on 15 July 2010
Once I started reading 'Nothing to Envy' I couldn't put it down. I've read several books on North Korea but this is probably the broadest and most human book I have read. It gives us fascinating insights into all of the strangest and cruellest aspects of the regime: the gulags, the cult of personality, the military, the class structure, the difficulties in integrating into a different country and an extremely disturbing and heartbreaking account of the famine. The stories come from a collection of 6 different North Koreans who eventually fled and defected to South Korea; amongst them are two young lovers - one an academic and one an elementary school teacher; a doctor; an orphaned boy; and a faithful communist and seemingly unwavering "believer" in the regime. One of the more interesting angles in the book are that all of the characters live and work in the North Eastern city of Chongjin (North Korea's 3rd largest city) which gives us a greater insight into the "real" North Korea that exists outside the show capital of Pyongyang. I'd definitely recommend this book to anybody interested in North Korea and it would also be a great starting point for those who don't know too much about the regime but are interested to learn as it is very broad and covers many aspects of what it is like for North Koreans. And to top it all of Barbara Demick's writing is beautiful - there are many memorable lines and images that she creates.
on 28 April 2010
I cannot recommend this book enough. Not only is Barbara Demick's prose an engaging style, but the subject-matter is compelling. To coin a cliche, it paints a highly evocative picture of everyone in North Korea enduring a lifestyle like that of the proles in 1984, while subject to a level of control over their lives more akin to that of the members of the Outer Party. In this, North Korea is worse than 1984, for the slogan 'Proles and Animals are free' doesn't apply in North Korea - NO-ONE is free.
If there is any criticism, it is merely that although it was written in 2009, it relates to the events of the 1990s. Screaming away in my mind was a voice asking 'what's it been like since?'
on 4 April 2011
I bought this book after reading an article on BBC News on how it had won an award. I became interested in North Korea when I decided to write my A Level History coursework on the totalitarian regime there, but ultimately gave up and switched to Germany due to just how difficult it is finding information on this secretive country - a country where foriegners are only allowed to visit the capital, Pyongyang, accompanied by two minders to make sure they don't see anything the state doesn't want them to see. A country where most ordinary citizens are not even allowed to visit their own capital, with only party members or promising academics allowed to live there.
This book not only offers an insight into the real lives of six North Koreans, and puts human names and faces on the statistics, but taught me several things I didn't even know. I knew there had been a famine in North Korea in the 90s, but I did not know how severe it actually was. This is possibly due in part to my age - I was born in '89, so I was too young to pay attention to any news broadcasts about it we may have had at the time. I didn't know that people were reduced to eating husks and the bark off of trees, with grass to create the illusion of vegetables. I didn't know that North Korea ended up losing most aid that was given, as it would only show the healthiest children when aid agencies came to see the extent of the famine, who then had to conclude they didn't need as much aid as they thought, and that the aid they did get was mostly confiscated by the military and sold for profit on the black market instead of being properly distributed.
I didn't know that it was so bad teachers would watch their students starve while eating their own lunches down to the last kernal of corn - it may be difficult to grasp for us, how they would not share their food with starving children - but they had to switch off, to stop themselves caring - "it was either that or go insane." I didn't know that it became commonplace to walk around bodies in the street, or that doctors were expected to donate their own skin to give skin grafts to patients.
I didn't know that the country has virtually no electricity - a satellite photo at the start of the book shows South Korea blazing with light, and to the north, just a black expanse, except for one small glow that is Pyongyang, the only place that has electricity around the clock.
I didn't know that people were executed for stealing copper wire from electricty pylons to swap for food.
North Korea is a country that still has Gulag style prison camps, secret police, and public executions. It encourages it's citizens to tell people in authority if they suspect their neighbours have been criticising the regime - similar to Nazi Germany. Each neighbourhood has an imimban (kind of like a community leader), whose job it is to report even the slightest thing to a party official. Newspapers even print stories about "heroic" children who reported their own parents. It is a country that starts brainwashing it's citizens from birth, and children sing songs in school about how they will "kill the American bastards".
It's a fantastic, and yet horrifying, book, and is a great insight into North Korea.
on 1 April 2010
Reading this book hot on the heals of my trip to North Korea really brought a personal perspective to a country I have observed through the prism of the media, and the rather unfiltered trip I recently experienced.
Having met Barbara Demick at the literary event where I purchased this book I was able to sample a rather intriguing appetizer of what was to come, however neither the discussion, nor my trip was to prepare me for the heartrending accounts of human adversity.
