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Book Review: Nothing to Envy

Posted by gck Wednesday, April 4, 2012

nothingtoenvyNothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

Genre: Non-Fiction, Journalism
Rating: ***** (out of 5)
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to learn more about North Korea

Book 5 of 52 in the “Around the World in 52 Books” Challenge

Back-cover summary:
A remarkable view into North Korea, as seen through the lives of six ordinary citizens.

Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population.

Taking us into a landscape most of us have never before seen, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today—an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, in which radio and television dials are welded to the one government station, and where displays of affection are punished; a police state where informants are rewarded and where an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life.

Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors. Through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her six subjects—average North Korean citizens—fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we experience the moments when they realize that their government has betrayed them.

Nothing to Envy is a groundbreaking addition to the literature of totalitarianism and an eye-opening look at a closed world that is of increasing global importance.

My review:
This is the best, most interesting book I have read for awhile. Since reading it, I have found myself looking for more information on North Korea. I have recommended this book to so many people, and so far I’ve only heard good things back. It is well-written, powerful, and relevant. I’m so glad I found out about this book, and I’m thankful for the Around the World Challenge for the motivating me to actually read it.

It wasn’t planned this way, but I’m glad I read this and book and Havana Real (about Cuba) very close together because there are noticeable parallels. Both are Communist dictatorships that have been relatively isolated from the modern world. Both experienced extreme famine and poverty following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the subsidies that allowed their countries to maintain decent economies. Both aren’t really big on their citizens escaping or expressing ideas counter to what is considered acceptable by the government. But North Korea took things to a much bigger extreme. Maybe Cuba is trying to crack down on its bloggers, but North Korea does not have any bloggers. Cubans probably don’t get a whole lot of meat, subsisting on meals like “rice and bouillon cube,” but in North Korea, white rice is considered a luxury item. A North Korean meal is more like… grass and ground up corn cob? Government hired thugs might rough you up for speaking out in Cuba, but in North Korea, they send you and three generations of your family to labor camp for, I dunno, saying Kim Jong-Il is short.

All of the hardships and cruelties are shocking, but if that’s all this book was about, I’d find it relatively average. After all, this is what we expect to hear about when we think of North Korea. The very human stories of the six North Koreans is what makes this book so strong. Of all things, it begins with a love story, a sweet, innocent relationship that could only exist in a place like North Korea, where people don’t keep track of how hours pass and night time really is about darkness because there is no electricity. Most of the characters mentioned are people who wholeheartedly believed, as most North Koreans must believe in order for this system to continue, that they lived in the best country in the world and that their Dear Leader was like a god. However, all of the characters experience a moment – sometimes it didn’t hit until after they had left the country – where they realize that their government has lied to them. One of them described this moment to be like the experience when a religious person becomes an atheist, standing among a sea of believers and realizing that he no longer believes.

One would expect that escape from North Korea, the most isolated country in the world, would be difficult. But as an outsider, one would also expect the decision to be a simple one – why not leave a country without freedom or food? Yet this was not the case. Loyalty to the country is deeply engrained, and many people who have left say that they would immediately return if the Kim dynasty was overthrown. Quite a number of people even crossed the border to China many times, but they did so only to make money, and they would continue to return to North Korea, their home. For the people who did make it out to South Korea, the escape was often bittersweet. They were ill-prepared to adapt to life in a much more modern world. Men who were abnormally short due to malnutrition had little hope of romantic prospects with the taller South Korean women. And most painful of all, since the North Korean idea that bad blood tainted three generations, they had to live with the thought that any relatives left behind might suffer or die in labor camps because of their actions. What a horrible choice to have to make. No wonder such a small number (relatively speaking) of them have left.

In the conclusion, the book mentions that for a long time, people interested in North Korea have looked on with curiosity or even amusement, wondering how this regime has lasted this long and how much longer it has to live. I guess I’m included in that group. It’s hard not to see it with a bit of humor, with so many comical references to Kim Jong-Il and the general silliness that propaganda carries for those who haven’t fallen under its spell. (My mom tells me, though, that they saw similar propaganda growing up in Taiwan and China) But the truth is that as long as the regime remains, North Koreans will continue to die. And North Koreans who have escaped will have to keep wondering about the fate of their loved ones.

Well, this has turned more into general commentary about North Korea than a book review. It definitely says something about the book that it has caused this sort of passionate interest, though. I have found myself reading more about the country and watching some of the rare video footage coming out of the country. Hopefully all of this will be a thing of the past in the near future.


  1. I have this waiting for me on my kindle and had heard it's very good. I'm glad it lived up to expectations for you :)

  2. gck Says:
  3. Hope you enjoy it, too!


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