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33 of 38 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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