Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

by Barbara Demick

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Overview

An eye-opening account of life inside North Korea—a closed world of increasing global importance—hailed as a “tour de force of meticulous reporting” (The New York Review of Books)
 
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST
 
In this landmark addition to the literature of totalitarianism, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il (the father of Kim Jong-un), and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population.
 
Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive regime today—an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. She takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors, and through meticulous and sensitive reporting we see her subjects fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we witness their profound, life-altering disillusionment with the government and their realization that, rather than providing them with lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them.

Praise for Nothing to Envy

“Provocative . . . offers extensive evidence of the author’s deep knowledge of this country while keeping its sights firmly on individual stories and human details.”The New York Times

“Deeply moving . . . The personal stories are related with novelistic detail.”The Wall Street Journal

“A tour de force of meticulous reporting.”The New York Review of Books

“Excellent . . . humanizes a downtrodden, long-suffering people whose individual lives, hopes and dreams are so little known abroad.”San Francisco Chronicle

“The narrow boundaries of our knowledge have expanded radically with the publication of Nothing to Envy. . . . Elegantly structured and written, [it] is a groundbreaking work of literary nonfiction.”—John Delury, Slate

“At times a page-turner, at others an intimate study in totalitarian psychology.”The Philadelphia Inquirer

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385523905
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/29/2009
Pages: 314
Sales rank: 714,609
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Barbara Demick is the author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award and the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize in the U.K., and Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood. Her books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages. Demick is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and a contributor to The New Yorker, and was recently a press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


If you look at satellite photographs of the far east by night, you'll see a large splotch curiously lacking in light. This area of darkness is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Next to this mysterious black hole, South Korea, Japan, and now China fairly gleam with prosperity. Even from hundreds of miles above, the billboards, the headlights and streetlights, the neon of the fast- food chains appear as tiny white dots signifying people going about their business as twenty-first-century energy consumers. Then, in the middle of it all, an expanse of blackness nearly as large as England. It is baffling how a nation of 23 million people can appear as vacant as the oceans. North Korea is simply a blank.

North Korea faded to black in the early 1990s. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had propped up its old Communist ally with cheap fuel oil, North Korea's creakily inefficient economy collapsed. Power stations rusted into ruin. The lights went out. Hungry people scaled utility poles to pilfer bits of copper wire to swap for food. When the sun drops low in the sky, the landscape fades to gray and the squat little houses are swallowed up by the night. Entire villages vanish into the dusk. Even in parts of the showcase capital of Pyongyang, you can stroll down the middle of a main street at night without being able to see the buildings on either side.

When outsiders stare into the void that is today's North Korea, they think of remote villages of Africa or Southeast Asia where the civilizing hand of electricity has not yet reached. But North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world. You can see the evidence of what once was and what has been lost dangling overhead alongside any major North Korean road—the skeletal wires of the rusted electrical grid that once covered the entire country.

North Koreans beyond middle age remember well when they had more electricity (and for that matter food) than their pro-American cousins in South Korea, and that compounds the indignity of spending their nights sitting in the dark. Back in the 1990s, the U.S. offered to help North Korea with its energy needs if it gave up its nuclear weapons program. But the deal fell apart after the Bush administration accused the North Koreans of reneging on their promises. North Koreans complain bitterly about the darkness, which they still blame on the U.S. sanctions. They can't read at night. They can't watch television. "We have no culture without electricity," a burly North Korean security guard once told me accusingly

But the dark has advantages of its own. Especially if you are a teenager dating somebody you can't be seen with.

When adults go to bed, sometimes as early as 7:00 p.m. in winter, it is easy enough to slip out of the house. The darkness confers measures of privacy and freedom as hard to come by in North Korea as electricity. Wrapped in a magic cloak of invisibility, you can do what you like without worrying about the prying eyes of parents, neighbors, or secret police.

