Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy lives up to the hype

Barbara Demick: Nothing to Envy – Real Lives in North Korea
Granta, 2010
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Why, when Korean Studies bookshelves are dominated by volumes about the North, about which so much less is known than the South, do we need yet another volume? Why, when we have so many defector eye-witness accounts of starvation, torture and oppression, via NGOs and semi-autobiographies like Aquariums of Pyongyang, are we expected to make time for another?

I went to Nothing to Envy‘s UK book launch and nothing that was said there made me want to buy it, though afterwards the North Korea specialist Aidan Foster Carter said he had read it and it made him want to cry. That made me think again slightly. Then it won the BBC Samuel Johnson prize. Did it beat a worthier contender because North Korea is in vogue at the moment, much as Michael Moore’s unbalanced Iraq war documentary won at Cannes because everyone hated Bush at the time? Or is it a worthy winner? Having read and enjoyed another Samuel Johnson winner in the past I was inclined to take the award as a genuine recommendation. And when I saw it as a staff pick in my local independent bookshop I decided to take the plunge.

The first chapter felt like an extended version of those two-paragraph human interest introductions to a long newspaper article, which I always skip over in the hope of getting to the hard news story. But in Nothing to Envy the “hard news” never came, and the second chapter continued in similar vein. After a minor blip on page 22 (suggesting that the Joseon dynasty lasted 1,300 years), which made me think I was going to enjoy taking the book apart, I gradually adjusted to what the book was about and got sucked in to the narrative. I was not going to find “hard news”. The clue is in the subtitle of the book: Real Lives in North Korea. But within these deeply involving stories there is plenty of hard fact, brought out by painstaking journalism.

The book is almost like a novel in scale, in the detail with which it portrays the characters. It is the product of several years’ work interviewing refugees from the city of Chongjin in the far North-East of the DPRK, far from Pyongyang and reasonably close to two of the favoured crossing points on the Tumen River: Musan and Hoeryong. The work features the lives of six North Koreans, all of whom are now in the ROK. Barbara Demick’s real stroke of good fortune is that she was lucky enough to find and interview both halves of a boyfriend–girlfriend couple, who escaped from the DPRK independently of each other a couple of years apart. Their slow-motion relationship forms the centrepiece of the narrative. It took three years for them to hold hands, another three before the boy tentatively kissed the girl on the cheek.

The period covered by the span of the book is the 1990s. The decade started well enough, but the failure of the DPRK system was already becoming apparent. The decline accelerated with the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, which was a momentous event which led many faithful North Koreans to excesses of public grief, though some felt guilty when they were unable to shed a tear. Food was already in critically short supply, but the floods of 1995 gave the authorities a face-saving way to admit that there was a problem to the international community. The rhetoric of the “arduous march” had started. Factory workers and doctors stopped getting paid. Mrs Song, the chief snitch of the inminban, the local neighbourhood committee which kept tabs on people, was being encouraged by the party faithful to start complaining about the food situation in order to flush out malcontents she could report.

We are presented with a range of characters, from the true believer Mrs Song to Mi-ran the daughter of a South Korean PoW and her boyfriend Jun-sang, who despite his family background in Japan hopes to climb the social ladder with his educated status in Pyongyang. The ultimate ticket to success is Party membership, which is denied to the likes of Mi-ran with her tainted background.

Some of the details of life in North Korea told us by these refugees show just what a twisted place it is. Here’s an example of a question in a maths textbook for schoolchildren:

Three soldiers from the Korean People’s Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers?

Paranoia and hatred of the USA is not confined to children. Just before ex-president Carter’s visit to Pyongyang in 1994, Jun-sang together with his fellow university students are asked to sign a petition, in their own blood, that they will volunteer for the military in the event of war. But the propaganda is constantly shown to fall short of the truth. A favourite song sung by school children in North Korea ended:

Our father (Kim Il-sung) is here. We have nothing to envy in this world.

But one of the refugees, a well-educated doctor, discovered immediately she crossed the border that dogs in China eat better than doctors in North Korea.

At the Three Ambassadors event at the House of Commons earlier this year, Sunny Lee of the Korea Times asked whether we know more about North Korea now than we did 10 years ago. The response was that while what goes on in the minds of the ruling elite is as impenetrable as it always was, so that we know next to nothing about the next leader of this nuclear-armed regime, the number of refugees who have now escaped from the DPRK give a consistent picture of life on the ground. I’m sorry that it took me so long to read Demick’s book, because it is a valuable portrait of life in North Korea miles away from the capital in the 1990s and early 2000s, and it illuminates the nature of the regime by examining its impact on the lives of real people.

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5 thoughts on “Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy lives up to the hype

    • J-Min Ahn: I read the book and visited a website which is the North Korean defectors’ online community in South. The posts on the website are just like her stories.
    • Bella Frey: I am reading this at the moment and it really puts into mind the people existing in such an oppressive regime. It makes me think more deeply when I hear the current wave of alarming news stories
    • HangulCelluloid: Easily the best book I’ve read in the past year. Great blog post, too.
  1. Hi Philip,

    I have just finished this book and agree with your points made. The opening chapter belies how in depth Demick’s research actually was and found her transitional writing from journalist to author was really admirable. It read well as a novel (to numb the shock that all horrific events did in fact, occur), as life in DPRK is from such another world. Jun-sang’s poem regarding his situation with Mi-ran really was a really nice epithet to the 6 stories. Great read.

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