinated by Kim il-Sung’s propaganda; they believed that every good thing they had in life came from their Dear Leader. In fact, he was more than a leader — he was like a god to them.

Broadcasters would speak of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il breathlessly, in the manner of Pentecostal preachers.  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. (45)

So when their government failed to provide food, and thousands starved to death, homeless on the streets after selling all of their possessions to buy food that was becoming increasingly unavailable, it was a betrayal of the worst sort.

This book is the story of a young teacher who lost 35 of her kindergarten students to the famine. It’s the story of a university student who watched South Korean television in secret in his apartment at night, terrified of being overheard. It’s the story of the doctor who worked countless hours with little or no pay, broken-hearted at being unable to help her starving patients. It’s the story of a wife and mother with unwavering faith in the regime, whose husband and son starved to death. It’s the story of a young man sent to a labor camp for crossing the Tumen River into China.

Young boy in North Korean hospital (via

After Kim il-Sung’s death, life in North Korea becomes unbearable. (His death conveniently preceded the famine, leaving his reputation relatively “untarnished.”) There is no food, no electricity, no freedom to speak, move about, or make decisions for oneself.

Eventually, each of Demick’s interviewees makes a daring, life-threatening escape, crossing the border  to China in the dead of night and afterward making their way to South Korea to begin new lives. Some of them leave sisters and daughters behind who are captured and either executed or sent to labor camps as punishment for having family members who defected.

Nothing to Envy is a captivating and enlightening book. It tells the kinds of stories that we don’t hear in the news. It brings to light the details that the regime tries so hard to hide. I won’t quickly forget the stories of the courageous North Koreans who risked everything to start a life in the free world.

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.
A well-known North Korean song. (119)

Rating: 10/10


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