I met many North Koreans who told me how much they learned to love the darkness, but it was the story of one teenage girl and her boyfriend that impressed me most. She was twelve years old when she met a young man three years older from a neighboring town. Her family was low-ranking in the byzantine system of social controls in place in North Korea. To be seen in public together would damage the boy's career prospects as well as her reputation as a virtuous young woman. So their dates consisted entirely of long walks in the dark. There was nothing else to do anyway; by the time they started dating in earnest in the early 1990s, none of the restaurants or cinemas were operating because of the lack of power.

They would meet after dinner. The girl had instructed her boyfriend not to knock on the front door and risk questions from her older sisters, younger brother, or the nosy neighbors. They lived squeezed together in a long, narrow building behind which was a common outhouse shared by a dozen families. The houses were set off from the street by a white wall, just above eye level in height. The boy found a spot behind the wall where nobody would notice him as the light seeped out of the day. The clatter of the neighbors washing the dishes or using the toilet masked the sound of his footsteps. He would wait hours for her, maybe two or three. It didn't matter. The cadence of life is slower in North Korea. Nobody owned a watch.

The girl would emerge just as soon as she could extricate herself from the family. Stepping outside, she would peer into the darkness, unable to see him at first but sensing with certainty his presence. She wouldn't bother with makeup—no one needs it in the dark. Sometimes she just wore her school uniform: a royal blue skirt cut modestly below the knees, a white blouse and red bow tie, all of it made from a crinkly synthetic material. She was young enough not to fret about her appearance.

At first, they would walk in silence, then their voices would gradually rise to whispers and then to normal conversational levels as they left the village and relaxed into the night. They maintained an arm's-length distance from each other until they were sure they wouldn't be spotted.

Just outside the town, the road headed into a thicket of trees to the grounds of a hot-spring resort. It was once a resort of some renown; its 130-degree waters used to draw busloads of Chinese tourists in search of cures for arthritis and diabetes, but by now it rarely operated. The entrance featured a rectangular reflecting pond rimmed by a stone wall. The paths cutting through the grounds were lined with pine trees, Japanese maples, and the girl's favorites—the ginkgo trees that in autumn shed delicate mustard-yellow leaves in the shape of perfect Oriental fans. On the surrounding hills, the trees had been decimated by people foraging for firewood, but the trees at the hot springs were so beautiful that the locals respected them and left them alone.

Otherwise the grounds were poorly maintained. The trees were untrimmed, stone benches cracked, paving stones missing like rotten teeth. By the mid-1990s, nearly everything in North Korea was worn out, broken, malfunctioning. The country had seen better days. But the imperfections were not so glaring at night. The hot-springs pool, murky and choked with weeds, was luminous with the reflection of the sky above.

The night sky in North Korea is a sight to behold. It might be the most brilliant in Northeast Asia, the only place spared the coal dust, Gobi Desert sand, and carbon monoxide choking the rest of the continent. In the old days, North Korean factories contributed their share to the cloud cover, but no longer. No artificial lighting competes with the intensity of the stars etched into its sky.

The young couple would walk through the night, scattering ginkgo leaves in their wake. What did they talk about? Their families, their classmates, books they had read—whatever the topic, it was endlessly fascinating. Years later, when I asked the girl about the happiest memories of her life, she told me of those nights.

This is not the sort of thing that shows up in satellite photographs. Whether in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or in the East Asian studies department of a university, people usually analyze North Korea from afar. They don't stop to think that in the middle of this black hole, in this bleak, dark country where millions have died of starvation, there is also love.

by the time I met this girl, she was a woman, thirty-one years old. Mi-ran (as I will call her for the purposes of this book) had defected six years earlier and was living in South Korea. I had requested an interview with her for an article I was writing about North Korean defectors.

