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Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demick

In the U.S., Kim Jong-Il is a joke. Political comedian Bill Maher nicknamed him “Lil’ Kim”, which is always good for a laugh, but that’s about the extent of what’s generally known of North Korea. The Korean War is often called “The Forgotten War” because even though it was more recent than WW2, it had much less impact on our society. News stories vaguely refer to the difficulties of modern life in North Korea, without providing many details. So when I saw this book on the library shelf recently, I seized it, wanting to learn more about that country and its people.
The author is a journalist who has spent many years covering both Koreas and has made a number of trips into the North. Though journalists are restricted mainly to the capital city, Pyongyang and other approved areas, Demick interviewed dozens of defectors and humanitarian workers. Her book focuses on the lives of six ordinary people from various levels of society (from a pediatrician and factory worker, to a homeless, orphaned teenager) in the northern industrial city of Chongjin.
She shows us the evolution of the country from the Chosun dynasty, one of the longest reigning in the world, to the Japanese Occupation(1910-1945) and the Korean War. As the country was divided, Kim Il-sung, with help from Stalin, became dictator of a relatively advanced country for the first few decades of his rule. Though labeled Communist, he kept Confucian class systems in place and gradually increased the nationalistic and emperor worship attitudes until North Korea was increasingly isolated. The country kept growing poorer and farther behind in technical advancements. The situation got even worse after Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and his son, Kim Jong-Il took over.
Citizens were under a strict totalitarian regime full of Orwellian rules that governed every part of life, from haircuts, clothing, home décor, to light bulb wattage. Television ownership, which must have governmental permission, are glued to the single propaganda channel allowed. Special police can burst into anyone’s home to make certain that the rules are being obeyed.
As long as other Communist countries kept lending them money, North Korea was able to provide basic necessities for their citizens. But by the early 1990’s, with the market changes in China and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the funds had trickled away. The first sign that the economy was crumbling was the reduction of electricity, less all the time, which had a domino effect on industry, food production and transportation. Factories shut down, trains and buses stopped running, clothes were not being produced. People stopped receiving salaries– no matter their job, they got food vouchers instead, but there was no food to buy. Famine worsened as the 90’s went on. People ate grass, tree bark, sawdust, corn husks. Teachers watched their pupils grow weaker and disappear. Hospitals had no medicines as patients suffered and died from diseases caused by malnutrition. Though reports said that Kim Jong-il was eating mostly potatoes, the reality was that he was enjoying lavish meals of imported foods such as lobster and French wines and had his own sushi chef. By 1998, at least 10% of the country’s population had died, in some cities, it was as high as 20% of the population.
In a way, I got more than I bargained for in reading this book. I wanted to learn about everyday life in North Korea and the harshness was even worse than I thought. What people went through in the worst of the famine boggled my mind. And it only improved when Europe and the U.S. began shipping food to the country, though part of it was stolen by the military, who sold it on the black market.
The drastic readjustment of people who had defected to South Korea was also a surprise. Though I was pleased that South Korea has a system to help the refugees, which includes a re-education center and funds to get them started in their new life, it‘s not always easy for them to change their complete mindset. Not to mention the emotional impact of starting life over, often without friends or family.
The end of the book left me wondering how much longer North Korea can continue on such a destructive path, where everything is based upon a lie. The population is caught between the unfulfilled promises of socialism and thwarted attempts of capitalism, their basic needs not being met by either system. How long until they rebel against the betrayals? This question preoccupies those with much more knowledge of the country than I and I can only hope that the future is brighter for North Korea and its people.

Spiegel & Grau 2010 315pp. ISBN 978-0-385-52390

9 comments on “Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demick

  1. Lisa
    October 4, 2010

    Super review, Jackie – I read it first thing this morning and realised just how much I don’t know about the situation in North Korea. I’d really like to read this.

  2. Melrose
    October 4, 2010

    Poor old Korea, split down the middle in a proxy war (The Forgotten War) between the superpowers of the time, so I suppose we need to shoulder some of the blame for the situation…

  3. I read this post simply saying ‘wow’ as my jaw dropped open – its incredible that 10% of such a lrage nation can die through famine and yet the rest of the world has no idea.

    I cant believe that people have limitations on clothing and even haircuts – absolutely insane that this stuff has happened and is still happening. Its like going back in time when you read of regimes like this.

    Thanks for educating us some more in the west!

  4. Melrose
    October 4, 2010

    What I don’t understand is, if North Korea is in as bad a state as it seems to be, according to this book, where people’s basic needs are not being met, why has Obama continued with sanctions? As we know, from the deaths of Iraqi children through sanctions, it’s the population that suffers when they are imposed, so we can’t say how awful it is on one hand, and continue to impose sanctions on the other. Is this covered in the book, Jackie? I presume as China’s and Russia’s influence is on the up, the picture may change somewhat.

  5. Jackie
    October 4, 2010

    The book didn’t really mention the U.S. or other countries except for Japan & China, because they’ve had the most influence on North Korea. They did mention that emergency food boxes & sacks of rice/grain had “E.U.” or other Western abbreviations stamped upon them. The author seemed to maintain journalistic remoteness, in just reporting without adding opinions or possible solutions.
    For instance, she said that in Pyongyang, the capital, had more electricity that the rest of the country combined(verified in satellite maps), even in prestigious universities.There was also more food available there too.
    I recall Bishop Tutu disagreeing with sanctions during apartheid South Africa, so it seems like it’s the most vulnerable who are most often hurt by sanctions.

  6. Nikki
    October 5, 2010

    I’ve always been aware of Korea, I studied the war at A-level and I knew things like the people weren’t allowed to watch certain TV channels. I had no idea about the famine though or the numbers, which is horrific – surely we should all know about that? But somehow, the idea that the government can tell you what to wear or how to cut your hair is more chilling because they’re such tiny things, just little expressions of indivuality. To have that stamped on makes me feel sick.

  7. fauquet
    October 16, 2010

    Interesting sum of the book which gives ENVY to read it and to know more about North Korea.

  8. Pingback: Library Loot (November 4, 2010) « Olduvai Reads

  9. Pingback: Review: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

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