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Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea Paperback – 4 Feb 2010

4.7 out of 5 stars 660 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Granta Books; 1st edition (4 Feb. 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847080146
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847080141
  • Product Dimensions: 15.4 x 2.5 x 23.2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (660 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 500,898 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


`A most perceptive and eye-opening account of everyday life in North Korea' --Jung Chang

`I loved it - I couldn't pull myself away. This is the first book I've read which tells me about the inner lives of individual North Koreans' --Lindsey Hilsum, International Editor, Channel 4 News

'A rare and valuable insight ... Nothing to Envy is a searchlight shining on a country cloaked in darkness'

About the Author

Barbar Demick has worked as a staff reported for the Philadelphia Inquirer, covering Wall Street and the presidential elections, among other assignments. Her coverage of the war in Sarajevo won the George Polk Award and the Robert F Kennedy Award, and she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting. She is now a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, where she has reported from the MIddle East and South Korea. She is currently living in Beijing.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
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.
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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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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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?'

Mark Iles
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