In 2004, I was posted in Seoul as bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. My job was to cover the entire Korean peninsula. South Korea was easy. It was the twelfth-largest economic power, a thriving if sometimes raucous democracy, with one of the most aggressive press corps in Asia. Government officials gave reporters their mobile telephone numbers and didn't mind being called at off-hours. North Korea was at the other extreme. North Korea's communications with the outside world were largely confined to tirades spat out by the Korean Central News Agency, nicknamed the "Great Vituperator" for its ridiculous bombast about the "imperialist Yankee bastards." The United States had fought on South Korea's behalf in the 1950–1953 Korean War, the first great conflagration of the Cold War, and still had forty thousand troops stationed there. For North Korea, it was as though the war had never ended, the animus was so raw and fresh.

U.S. citizens were only rarely admitted to North Korea and American journalists even less frequently. When I finally got a visa to visit Pyongyang in 2005, myself and a colleague were led along a well-worn path of monuments to the glorious leadership of Kim Jong-il and his late father, Kim Il-sung. At all times, we were chaperoned by two skinny men in dark suits, both named Mr. Park. (North Korea takes the precaution of assigning two "minders" to foreign visitors, one to watch the other so that they can't be bribed.) The minders spoke the same stilted rhetoric of the official news service. ("Thanks to our dear leader Kim Jong-il" was a phrase inserted with strange regularity into our conversations.) They rarely made eye contact when they spoke to us, and I wondered if they believed what they said. What were they really thinking? Did they love their leader as much as they claimed? Did they have enough food to eat? What did they do when they came home from work? What was it like to live in the world's most repressive regime?

If I wanted answers to my questions, it was clear I wasn't going to get them inside North Korea. I had to talk to people who had left— defectors.

In 2004, Mi-ran was living in Suwon, a city twenty miles south of Seoul, bright and chaotic. Suwon is home to Samsung Electronics and a cluster of manufacturing complexes producing objects most North Koreans would be stumped to identify—computer monitors, CD-ROMs, digital televisions, flash-memory sticks. (A statistic one often sees quoted is that the economic disparity between the Koreas is at least four times greater than that between East and West Germany at the time of German reunification in 1990.) The place is loud and cluttered, a cacophony of mismatched colors and sounds. As in most South Korean cities, the architecture is an amalgam of ugly concrete boxes topped with garish signage. High-rise apartments radiate for miles away from a congested downtown lined with Dunkin' Donuts and Pizza Huts and a host of Korean knockoffs. The backstreets are filled with love hotels with names like Eros Motel and Love-Inn Park that advertise rooms by the hour. The customary state of traffic is gridlock as thousands of Hyundais—more fruit of the economic miracle— try to plow their way between home and the malls. Because the city is in a perpetual state of gridlock, I took the train down from Seoul, a thirty-minute ride, then crawled along in a taxi to one of the few tranquil spots in town, a grilled beef-ribs restaurant across from an eighteenth-century fortress.

At first I didn't spot Mi-ran. She looked quite unlike the other North Koreans I had met. There were by that time some six thousand North Korean defectors living in South Korea and there were usually telltale signs of their difficulty in assimilating—skirts worn too short, labels still attached to new clothes—but Mi-ran was indistinguishable from a South Korean. She wore a chic brown sweater set and matching knit trousers. It gave me the impression (which like many others would prove wrong) that she was rather demure. Her hair was swept back and neatly held in place with a rhinestone barrette. Her impeccable appearance was marred only by a smattering of acne on her chin and a heaviness around the middle, the result of being three months pregnant. A year earlier she had married a South Korean, a civilian military employee, and they were expecting their first child.

I had asked Mi-ran to lunch in order to learn more about North Korea's school system. In the years before her defection, she had worked as a kindergarten teacher in a mining town. In South Korea she was working toward a graduate degree in education. It was a serious conversation, at times grim. The food on our table went uneaten as she described watching her five- and six-year-old pupils die of starvation. As her students were dying, she was supposed to teach them that they were blessed to be North Korean. Kim Il-sung, who ruled from the time the peninsula was severed at the end of World War II until his death in 1994, was to be revered as a god, and Kim Jong- il, his son and successor, as the son of a god, a Christ-like figure. Mi-ran had become a harsh critic of the North Korean system of brainwashing.

