Books: “Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick

NOTHING TO ENVY: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009. xii, 314 pp. (Maps, B&W photos.) US$26.00, cloth. ISBN 978-0-385-52390-5. This book review by CanKor Editor-in-chief Erich Weingartner was published in Pacific Affairs, Vol. 83, No. 4, December 2010, pp. 809-810.

Nothing to Envy

It is said that the devil is in the details, but there are plenty of angels in the details as well. It is the details that interest Barbara Demick, Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, as she profiles personal triumph in the midst of the multiple tragedies that have engulfed the people of North Korea. Nothing to Envy reads like a novel, though Demick is a stickler for historical accuracy and has added chapter notes for academic interest.

Having interviewed a hundred North Korean “defectors” in South Korea and China, Demick selected an assortment who represented different social strata in the highly layered class system of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The author weaves a tapestry of contemporary history by means of the personal stories of six North Korean protagonists: a teacher, a doctor, a housewife, a broadcaster, a student and a homeless orphan.

Four of the six are women, giving Demick the opportunity to paint a multifaceted picture of the day-to-day life of North Korean women that has never before been portrayed in such excruciating detail: from menstrual rags and sex education to abortions, from romance and marriage to divorce, from make-up and hair styles to famine survival recipes. A chapter entitled “Mothers of Invention” illustrates how local factors stimulated the phenomenal growth of markets and micro-enterprises in the DPRK, and why the central government repeatedly tried—and failed—to regulate and restrict them.

“The vast majority of the vendors were women,” writes Demick. “The face of the new economy was increasingly female. The men were stuck in unpaying state jobs; women were making money” (157).

In “Twilight of the God,” each of the main characters describes how they experienced the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994, shedding light on the hysterical mass mourning syndrome that so puzzled the rest of the world. “Fade to Black” chronicles how the collapse of Soviet communism drew the DPRK into an economic maelstrom that left factory closures, deforestation and famine in its wake. In 1996 Kim Jong Il warned that the food problem was creating anarchy. Unfortunately, it was force rather than food that was used to deal with this threat. Yet public executions, prisons and labour camps were insufficient deterrents against a people whose survival depended increasingly on bribes, prostitution, theft and a thriving black market trade across the Chinese border.

All six principals come from Chongjin, a major industrial seaport in the northeast corner of the country. I visited Chongjin and the Tumen River along the Chinese border a number of times during my tenure with the World Food Programme. Agriculturally, this is one of North Korea’s poorest provinces. It is also the farthest away from the centres of power in Pyongyang. Proximity to a Korean ethnic population on the Chinese side has facilitated the emergence of an “underground railway” operated by a variety of shady “brokers” who have proliferated on both sides of the border to take advantage of a desperate and unsuspecting people. That is how Demick’s protagonists eventually end up in South Korea.

Most books about North Korean refugees end with arrival in the “Promised Land,” but Demick devotes a full third of her book to a description of the difficulties faced by defectors trying to adjust to a loud, crowded, modern, cut-throat capitalist society, whose people view them with a combination of pity, fear, guilt and embarrassment.

“The sad truth is that North Korean defectors are often difficult people,” writes Demick (260). “Guilt and shame are the common denominators … many hate themselves for what they had to do in order to survive” (271).

The book’s title comes from a children’s song every North Korean learns in kindergarten. On his way home from his Pyongyang university, one of the book’s principals watches an emaciated seven-year-old orphan on a train station platform begging for scraps of food by singing, “We have nothing to envy in the world.” It is a defining moment in the life of the student and illustrates the type of detail that makes Barbara Demick’s book such a pleasure to read.

I approached this work with some hesitation. Did I want to put myself through yet another menu of depressing facts and figures? In the end I read the book twice. It is so beautifully, so sensitively written, that one feels guided to hold gently the intrinsic value of the human experience even in the darkest valleys of human depravity.

2 Responses to “Books: “Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick”

  1. Jim Vav Says:

    I recently read this book also, and was gripped by the stories of hardship, despair and struggle. I felt as if I were accompanying the families on their arduous journeys. It is an inspirational book eloquently written.

  2. Dwain Epps Says:

    I failed in my duty to CanKor to read Erich Weingartner’s review when it was published. I came back to it only after the death of Kim Jong Il and the renewed questioning in the West (and I suppose elsewhere) about the scenes of mass mourning to which we have been endlessly exposed. Demick’s book needed an informed and sensitive reviewer to convey its importance. Weingartner did the book, the author and all of us a true service by presenting this book with such clarity and personal understanding of the subject matter and the people of North Korea.

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