- Paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Spiegel & Grau; Reprint edition (September 21, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0385523912
- ISBN-13: 978-0385523912
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars See all reviews (1,451 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,412 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea Reprint Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A fascinating and deeply personal look at the lives of six defectors from the repressive totalitarian regime of the Republic of North Korea, in which Demick, an L.A. Times staffer and former Seoul bureau chief, draws out details of daily life that would not otherwise be known to Western eyes because of the near-complete media censorship north of the arbitrary border drawn after Japan's surrender ending WWII. As she reveals, ordinary life in North Korea by the 1990s became a parade of horrors, where famine killed millions, manufacturing and trade virtually ceased, salaries went unpaid, medical care failed, and people became accustomed to stepping over dead bodies lying in the streets. Her terrifying depiction of North Korea from the night sky, where the entire area is blacked out from failure of the electrical grid, contrasts vividly with the propaganda on the ground below urging the country's worker-citizens to believe that they are the envy of the world. Thorough interviews recall the tremendous difficulty of daily life under the regime, as these six characters reveal the emotional and cultural turmoil that finally caused each to make the dangerous choice to leave. As Demick weaves their stories together with the hidden history of the country's descent into chaos, she skillfully re-creates these captivating and moving personal journeys. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
*Starred Review* In spite of the strict restrictions on foreign press, award-winning journalist Demick caught telling glimpses of just how surreal and mournful life is in North Korea. Her chilling impressions of a dreary, muffled, and depleted land are juxtaposed with a uniquely to-the-point history of how North Korea became an industrialized Communist nation supported by the Soviet Union and China and ruled by Kim Il Sung, then collapsed catastrophically into poverty, darkness, and starvation under the dictator’s son, Kim Jong Il. Demick’s bracing chronicle of the horrific consequences of decades of brutality provide the context for the wrenching life stories of North Korean defectors who confided in Demick. Mi-ran explains that even though her “tainted blood” (her father was a South Korean POW) kept her apart from the man she loved, she managed to become a teacher, only to watch her starving students waste away. Dr. Kim Ki-eum could do nothing to help her dying patients. Mrs. Song, a model citizen, was finally forced to face cruel facts. Strongly written and gracefully structured, Demick’s potent blend of personal narratives and piercing journalism vividly and evocatively portrays courageous individuals and a tyrannized state within a saga of unfathomable suffering punctuated by faint glimmers of hope. --Donna Seaman --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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.