After an hour or two of such conversation, we veered into what might be disparaged as typical girl talk. There was something about Mi- ran's self-possession and her candor that allowed me to ask more personal questions. What did young North Koreans do for fun? Were there any happy moments in her life in North Korea? Did she have a boyfriend there?

"It's funny you ask," she said. "I had a dream about him the other night."

She described the boy as tall and limber with shaggy hair flopping over his forehead. After she got out of North Korea, she was delighted to discover that there was a South Korean teen idol by the name of Yu Jun-sang who looked quite like her ex-boyfriend. (As a result, I have used the pseudonym Jun-sang to identify him.) He was smart, too, a future scientist studying at one of the best universities in Pyongyang. That was one of the reasons they could not be seen in public. Their relationship could have damaged his career prospects.

There are no love hotels in North Korea. Casual intimacy between the sexes is discouraged. Still, I tried to pry gently about how far the relationship went.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Strongly written and gracefully structured...[Demick] vividly and evocatively portrays courageous individuals and a tyrannized state within a saga of unfathomable suffering punctuated by faint glimmers of hope." —-Booklist Starred Review

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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 275 reviews.
MotherLodeBeth More than 1 year ago
This book literally made me cry, which is good. How one could read of North Koreans living in such horrid conditions, cutting grass and weeds to make some awful soup, because they are so hungry and not be sad or mad is beyond me. On page 112 we read of a young female doctor who is trying against all odds to help her people. 'The problem was with the food. Housewives started to pick weeds and wild grasses to add to their soups to create the illusion of vegetables. Corn was increasingly the staple again instead of rice but people were adding leaves, husks, stems, and cobs to make it go further. That was okay for adults, but it couldn't be digested by the young stomachs of children. In the hospital doctors discussed this problem among themselves, and gave the mothers what amounted to cooking advise. 'If you use grass or bark, you have to grind it very fine, then cook it a very long time so it is soft a d easy to eat.' Dr. Kim told them.' One reads how the doctors harvest herbs in the surrounding areas and try to make their own medicines and herbal treatments, because they have no other choice. Another problem one reads about is pellagra which is caused by lack of niacin in the diet and often seen in people who only eat corn. The hospitals which may have had antibiotics years ago had none now. Mothers didn't eat enough to produce breast milk so baby and toddlers died. And if they could have afforded rice they would have tried to make rice milk, but there was no rice. Think of any horrid situation a country who doesn't care about her citizens can have and this is North Korea.
PandemicSoul More than 1 year ago
I've never had a particular interest in North Korea, but I'm an avid dystopian literature fan, and because of that I was drawn to this book to read more about the parallels between George Orwell's "1984" and present-day North Korea. What I found was a truly amazing tale of a half-dozen defectors who recount their day-to-day lives in the last truly Communist enclave. Regardless of your general inclination toward this type of book, if you enjoy a good story, this book delivers. Demick makes North Korea come alive, using multiple sources to rebuild accounts of the early lives of the defectors she interviewed. Not everyone she spoke with made it into the book as central characters, but she uses pieces of her many contacts to build a full tale. For example, in the notes section of the book, she mentions how one defector's explanation of the Chongjin geography was used as she told the story of another defector. I truly had no idea the depths of suffering that North Koreans have endured. After finishing the book, I went on to YouTube to re-watch footage of mourners of Kim Jong-Il, and I had a whole new understanding of why they were behaving in that way. The truth is devastating, and this book illuminates it in a rare way. From tales of strange customs and shocking Communist rules, to amusing anecdotes of some of the first days in South Korea for defectors, you'll be totally fascinated. Highly recommended.
SpecialK007 More than 1 year ago
I'm only about a third of the way through this book and it is hard to put down. I always knew and heard of the horrors of living in North Korea, but Ms. Demick really brings the experiences alive. Great writing and journalism. She portrays the characters of the people so well and I was starting to cheer for them when some of them had the lightbulb go off about the true nature of their dictator. That they started getting the slightest flicker that something was not quite right. I had no idea that every thought, word, and action were so closely scrutinized and reported. And what really got me was how much their daily food alotments were being rationed, and even water. and the people still would not (could not) complain about their great leader. And they didn't even have any paper to write on. What a criminal dictatorship N. Korea is.
