Nothing to Envy

Barbara Demick, North Korea, South Korea, Communism, Propaganda, Famine, Death, Labor Camps

I have officially entered the realm of non-fiction reading and I’m not sure I want to leave it. I never thought I’d hear myself say that, but after finishing my recent book, I can honestly say that non-fiction is a great genre. First, I must give credit to my friend, Lauren, for recommending it to me. She never misses the mark when it comes to good books. In fact, our friendship was formed from a fated gathering of gals at a book club. So when she says I should pick up a book that she couldn’t put down, I pick it up right away.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick (who worked as a reporter in South Korea), is the story of North Korea as told through the eyes of those who defected to South Korea. The title itself, Nothing to Envy, is taken from a propaganda song that the children learn at a young age. The stories of the defectors were essential to the creation of this novel, because it is virtually impossible to get into the “real” North Korea.

As she explains it, tourist visas are extremely difficult to come by, and when granted, you can only get to Pyongyang, the country’s capital. In Pyongyang, the government has produced a setting that gives the appearance of industry and unity. However, this is a front, given that the rest of the country lives in darkness and famine. Demick focused on six lives of defectors that came from Chongjin, a city in the northern area of North Korea: a young girl and her secret teenage love, a homeless boy with no family, a female doctor, a mother who lives strictly by the regime and loves her government/country, and her daughter.

As I devoured these stories, page by page, I realized I know little about North Korea. I wouldn’t call it lack of education or cultural sheltering – North Korea has purposefully made it impossible for the outside world to gain access. Demick grabs you almost immediately by providing a satellite image of North and South Korea at night on the very first page of the first chapter. South Korea is lit up like a Christmas tree, evidence of its vibrant economy; North Korea is completely black.

It is just downhill from there as far as the quality of life for North Koreans. I can’t even begin to describe the communist regime in any way close to how Nothing to Envy portrays it – they are truly living a modern age 1984. Famine, labor camps, execution, desperation – all in the name of Kim Il-sung and then Kim Jong-Il. Imagine that you work hard every day, earn no pay check, report to food distribution centers to fill your pantry, go to classes that work to educate you on the wonders of your country and its leaders, use little to no technology, wear clothing provided to you by the government, and the list goes on and on. Then one day, the food stops coming, the electricity is turned off for most, if not all of the day, and eventually the only way to survive is to pick through fields that have little to no vegetation.

The saddest part is that for years, thanks to propaganda, most of the North Koreans believed they were part of the greatest country on Earth – that their leaders were taking care of them, that there was nothing better in the world, that there was “nothing to envy.” They praised the name of their leaders, looked at them as if they were Gods, and struck down those that didn’t believe the same. Your neighbor could be a spy, living to find out who feels negatively toward their country, and then providing the information to the government so that those citizens can be properly punished. You cannot speak against your situation, lest you be found out and sent to a labor camp, or worse, executed. This is all just a tiny glimpse of the grim reality that Demick covers.

One of the most interesting things I learned from this book is the policy of the South Koreans. If a North Korean citizen can escape on their own accord – to China, Mongolia, etc. – and get to South Korea, they are immediately given citizenship. The South Korean government still sees the entire nation of Korea as theirs. However, a defector cannot simply walk into the South Korean embassy in China to get help; in those cases, they are most likely sent back to North Korea. They must make it to South Korea in their own.

Once safely in South Korea, the government sets up the defectors at an institute for three months where they learn to acclimate – they learn how to use cell phones, order food at a food court, shop for clothes, etc. Once they pass the course, they are given a huge chunk of money to get started on their own. The way people live in the two countries is so vastly different, that it would be like transporting yourself from a life lived centuries ago to the present day.

All of this being said, I can only recommend that you pick up this novel. Nothing to Envy is a history lesson, but reads like a fast-paced thriller; I couldn’t put it down. I could never do justice to the amount of information you learn nor the unique and moving stories of the individuals brave enough to share their hardships. Venture into the world of non-fiction like I did…you won’t be disappointed.

Categories: Book Club | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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5 thoughts on “Nothing to Envy

  1. Patty

    Your book reviews never disappoint!

  2. I love you description of this book. Having never read it and feeling equally iffy on non-fiction books, the plot line you described really pulled at me. I will most definitely be picking up this book!

  3. jennreeves

    Emily – congrats on the beautiful engagement and on your welcome back post (which I also read! I’ve missed your posts!) I’ve told you before how much I love this blog, but I haven’t told you how many coworkers I’ve gotten addicted to it. 🙂 I use your writings as reference for anyone I know even considering a trip to Europe, and for book reviews.

    Which brings me to this comment. I read your review of “Nothing to Envy” and went on a hunt for it immediately. Thank you for opening my eyes to it! I have now shared the book with three friends (and your post with many more!) and reference it often in conversation. Your shock at the conditions in North Korea matches mine, and I agree that it’s not an education failure. If nothing else, we can help to educate. Just wanted you to know that I think you have made a difference, and I look forward to many more of your blogs!

    ❤ Jennuh

  4. Hey Jenn!

    Wow, thank you so much for sharing all of this with me. You know, sometimes (the last couple of months I guess you could say), I forget why I write this blog. So thanks for reminding me of why I do! I’m so glad you and your coworkers love it!

    As for the book, I’m not surprised you liked it and I’m glad I recommended it! Matt says I read too many “teenage novels” (his love for science fiction and fantasy need to be worked on), but when I hear of a good book, I’ll give it a try – and this one was truly astounding.

    I hope all is going well and that my 2013 posts don’t disappoint! Thanks Jenn!

    • Merlinda

      Ohhh fine, I’m convinced. This will possibly be only my 4th or so non-fiction read in life, but here we go!

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