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368 of 379 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Defectors' Stories!
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...
Published on December 26, 2009 by Kevin Currie-Knight

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172 of 226 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More please . . . .
As evident by the length of reviews on this book already posted, this book about the North Korean regime and the ordeals of the six chronicled defectors is a worthwhile read and I don't need to summarize or highlight events in the book as others have already done so.

I'd like to make a few comments about the book from a Korean American perspective. Some of the...
Published on February 4, 2010 by H. Lim


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368 of 379 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Defectors' Stories!, December 26, 2009
This review is from: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Hardcover)
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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. Through these tales, we are able to glimpse life in a nation gone horribly wrong, where selling anything privately or insulting the Workers Psrty can land you years of time in prison or a labor camp, where emaciated children sing songs extolling North Korea, and one's station in life is dictated by how loyal one's family has been to "the Party." The stories are wonderfully told and, at times, I found myself putting the book down out of disbelief, outrage, and thankfulness for my own circumstances. I don't think anyone could read these stories and not feel very strongly.

Of course, Demick is also telling stories of defectors - by definition, stories about the strength of human spirit and tenacity. Nothing to Envy not only tells of economic collapse, but people's initiative in bringing about (illegal) markets to buy and sell goods. She not only tells of spirits being broken, but spirits persevering. And just as readers will certainly feel heartbreaks in these pages, so will they also feel joy in reading about some really brave people who broke the rules and thought for themeslves.

I cannot reccomend this book strongly enough! Readers of fiction (and biography) will get lost in the stories; readers of foreign affairs and political science will relish the descriptions of life under a most secret regime. Nothing to Envy is as captivating as a human story as it is informative as a political description.
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146 of 155 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Details of life in North Korea, December 27, 2009
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John K. (Riverside, CA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Hardcover)
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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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192 of 212 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Orwell's "1984" meets McCarthy's "The Road", December 30, 2009
This review is from: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Hardcover)
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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. But, the government misallocates food assistance by giving it to the ones who need it the least such as the army and the Pyongyang residents. Meanwhile, rural areas are starving. Within the book, a defecting doctor describes it best as she crossed the border in China and finds a full bowl of rice served to a dog and stated "dogs in China eat better than doctors in North Korea."

While Koreans physical attributes were reasonably homogeneous a while back, they have since diverged dramatically. The North Koreans are half a foot shorter and tens of pounds lighter because of malnutrition. North Koreans born in the late eighties to early nineties are recognizable as they are shorter with heads disproportionately large relative to their bodies with overly thin and frail limbs.

In the early nineties before foreign aid rallied after the collapse of Soviet Union subsidies, society took a McCarthy's turn with many crimes, suicides, and even cannibalism (homeless orphans overtaken by starving adults in remote areas).

Only a totalitarian State could prevent such a society to fall into chaos. Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il have created a cult of personality supported by an obsessive self-surveillance society. North Koreans main activity is reporting on each other. The surveillance starts from the bottom up with "people's group" were everyone reports on everyone else. At dinner if you expressed a mild criticism of the current regime, you could be reported by a neighbor. Soon, after you could be abducted by the police and disappear in a camp forever. Many surveilling police forces are very specialized. If you sleep with your lover, a specialized police force can barge in the middle of the night and ask your lover for its travel permit. If the adequate documents are not produced the person can end up in prison. Another specialized police force watches that people wear the correct garments with the buttons showing support for the regime. Another one checks in that your TV or radio (a few people have electricity for a few moments a day) is set on the proper North Korean program. If you tweaked this equipment to listen to South Korean programs, you can incur severe punishment including death. Another police force makes sure that the portraits of the dictators are clean. If not you are in trouble.

Society is categorized in three classes: 1) the core class representing the professionals and government leaders; 2) the wavering class representing some sort of middle class; and 3) the hostile class representing entertainers, artists, nonproductive elements, and everyone of foreign origins. The hostile class is the one most intensely spied upon by others. Thus, it is most vulnerable to be imprisoned in camps and gulags for no obvious reason.