Captain_Nemo More than 1 year ago
This book was heartbreaking, intense and deeply thought provoking. Well at least it was for me. Life in North Korea seems so crushingly hard. Reading this book gave me a much greater appreciation for even the most basic things in my life. Demick did an outstanding job of shedding light on this mysterious country. I am very glad I read it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is a must read for all Americans. This book gives you insight into the power of information. By limiting access to truth & information, North Korea is able to control their people by providing a distorted picture of the outside world. Finally we have a view of what life is like inside the most controlled country in the world. It is hard to imagine a country without animals or vegetation because the people have foraged everything in an attempt to fend off starvation. Reading this book gives the current tensions a new perspective.
British-jo More than 1 year ago
I read this after reading Escape from Camp 14, for some comparison. It was an excellent choice. The fact that several of these folk featured had no intention of escaping, but couldn't believe how they'd been taken in when they did was fascinating. It was a relief to hear in the end of the book that things are changing, although sounds like it will be a painful excrutiating process before one could call it progress. These poor people, with a leader who treats them all like toys. Horrific.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read Nothing to Envy as part of a book group. Everyone in the group said they probably would not have picked up the book if it hadn't been a group selection, but everyone was glad that they had read it. The author, Barbara Demick, takes an unusual approach to telling a story about life in North Korea since the Korean War. She gives a detailed account of the lives of six residents of a North Korean city, Chongjin, from the 60's and 70's through 2009. While describing how they try to cope with the deteriorating economic situation, famine, and political repression, she provides insight into the history, culture, and social norms of the people. The conditions are grim and the book reveals the incredible courage of the North Koreans. Reading this book gave me a much better understanding of the current tensions between North Korean and the U.S., South Korea, Japan and China. I highly recommend this book.
Agespeaks More than 1 year ago
Living in the United States I realize how fortunate I am that I was born in the "greatest nation on God's green earth"(Medved). Reading about a country who brain washed their citizens into thinking that they were the envy of the world as they saw eachother fall over from starvation is mind baffling in this day and age and yet it happened. This was (is) happening to citizens of the world as we are fortunate enough to have plenty to eat and drink without even thinking twice about it. Ms. Demick was very descriptive in her writing transporting me to North Korea I felt as if I saw the atrocities brought on by the communist regime with my own two eyes. This book makes me want to take action and do something to help others less fortunate.
skimmylatte More than 1 year ago
Some of the stories in this book are not for the faint-hearted. It describes the daily horrors that the people of N. Korea faced and continue to face under the regime of a resolute and fearful dictator. For anyone who desires to know more about the Koreas, they should read this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Solid read from front to back. Really grabs your attention and draws you in. I think the best words to use are eye opening
The_Book_Wheel_Blog More than 1 year ago
What an amazing book! Written by a journalist living in South Korea, it follows the lives of six North Korean defectors from childhood to present day. It weaves a story of loyalty, honor and personal conviction while tossing in some rebellion and acceptance. It’s not a happy story and at parts can be hard to stomach (reality often is), but it is definitely worth reading. What I liked most about this book is that it tells the story from the point of view of the North Koreans, leaving out judgment, American politics and every preconceived notion one might have going into  the book. It is not a book designed to paint North Korea as anything but what the people involved believe it to be. The reality can be, at times, unnerving, but it is refreshing to read about North Korea without the brackets of international judgment around it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The stories ring true even though we cannot fathom starvation and degradation. Americans must understand the violations of human rights committed by Kim on the people of North Korea.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Intriguing and emotional stories punctuated with relevant and helpful historical information woven together perfectly in balance explain the history and lay out the possible future of North Korea. Definitely a must-read.
