Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea

by Barbara Demick


In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only colour to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea and Barbara Demick's book, Nothing to Envy, which won this year's BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, is filled with all such descriptions of the 'hermit state' they don't want you to know about:

There is almost no signage, few motor vehicles. Private ownership of cars is largely illegal, not that anyone can afford them. You seldom even see tractors, only scraggly oxen dragging plows. The houses are simple, utilitarian and monochromatic. There is little that predates the Korean War.

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Price: £8:99
Publication Date: Granta Books 2010
ISBN: 978-1847081414

Demick, an American journalist, was a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, covering both North Korea and South Korea, in 2004. She was based in Soul, but made several trips to the North, and conducted extensive interviews with North Koreans who had defected. It is from these interviews that Demick shapes her book: a non-fiction account of six ordinary citizens living in the world's most secretive and repressive state. The author illuminated for us a nation where citizens are encouraged to spy upon one another; where they are forbidden from listening or watching any media other than those run by the state; where every household must keep a portrait of the president on display; where they are so cut off from the rest of the world they truly believe the motto that they have "nothing to envy".
When their great leader Kim Il-sung died in 1994, many North Koreans fell to their knees and, like malfunctioning robots, began banging their heads on the pavements. In the weeks that followed, hundreds killed themselves or died from grief and many children, dangerously dehydrated from crying in the sun, were admitted to hospital. For almost half a century the communist dictator had treated his people like slaves, executed the innocent and, following the country's economic collapse in the 1990s, allowed millions to starve to death.
Weaving together the accounts of six North Korean defectors, the author has created a fascinating portrait of a population bred from birth to be state automatons. Schoolchildren are taught songs such as "Shoot the Yankee Bastards" and bombarded with propaganda portraying Kim Il-sung as a god who "caused trees to bloom and snow to melt". In the face of such indoctrination, Demick asks, "Who could possibly resist?"
But the fact is that many did resist, and their gruelling, the daring prison breaks and midnight escapes through icy rivers to reach China, the tales of everyday love and loss make this book impossible to put down even when you really should turn the light of and go to sleep. For years, two young people, Mi-ran and Jun-sang, risked everything for their forbidden love but never dared confide their feelings of political disillusionment to each other. In a society where sexual relationships outside of marriage are allegedly  frowned upon and sex-education is non-existent, it took six years before they shared their first kiss. Mi-Ran says when she eventually fled North Korea she was "twenty-six years old and a schoolteacher, but I didn't know how babies were conceived". As the famine set in, mothers sacrificed everything to feed their families, prostituting themselves for bags of potatoes, while teachers watched helplessly as their malnourished pupils faded away "growing younger, like a movie reel run in reverse".
For most of Demick's interviewees, enlightenment came slowly. Jun-sang's gnawing feeling that North Korea was a corrupt regime was confirmed when he began illegally watching South Korean TV; it was, he says, "like looking in the mirror for the first time and realising you were unattractive". With an eye for the most minute detail, Demick holds this mirror up for the rest of the world, allowing the survivors' stories to unfold without judgment while revealing the trials they now face adjusting to freedom.

Viewed from space North Korea is invisible, a black expanse; when the economy collapsed in the 1990s, the lights literally went out. Electricity is in such short supply that the lights are switched off every evening, plunging the whole of North Korea into darkness, something chillingly illustrated through a satellite photo of North Korea at night in the introduction.
Nothing to Envy is an extremely valuable and truly astounding book, if you're intrigued, as I have always been, by a nation that seems to have fallen off the map of the developed world and want to know how ordinary citizens have endured such extraordinary circumstances for so long, then this book should not be missed. With Mao's Great Famine -another book I recently reviewed- there is an emerging literature illuminating very dark and unexplored areas of far eastern history that I hope we are going to see more of. If this madness is going to end, we need to know it exists.