Propaganda is relentless. The dictator is the benevolent father of the nation. Without his hard work and superior intelligence you would be dying of starvation twice as fast as you are. Everybody else is the enemy. This includes Americans, Chinese, South Koreans, and even Russians and East-Europeans who failed at communism because of their genetic weakness. Capitalism is rotten. In other words, you have "Nothing to Envy."

Meanwhile, reality is stunningly bad. Chapter 7 describes the decrepit health care system. Hospitals lack all basic supplies and remedies. Many operations are conducted without anesthetic by tying the patient to boards. Children come in the hospitals and die because their weakening bodies from starvation can't fend off mild colds or flues that escalate into pneumonia. Chapter 8 describes the conditions in school that are equally horrible. Given that schools are broke, children are required to bring a ration of wood for heating and their own lunch. A teacher/defector observed a tragic pattern. At first, the children stop bringing their ration of wood. Next, the children don't bring their own lunch (and therefore don't eat during the day). And, soon after children do not even attend school.
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47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Rare insight, December 16, 2012
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Duffman (Sydney, Australia) - See all my reviews
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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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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Exellent "human" portrait of life in North Korea, January 9, 2010
This review is from: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Hardcover)
I saw Ms. Demick speak at Asia Society on January 7, 2010. I purchased the book, started reading it that night, and stayed up past midnight to finish it the next evening. This an extraordinary work and I could not put it down. I have a graduate degree in East Asian History and have read several books on North Korea, but I can say I learned a lot of new things from this one. There are several other good books on North Korea but I think this book is the most moving and offers the best psychological perspective.

Ms. Demick skillfully weaves together stories of six North Korean refugees into a narrative which portrays life in North Korea from WWII to the present. She tells us about real people, each of whom is different, and helps us understand the interior psychological reality of life inside this closed society. Her descriptions of places, events, and emotions are beautifully crafted and you feel like you are there. As I read the book I felt sad about the terrible conditions under which people live, and also came out with a much better understanding of the motivations of people in North Korea.

These points that the author made are particularly interesting:
- In the 1950's conditions in North Korea were actually better than in China, and some people moved across the border from China to Korea.
- While banning Christianity the regime actually borrowed from it, e.g. referring to the leaders as "father," their savior.
- Like cult members it is very hard for many people to abandon the world view of the regime, even after they leave.
- The most shattering thing to people who break with the regime is the discovery that the outside world, especially China and South Korea, are not living in the same state of misery.
- While still opposing capitalism ideologically, some people, especially women in their 50's, started to practice a form of it just to survive.

I highly recommend this book.
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23 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nightmare fuel, June 13, 2010
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This review is from: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Hardcover)
If you ever needed a book to teach you that you ought to be desperately, profoundly, whole-heartedly grateful for your mortgage and your bills and your speeding ticket and your whiny children, this is the book. If you ever thought you had it rough, this book will fix your attitude. There's a certain type of discussion, often called the "come to jesus" discussion regardless of whether it had anything to do with religion - it's the last-chance talk you have with someone who needs a major attitude adjustment. This book is a factual account of a hidden world, a condemnation of a nation mired in disaster, and a rousing face-slap for anyone in the west so stuck on their own problems they can't see any way out.