L.A.Carlson-writer More than 1 year ago
An educating, yet disturbing account of the lives of people who have escaped from North Korea. Demick has traveled to North and South Korea many times and has mixed feelings about the state of these countries. North Korea in good times can only produce 60 percent of the food it needs to feed and does not import the rest. South Korea does provide refuge for people escaping from North Korea but it's not a simple as we might imagine for them to adjust to a different lifestyle. The government of North Korea does everything in its power to suppress people and if an individual commits crimes against the government the punishment and shame stays with the family for 3 generations. In our global, progressive world it is nearly incomprehensible that the horrors of how this country treats its people continue to thrive. A few of us may wonder where God is in this mess.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautiful account of the endurance of human spirit against al odds!
Ian_Mule More than 1 year ago
I love North Korea as a last vestige of the Cold War. However, after reading this book, I find it much more difficult to joke about it. Incredible read. Great, great book! I recommend it to anyone who wants a dramatic non-fiction read. Well done!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a heartbreaking book. The suffering in North Korea is unimaginable. This is a remarkable read. It gives tremendous, personal insight into the hermit kingdom.
Tiger87 More than 1 year ago
Curiosity added this book to my order. I'm so glad! The stories are interwoven and personal to a level that you cannot put this book down. Completely engrossing and enlightening!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Entrevistas+con+varias+personas+que+huyeron+de+Corea+del+Norte.++A+diferencia+de+otros+libros+en+este+las+personas+entrevistadas+eran+patriotas+e+inclusive+en+su+mayor%C3%ADa+no+hab%C3%ADan+pensado+en+escapar+++++++++++hasta+que+se+les+dio+la+oportunidad.++Tambi%C3%A9n+este+libro+entrevista+a+personas+que+si+bien+no+eran+dee+la+%C3%A9lite+en+so+mayoria+viv%C3%ADan+relativamente+bien.++Lo+compre+porque+me+interesa+el+tema+y+lo+le%C3%AD+en+apenas+dos+d%C3%ADas+ya+que+necesitaba+saber+si+los+personajes+hab%C3%ADan+logrado+huir.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What I appreciate most about this book are the first-hand accounts. It’s a very journalistic approach to everyday life in North Korea. I wasn’t sure how it was going to be told since there are many POVs. Would it be each individual giving their own account in one chapter then moving on to the next person? It is not. It’s one fluid chronological story through the years as North Korea’s economy sharply declined and they became more cut-off from the world. If it were a movie it would be as if a single scene is unfolding and the camera simply shift from one individual’s POV to the next within the same story. There are POVs of undercover doubters, of children, of a man who is a journalist and hears the unfiltered news reports from the outside world and sees how his government twists it when regurgitating it to the masses. There are also those who were once proud and faithful communists who loved their Great Leader even after there was no work, no electricity and no food. The stories are woven together beautifully, but the reality is more horrific than fiction and we see to what great lengths the North Korean govt will go to keep up this illusion. These are things you’ve probably heard, but it’s not only a story of horrors and struggle, it’s a story of incredible strength and faith. Not faith in a regime, not anymore, but a faith in life. This book is a MUST READ for EVERYONE!
Smiler69 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This seemed like a timely choice of reading shortly after Kim Jong-il's death in December 2011. Barbara Demick, a Los Angeles Times journalist, has painted a harrowing picture of what life has been like in North Korea since the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic in 1948. Her narrative is based on interviews with several defectors from Chongjin, North Korea who told her their life stories and related the huge change in quality of life they experienced following Kim Il-sung's death in 1994. Up until then, everyone had a roof over their heads and sufficient food, but the famines of the 90s made what had been difficult living until then seem like ideal times. This novel was published in 2009, prior to Kim Jong-il's death of course, but of particular interest was the description of how the North Korean people reacted to the passing of Kim Il-sung, who had been considered as a god, due in no small part to the propaganda which is all-pervasive. It was easy to draw parallels between the images we saw in the news last month of grieving people in the capital. It was reported here that the images of grieving North Koreans had been staged, and descriptions of how people reacted to Kim Il-sung's death would seem to support this theory, but also explain the extent of the oppression of the North Korean regime on it's people. Fascinating, and of course, very troubling.