It is no secret that North Korea is a totalitarian state mired in abject poverty, but this timely volume provides personal accounts, putting human faces on North Koreas anonymous victims.
Nothing to Envy draws its title from a poems verse DPRK school children are made to recite, stating "we have nothing to envy in the world." While most in the West are able to see through that façade, the book takes us through a recollection of events wherein six DPRK citizens residing in North Koreas third largest city, Chongjin, eventually see through the ubiquitous illusion force fed upon the population, and endure heartbreaking hardship to flee the secretive state.
The book begins with the story of a young couple who use the all encapsulating darkness of the energy starved state to conduct a secret love affair, rendered almost impossible due to the class backgrounds within a supposedly classless society. Slowly we are introduced to more victims of North Koreas increasingly bleak disposition, all the while the story weaves back and forth between the main protagonists.
We learn how efficient and draconian the state apparatus is in the enforcement of state loyalty, how truly devastating the North Korean famine of mid 90s was, and also the continued hardship facing North Koreans after they have defected.
Not only do North Koreans face the difficult of adjusting to life outside their isolated country, but face cruel exploitation at the hands of Chinese people smugglers and people traffickers. Additionally, we learn of the risk of being caught by the Chinese authorities, who unlike most other countries, will deport North Koreans back to their home country, where they face harsh punishment.
Nothing to Envy has a cleverly arranged narrative, introducing more characters but holding the readers interest upon each one. It is delicately and beautifully written, and is compulsive, though heartbreaking reading.
A strongly recommended book, palatable to people of many interests, whether it is politics, sociology, travel, or anyone who enjoys accounts of human experience and the triumph of the human spirit.
A compelling, beautiful, and truly unforgettable book.
The title is an ironic take on the brainwashing of North Koreans to think that there is "nothing to envy" in other countries. Based on lengthy conversations with a handful of those who managed to escape to South Korea via China before the border was tightened up, this book provides a very convincing picture of life in the world's "last undiluted bastion of communism". It has defied expectation in surviving into the C21 even though the inefficient systems leave many people malnourished, forced to forage for weeds as food, and reduced to squatting blankly, staring straight ahead "as if they are waiting..for something to change". Behind the artificial showcase of the parts of Pyongyang that foreigners are allowed to see, life seems bleak indeed.
The book begins with the striking observation that viewed from a satellite by night, North Korea is "curiously lacking in light" owing to the inability to pay for electricity.
Making a mockery of communism, we learn how people have been classified as members of the "hostile class" and denied education and work opportunities if they have "tainted blood", which could simply be the result of having a father unlucky enough to have been brought from south of the border as a POW after the Korean War. Again contrary to pure Marxism, the head of state is regarded as an infallible god-like figure: people weep extravagantly at his death out of fear of failure to conform to the expected tide of grief, and perhaps some still believe the idea that he might return to life if they cry hard enough.
We sense the continual risk of being denounced and sent to a prison for some minor offence, which could include failing to keep sufficiently clean the obligatory pictures of Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-il, or daring to listen to South Korean television - inspectors come to check you have not removed the paper tape over the tuning buttons, but a long thin sewing needle may serve to twiddle them, such is human ingenuity when persecuted. Then there is the lunacy of a state being unable to provide its people with basic food, but still trying to prevent them from setting up their own private enterprise which will save them from starving. Hopefully things are beginning to change, marked by a recent protest, "Give us food or let us trade!"
The author is good on people's dawning realisation of the extent to which they have been misled, and also on exactly how some people managed to escape to South Korea and the problems of adjustment they have faced there - not least the guilt over punishment of relatives left behind.
The only aspect of the book which troubled me was the embroidery of memories to create dialogues and inner thoughts which must be in part fictionalised. The basic details are too fascinating for this to be necessary. The American journalese also grates at times, and an index would have been useful but overall this is a very readable book on an important theme.
It left me ashamed of my comfortable life, and much more sympathetic towards economic migrants, with respect for their resilience.
on 10 January 2011
The cover of this book, were you to judge it by that, could lead you to think this is an exploitative semi-memoir. However, the cover belies a serious piece of heavyweight journalism. Barbara Demick is the perfect conduit for the stories told to her by North Korean defectors. She lets them tell their story through her, with no opinions or personal musings countering them.
The book very successfully conveys the sense of feeling out of control of your life, the sense of insidious fear all around. The tales of small acts of rebellion help to magnify the intense oppression North Koreans live by and the sheer effort just to survive. Demick also makes sure that any parallels with other Socialist societies are discarded, by explaining how the brand of Communism in North Korea is unique, with it's cult of personality and feudal ideas.