It's also giving you a glimpse into a world so secretive that most people know more about the fantasy world of "Avatar" than they do about this real place. It's showing you scenes of terrifying beauty couched in scenes of humanitarian desecration. It's a glimpse into another world, one you will never get the chance to see, one that bears no resemblance to anything else on this earth. It's a fossil, something preserved from the days of kings and emperors, and gives you a glimpse into how the world was run before the Magna Carta forced western monarchies to recognize their duty, no matter how limited, to their people. It ought to be required reading for romanticists and those who dream of royalty: this is how it works int he real world, when one man has absolute power.
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26 of 31 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Nation of Prisoners, February 1, 2010
This review is from: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Hardcover)
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Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy is probably the best account, for the layman, of the last two decades in North Korea. Demick has used her time as the bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times' Seoul desk to gradually gather enough sources to paint a portrait of the hermit nation. This book is the story of a few people from Chonjin. None are members of the Worker's Party, and each is now a defector. They include a shy scholar, a doctor, a teacher, a young woman from a family with Japanese blood, an older woman with a lot of community pride, a young man who learns to steal food in spite of his proud father's scorn. The title refers to the refrain of a patriotic song. "We have nothing to envy.." It is a phrase that lends itself to irony.

If I am honest with myself, I have to recognize the paradox posed by reading a book about North Korea. There is no doubt that the people of this nation are in peril. It deserves our concern. It begs for some kind of conversation. What can be done? It would demand that we understand why our existing political remedies fail to make a difference. Yet reading, by itself, falls short of action. If concern is the only response, then what does that mean? I am reflecting on my own culpability. I am a better reader when I am also entertained. I am concerned about NK, but I didn't pick up any of the human rights reports on this subject. It is much like the beautiful photography by Sebastiao Salgado of famine in the Sudan. We readily consume glorious reportage of tragic suffering.

A recurring theme is that survivors live only when they learn to put their interests ahead of anyone else. The young man lives, while his father starves to death in a train station. The schoolteacher watches her pupils starve, but she is not foolish. She doesn't share her meager rations with her students. When people have to work all day to put together 500 calories a day, there is little room to offer kindness to strangers.

The book has three parts in my mind. The first section attempts to offer some degree of sympathy for the country. She mentions that even if there is no electricity at night in much of the country, that means walks at night are uncluttered. The sky is lit up by stars. There is very little pollution. True....I suppose.

The next section goes into the grisly bits that underscore the larger truth: this is a horrible place to live. The people are living under a slow emergency. The country's leaders have given up any pretense that society is functioning. People spend their days scavenging for food. The eat tree bark, or sticks, or grass. The hospitals don't have electricity, let alone medicine. A character in this story acknowledges the truth - the country has become one large prison. Its citizens are hostage to the failed philosophies of its leadership. When the government admits that there is widespread homelessness in their paradise, they establish a series of community structures. Those structures turn out to be small jails.

In the last chapter, Demick departs from strict reportage and moves into some reflection with a fair bit of speculation. She reverts to using symbolic imagery. Swallows, for example, are the young children cast off from their families that learn to survive by stealing bits of food from the illegal black market farmer's markets. The economy's lack of energy can even be seen in how people stand. It is not unusual, she says, to see a large group of people setting on their haunches for hours at a time. They are conserving their energy. Besides, they don't have anything else to do.

I didn't understand that the implosion of this economy was predicated by the end of a ready supply of oil. North Korea could no longer look to allies in the Communist World with fuel (Soviet Union), because after 1989, they weren't there. North Korea had developed into an industrial nation. In Chonjin, where these subjects in this book are all from, huge mines and factories are silenced without oil. Even the coal mines, which should provide a ready supply of energy, won't produce without the oil needed to power the earth moving machines. This contributes to a lack of food, because most fertilizers require oil. Farming requires fuel to run machines.

Demick's book avoids layering the reporting with too much opinion. She lets the facts speak for themselves. Some of the details in this book are fascinating. For example, she explains why North Korean clothing has such a distinctly colorless look. It turns out that this is not an accident or a poor electronic reproduction. It is vinalon, a textile invented in North Korea that is made from a mixture of coal, limestone, and vinyl. It is often called Juche Fiber. Vinalon dies won't hold color, so it tends to be dark. Another oddity is the tradition of giving candy to children on the birthdays of Kim Jong-Il and Kim il-Sung. The rest of the year,they starve like everyone else. The Party uses the candy in conjunction with its other propaganda: Each home has pictures of the two leaders. The pictures are required to be displayed in every families, and they are inspected for cleanliness. It is front of those pictures that the children are given their candy. The association between their leaders and great benevolence is thus constructed. Details like these don't need any additional persuasion to make the main point.

