Nothing to envy: it brought tears to the eyes of a jaded cynic

LKL reports from the book launch of Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy – Real Lives in North Korea

It was a well-informed audience attending Barbara Demick’s book launch at the Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday, many of whom had been to North Korea. As the strains of a Mozart Symphony wafted upstairs from the concert hall below, Demick introduced her book, a collection of personal stories of inhabitants of Chongjin in North Hamgyong province. Chongjin is North Korea’s third largest city, fairly remote from the capital and close to the Chinese border. The book is based on interviews with refugees in Seoul. Yes, there are stories of horror and hardship, but there is also a love story which is central to the structure of the work.

“Defector literature is notoriously problematic” warned well-known sinologist Isabel Hilton of the Guardian during the discussion. “The defectors arrive at their destination traumatised, with no possessions. Their only capital is their story.” Not only are they motivated to embellish their story to maximise their interview payments; they may also subconsciously sex up their story to justify themselves to themselves. Demick overcame this difficulty by conducting not one but several interviews with her chosen subjects. She got to know them and understand them. And she’s not just interested in all the horrific stuff you expect to hear from refugees and defectors – though you will find heart rending-stories of hardship and starvation in the narrative. One of her first questions to any North Korean defector is “what is your happiest memory?” This often elicits the human element to their story which enables us, who have not experienced the hardships of life in North Korea, to connect with the narrative.

The book’s title comes from the fact that North Korean children are taught: “you have nothing to envy in the rest of the world. Our country is the greatest in the world.” In the first decades of the DPRK’s existence the state could be said to be doing relatively well, particularly compared with the South. But in the 90s, deserted by its sponsors after the fall of European communism, and plagued by natural disasters, the country “entered a downward spiral and fell out of the developed world” said Demick. Now that pirated DVD copies of South Korean soaps are readily available in North Korea, the myth of there being nothing to envy elsewhere is increasingly being exposed. Despite this, the refugees interviewed by Demick all feel a sense of nostalgia in relation to part of what they have left behind.

In the wealth of factual and speculative books written about North Korea by journalists, politicians and professional Korea-watchers, do we need one with a “human interest” angle? I suggested to a seasoned pyongyangologist and self-confessed jaded old cynic that this was a book to borrow rather than buy. He promptly and laconically put me straight: “I would buy it. Indeed I did, and have read it. A real page-turner. Made me cry.” I’ll take that as a strong recommendation then.

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