However, in this culture of oppression, people manage to keep going, trying to eke out a life, and make just a little comfort for themselves. These triumphs, a TV tuned to South Korea, a cup of corn, selling cookies in the market...they are significant because they represent hope.
'Nothing to Envy' stays with you. I found myself looking around at aspects of daily life and feeling very fortunate. Sadly, Nothing much has changed for North Koreans. They are still starving and they are still without basic human rights. This book educated me about the world that I live in and hopefully work like Demicks will go someway to casting a light on this nation and it's people to the international community.
on 7 January 2011
I've just finished reading this marvellous book and was horrified and fascinated in equal measure, and realised how appropriate the title of the book is. The title is actually a line from a song that all North Korean children are taught and I can honestly say after reading accounts of this country GB has never seemed greener or more pleasant! The author is a journalist who decided to write this book while she was working in Seoul. As she states in the first few pages, faced with the enormity of the task she decided to focus on just one area of North Korea, the Chongjin area, one of the more northerly provinces. What she has produced is a readable, fascinating account from a country that is practically hermetically sealed to the outside world.
The stories the defectors recounted were horrifying, particularly about the famine that struck the country in the 1990's, but what fascinated me the most was the process of the survivors realising that all the propaganda they had constantly been fed was nothing but hot air and empty promises. Some of the North Koreans featured in this book were suspicious of the regime and believed it be lying and corrupt, while others were loyal subjects, believing all the propaganda that they heard. The piece of propaganda that was probably the most duplicitious was how dearly the leaders loved the people and how the rest of the world envied them. If it wasn't for that fact of the huge famine killing hundreds of thousands and a population living in fear of the secret police it would be laughable. The realisation of these people that all this was nothing more than empty propaganda is startling and sad.
I also enjoyed the fact that the author looked at how well they progressed and intergrated into South Korean society, and it is very interesting that only a few of the characters featured in this book actually found the transition easy.
I must also add that George Orwell's book 1984 is one of my favourite books of all time, but I never thought I would see a society in the 21st century that so mirrored his awful, bleak outlook.
The author is clear in her opening pages that while she corroborated what information she could, she was unable to verify a large part of the information. I did not find that this detracted from the experience gained through reading this book. I would recommend this book, it is easy to read, the narrative flows beautifully and it will open your eyes to things you would not think possible in the late 20th and early 21st Century. Please read it, I don't think you will be disappointed.
on 9 January 2011
I picked this up from the library despite it being a top book (you have one week to read and return) & I couldn't put it down.
I was touched by the intimacy of the 15yr relationship between lovers who were in many ways not conventionally that. Despite being unable to publically be together the bound they formed in the darkness struck a cord in my heart.
Desperate mothers cooking weeds & grass to try to feed themselves.Heart wrenching accounts of a young ambitous doctor unable to save anyones life, only just surviving herself. Pride & national loyalty illuminated as choices that effect life and death.
The way the stories are interwoven is unique. Drawing from different classes & cultures from this society giving a eclectic overview of what a true life is like in North Korea.
on 7 January 2011
The word 'Korea' has always brought back memories of the era of the Korean war,so I was beginning to be intrigued by all the goods coming from SOUTH Korea only.Even the travel companies are offering trips to South Korea....so what happened to the North? This book paints a graphic picture of life in North Korea.The extreme hardships suffered and the propaganda that the people are exposed to ,every day.
Life is incredibly hard,unbelievably so by Western standards,but all their strivings are for the glory of the state...always with a promise of better things to come.Better things never come.
State punishments for minor misdemeanors are so vicious that death is often the preferable way out.Famine is common.
The stories of the 'enlightened' escapees to S.Korea are told in a biographical style,which sometimes seems to lack depth, but when considering that these people have been brought up in a culture where they have to watch every word and deed in case they are reported by spies in their midst,then perhaps they were very wary of what they told Ms Demick. Reprisals against relatives still living in the North were common.
More photographs would have been great but again the taking of any photos is considered suspicious,especially if it is a Westerner who is taking them....and cameras are often confiscated.Any N. Korean with a camera would be unthinkable.
If you just want to enlighten yourself about N Korea then read this book.
on 6 October 2014
I was looking for a non-fiction account of life in North Korea but this book reads like a novel and is focused on a love story as the steady narrative.
Not my cup of tea at all and not what I expected. I am sure it will be great for some but not if you are looking for a real insight into North Korea.