Going back to my own ethical quandary, I am left even more uncertain about what the West can do to resolve this situation. North Korea's leadership uses our overtures of aid to generate aid donations. That food is not making its way to the people. The government uses what fertility is left in the soil to grow poppies for heroin. North Korea is supposed to be a producer of methamphetamine as well. It would be hard to imagine a country more deserving of regime change. Our aid programs seem to only delay the inevitable. Each day only serves to push more people into starvation.

Not everyone wants to know about a place like North Korea. I do, but I'll admit that I could find very few people who wanted to hear about the details that are within this book. I don't think that there are many better alternatives than this book. There is a famous documentary from the BBC, a series of academic journal publications, and the reports from human rights observers. Those have their own strength, but none can match this book for its ability to put this crisis into the context of the lives of North Korea's common citizens.
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28 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Humbling and one book you MUST try and read!!!!!, December 23, 2009
This review is from: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Hardcover)
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It's 1 am December 22nd as I write this, and I doubt I will even be able to sleep tonight, because this book is one that is haunting my every thought.

Loving books as much as I do, I force myself to read books which I know will make me feel sad, and even mad. This is one of those books. Started reading it a few days before Christmas and am glad I did, since its a book that kicks you in the gut and makes to verbally acknowledge just how blessed one is, here in the states, where for the most part, even the poor at least have some plain, healthy food to eat at least daily. Now I tend to be one of those people who when I lay in bed, ready for sleep, and I go over the days activities, I pause to give thanks for clean water, simple food, indoor plumbing, a bed to sleep in and while not well off by any standards, I am nonetheless lacking for none of the basics of life.

This book literally made me cry, which is good. How one could read of North Koreans living in such horrid conditions, cutting grass and weeds to make some awful soup, because they are so hungry. Or parents bringing children to fifth world medical clinics because they have no milk, not even rice. On page 112 we read of a young female doctor who is trying against all odds to help her people. 'The problem was with the food. Housewives started to pick weeds and wild grasses to add to their soups to create the illusion of vegetables. Corn was increasingly the staple again instead of rice but people were adding leaves, husks, stems, and cobs to make it go further. That was okay for adults, but it couldn't be digested by the young stomachs of children. In the hospital doctors discussed this problem among themselves, and gave the mothers what amounted to cooking advise. 'If you use grass or bark, you have to grind it very fine, then cook it a very long time so it is soft a d easy to eat.' Dr. Kim told them.' One reads how the doctors harvest herbs in the surrounding areas and try to make their own medicines and herbal treatments, because they have no other choice.

Another problem one reads about is pellagra which is caused by lack of niacin in the diet and often seen in people who only eat corn. The hospitals which may have had antibiotics years ago had none now. Mothers didn't eat enough to produce breast milk so baby and toddlers died. And if they could have afforded rice they would have tried to make rice milk, but there was no rice. Think of any horrid situation a country who doesn't care about her citizens can have and this is North Korea. Only a small are of North Korea is open to visitors and then they have a 'minder' who takes them around and only allows them to see certain things and speak to certain people.

Dr. Kim who had begun medical school at age 16, finally is able to escape with the help of the underground and she ends up in China and then South Korea where in her forties she has to start medical school all over again, but succeeds. And the book also covers the story of others who at great risk, did what they had to in order to escape North Korea. Since returning to North Korea if caught would have meant either a hard labor camp or even death. Visualize for a moment someone in their thirties who because of malnutrition looks like they are twelve years old. Or if a child survives to adult hood they may not be over five feet tall, even if male.