john257hopper on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a moving, tragic and sometimes horrifying story of the lives of a number of North Koreans who managed to leave the country. The oppression of life there and the overwhelming presence of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in every facet of life is choking and stifling even to read about. The stories of suffering in the famine of the 1990s are especially heart rending. Freedom is so long in coming there and there is no dissident movement as there was in the USSR and Eastern Europe, due to this overwhelming oppression. Arguably never before in human history has there been a society for which the word totalitarian was a more apt description.
mahallett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
perhaps because i listened to this, the people all melded together. it is amazing that north korea still exists--that everyone hasn't died or left. on the other hand it's amazing that so many are still communists and so patriotic, just beating out the americans in patriotism. two wacos!
lahochstetler on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book had a profound effect on me. Like many, I came to this book with little knowledge of North Korea, aside from what is on the news. And that's no accident, the country is highly secretive. This is what makes Demick's book so groundbreaking. By interviewing six defectors Demick is able to offer an unprecedented look into the lives ordinary people live in this communist dictatorship. The stories in this book present a country where millions suffer from miserable deprivation. People are starving, reduced to eating grass and tree bark. Most of the country no longer has electricity. Pervasive malnutrition has collectively stunted the country's growth. Meanwhile, the North Korean government offers a program of constant brainwashing, requiring constant supplication to the leadership. Detractors are sent to gulags, as are their relatives. The government practices a policy of "tainted blood," suggesting that any malcontent had tainted the blood of their family by three generations, meaning that grandparents and grandchildren are also undesirables needing eradication. Demick's care and persistence in collecting these stories is admirable. Even more so is the courage of these North Koreans to tell their stories. Their families have faced retribution for their decision to leave. It is truly astonishing the level of isolation and brainwashing that the government has managed to accomplish. This is important reading for everyone. Such shocking human rights abuses must be made public.
Eamonn12 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
All the terrible things you¿veever seen and read and heard about North Korea are borne out by this book `Nothing to Envy¿ by veteran US reporter Barbara Demick. Unless of course it¿s all reverse propaganda? The US and most of its citizens are not inclined to favour N.Korea in any way. It was branded as one of the Axis of Evil byBush and Blair, remember, and every month that goes by we learn how much their declarations about `evil states¿ were worth. Not much, it would appear.So are we to believe the horriffic accounts of persecution, starvation, and brainwashing given in this book? Particularly as the accounts are from those who fled the country and (therefore) cannot be expected to have anything good to say about the North Korean government. Admittedly, Demick did try to get information first hand by getting into North Korea (after much difficulty), but found herself tracked everywhere by minders and really could not get close enough to the ordinary people to find out what was actually going on. Still, her informants for this book are those who escaped and as such, as said above, surely a little suspect?I am always willing to find that our overbearing western capitalist culture has once again overlooked the fundamental good in another, foreign, system. But I have to say my skepticisms wore off quickly enough as I forged through this (very well written) book. The accounts given by Demick¿s informants are harrowing and all those cliched comparisons made between this communist state and Orwell¿s 1984 seem proved to be not just cliches but extremely relevant.Demick adopts an open style that lets people tell their stories about the miseries they suffered `back home¿ and the miseries their relatives are still suffering there. She tells of the privations and indignities they had to endure on their dangerous routes of escape through China into South Korea (and the Chinese do not make it easy for them). I was even more convinced of the truth of their stories by reading of their often expressed love of their unfortunate country and their desire to go back if things showed any sign of improvement.The title `Nothing to Envy¿ apparently comes from a song taught to children in school which contains the lines: `Our father is here / we have nothing to envy in this world¿ ¿ the `father¿ being Kim Jong-il¿. I know we have our own `Our Father¿ in the West, but at least he¿s supposed to be God.Good book.