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As Barbara Demick says in her epilogue, North Korea is something of a mystery. How has it avoided the collapse that experts have been predicting for 15 or more years? How has it been so successful at keeping citizens ignorant of the outside world and the outside world ignorant of its machinations? And, because of these successes at insulation, is it even possible to understand what life is like in North Korea?
Fortunately, Nohing to Envy gives us a "yes" answer to this last question; here is a book where we hear the stories of six North Korean defectors. In interweaving chapters, Demick reconstructs these tales of struggle with the skill of a novelist (and anyone not told that this is a work of journalism may be forgiven for thinking it a dystopian novel a la 1984 (Signet Classics) or We (Modern Library Classics)).
Dr. Kim is a medical doctor, devoted to the Workers party; Mrs. Song is a wife forced to find any way she can to feed her family, including daughter Oak-Hee in increasingly dismal times; Kim Hyuck is a boy whose father gave him to a state orphanage rather than have a son he couldn't support; Jun-Sang and Mi-Ran are secretly boyfriend and girlfriend, each with private reservations about, and struggles with, North Korea that remain private for fear of governmental repurcussions.Read more ›
I find myself fascinated by the lives of North Koreans: So completely different from ours in the first world. What is most fascinating is that they don't even know what they're missing, indoctrinated virtually from birth that the U.S. is evil and their Dear Leader is a god. This book is for people like me, that want to know more about what it's really like to live there, day by day. The book is full of little details like the very modest housing, the lack of heat in the wintertime everywhere, and how rations worked before they were cut off; to say nothing of the many ways to avoid starvation or watching what you say all the time for fear of being reported to the authorities for the North Korean equivalent of blasphemy.
The book follows six people through their lives in the DPRK in the 1990's, including the huge famine which occurred at that time; and, ultimately, their decisions to defect (a foregone conclusion since otherwise their stories would not be told). I found myself fascinated by them, especially how each figures out that their country's leadership has let them down. The author even managed to fit in a love story which, far from being hokey, is especially riveting due to the circumstances. The book is well-written and easy to read, the only mar being occasional repeated information which is easy to overlook.
I feel like I'm barely scratching the surface with this review. If reading this makes you want to know more, you won't be disappointed by the book.
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This is a gripping book. The six defectors interviewed by Demick describe North Korea as a totalitarian state in a post-apocalypse condition. That's why the visions of Orwell and McCarthy come to mind.
North Korea suffered two tragedies. The first one was the split of the Korean peninsula at the end of WWII and Stalin installing a like-minded dictator at its helm, Kim Il-sung. The latter eradicates religion and replaces it by his own cult of personality. In achieving a God status in his country, he bests Stalin, Hitler and Fidel Castro. Upon his death in the early nineties, many North Koreans will commit suicides. And, North Koreans will believe (through intense political propaganda) that if they cry enough Kim Il-sung will come back from the dead. The son of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il will succeed him as a son of God.
North Korea's second tragedy was the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the latter collapsed it interrupted its assistance in food and oil. North Korea did not have enough fuel on its own to maintain its electrical grid. On the first page of the first chapter you see a picture of the Korean peninsula at night. South Korea is full of bright spots (urban areas lit by electricity). But, North Korea is pitch dark! In the post Soviet Union era, North Korea suffers shortages of electricity, running water, and food. Millions have already died of starvation. People are not paid. They are compensated by food rations. But, if you don't work you don't eat. The ones who don't receive food attempt to survive by milling bark, grasses, shrubs, leaves.
The majority of the country still suffers from malnutrition. Millions more would die if not for foreign assistance.Read more ›
I find North Korea fascinating so have read quite a bit on it, but expect that even a reader with no more background than enjoying the Kim Jong Il puppet in "Team America: World Police" would find this book accessible and worthwhile. Drawing on extensive interviews from those who have escaped North Korea, Remick provides rare, very human insights on life in this bizarre nation, rather than discussing the geopolitical issues in great detail. Having recently re-read "1984", I was struck by how this book shows the stunning parallels between the world Orwell feared could emerge from totalitarianism ideology and an actual 21C society. Little wonder "1984" was the favourite novel of one of the defectors in "Nothing to Envy".
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Barbara Demick is Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and author of Nothing to Envy:Ordinary Lives in North Korea.The book won the U.K.'s top non-fiction prize, the Samuel Johnson award, in 2010 and was a finalist for both the National Book Awards and a National Book Critics Circle Awards. Demick's earlier book, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood is to be republished in 2012 by Granta.