This is a book that will stay with me the rest of my life.
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172 of 226 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More please . . . ., February 4, 2010
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This review is from: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Hardcover)
As evident by the length of reviews on this book already posted, this book about the North Korean regime and the ordeals of the six chronicled defectors is a worthwhile read and I don't need to summarize or highlight events in the book as others have already done so.

I'd like to make a few comments about the book from a Korean American perspective. Some of the details of their lives in North Korean struck a cord in me, particularly Demick's attention to the culinary culture of the Koreans. The detailed explanations of how they made Kimchi and buried them in terracotta or the process of making tofu from beans to the making of soup, reminded me that the North Koreans struck by the famine could easily have been my own mother, sisters, or brothers. In light of the culinary tie, it was especially difficult to read about their starvation and constant concern for where their next meal would come from. Further, Demick's treatment of the Confucius traditions that are so deeply ingrained in Koreans (perhaps more deeply ingrained in the North than the South who have given up many cultural traditions in recent times), revealed profound depth in the narratives of the defectors - their sense of duty to their parents and family - and further explained the twisted hold the Communist regime hand on the people (crimes against the state were often paid for by three generations of the family). Despite their constant fear of the Party and their meager existence, the North Koreans truly believed that things could be much worse and were likely much worse in the West. Nonetheless, it was not so much the ideology they questioned, but economics that finally broke the camel's back and drove them to China and subsequent defection to the South. And while they may have gained freedom from the regime, and a significant increase in their standard of living, I can't help but feel they have also paid the price of loosing some of their Confucius Koreaness as they are now displaced in South Korea, away from the world and family they knew and forced to acculturate to the West. I imagine the haunting memories and the continuing thoughts of the family they left behind makes them wonder if they are even free at all? What good is the most advanced cellular telephone if one cannot reach out to their loved ones? Do the fruits of living in the South make the past (and present) any more bearable? It becomes less about ideological defection, and more about having them face their own demons - the choices they made in their fight for survival. Moreover, their deep love for their "father" Kim Ill Sung cannot be simply forgotten. The Confucius tie of a parent and offspring, of king and subject, are not easily broken. The book reveals that mothers and daughters, sons and fathers, love one another despite any differences. They don't have a choice in that.

(BTW - one dying father's last words in the book - "mother" instantly brought tears to my eyes).

Why the three stars? Demick's work scratches just the surface and I don't think anyone should come away from this book thinking they are even close to a comprehensive understanding. She needs to press on and uncover the deeper wounds from both sides of the DMZ. I'd like Demick to go back, armed with these accounts of these defectors and delve deeper into the lives of the thousands of defectors living in the South, the constant watchful eye of the South Korean government, the cases of North Korean abduction of South Koreans, and the countless Koreans living in Communist China. There are more stories to tell from the hundreds of thousands, whose families are still torn apart. Further, I'd like the public to know more about the failures of the West in bringing humanitarian aid to the North Koreans and not be simply satisfied with the story of theses six chronicled.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very engaging literary journalism, except..., January 13, 2014
This review is from: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (Hardcover)
Demick is a storyteller, no doubt. She gets scene on the page, conflicts and tension. It's a wonderfully rendered account in that regard. The only thing that rubs me the wrong way is her simplistic broad-brushing use of complex political-economic terms like "capitalism" and "socialism." When this occasionally happens, it really gets in the way of the compelling story. She refers to the totalitarian regime of Kim jun sun and Kim Jun Il as "socialist" and what Mrs. Song does to survive as "capitalism." Not even close. So then it strikes a tone of myopia, of "capitalism GOOD, socialism BAD," and it does the story and the reader a disservice, which is unfortumate. It wouldn't have gotten in the way at all to use more accurate terms, thus making the story informative, real, and all the more compelling. Because of this, I was reluctant to give the third star, but did because the storytelling was really amazing. Too bad an easily avoidable misuse of terminology got it the way, because it would have been a fiver, easily, for me.
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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (Hardcover - December 29, 2009)
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