Nothing to Envy

Nothing_to_EnvyAfter reading Guy Delisle’s fascinating, but frustrating graphic memoir Pyongyang, I wanted to learn more about North Korea, and Aarti told me that this book by Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick was great, so I decided to give it a try. (I also have The Orphan Master’s Son out from the library.) Subtitled “Ordinary Lives in North Korea,” this book offers what Delisle’s book lacks: the voices of actual North Koreans.

As a correspondent assigned to Seoul, Demick actually had an advantage over Delisle. She could get into North Korea, but, like Delisle, she was escorted around by “minders” who ensured that she only saw and heard what the government wanted her to see and hear. However, in Seoul, she had access to North Korean defectors who had escaped to China or South Korea. You might think that defectors would be less than reliable sources; they disliked the country enough to leave it, but the people Demick focuses on were not all dissidents who left for political reasons. Some were looking for family, and one even had to be tricked into defecting. Among them were some true believers who, even as famine raged and electricity went out, thought that their government was looking out for them.

But by talking to actual North Koreans, Demick is able to draw a compassionate picture of what it’s like to live in a totalitarian state. This compassion is important. It’s all too easy to point and laugh at some of the ridiculous practices, like the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-Il that must hang alone on a wall in every home, always kept clean in case of a surprise inspection. Demick sees the danger and avoids it. She writes:

North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people. But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-Sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-Sung’s divinity. Who could possibly resist?

Demick focuses on six people, all of them from the industrial city of Chongjin. Despite being from the same city, these six people did not all have the same experience of North Korean life. Jun-Sang, for example, was a student who eventually earned the privilege of studying in Pyongyang. His secret girlfriend, Mi-Ran, was the daughter of a South Korean POW and therefore had no hope of gaining such status. She was lucky to get a job as a teacher. Dr. Kim felt beholden to the North Korean government for giving her an education. It was only after crossing the border to keep a promise to her father and seeing that dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea that she began to lose her loyalty.  Kim Hyuck was an orphan who lived on the streets of Chongjin. Mrs. Song and her daughter Oak-Hee struggled during the famine, but they were each in their own ways wily enough to make money and survive even during the worst of the famine.

Mrs. Song was perhaps my favorite of the defectors. She’s loyal to the government almost to the end, but that doesn’t stop her from starting her own illegal business at age 50 to keep her and her family from starving. She was great—despite being among the most reluctant to leave Chongjin, she took up the freedom of South Korean life with gusto. There’s a photo of her near the end of the book browsing in a Seoul market, and it made me almost unbelievably happy. This is a woman who did everything the North Korean government told her too, only to lose almost everything in a famine. She watched her family members die, one by one, and was left living in a shack that didn’t even have a wall strong enough to hold her pictures of the supreme leaders. When that home was broken into, and everything stolen, including the glass from those portraits, she started another business.

This book spends a lot of time on people’s suffering, but there’s joy too. There’s joy in family and friends and young love. There’s joy in finding that last bit of money or food that enables another day or survival. There’s joy in learning about the world outside and experiencing it firsthand. It’s a fascinating look at the kind of place most of us will never see firsthand, but most of all, it’s a look at the people who managed to survive it. It’s a book about people, real people. And that’s what makes it good.

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9 Responses to Nothing to Envy

  1. Lisa says:

    I am adding this to my reading list. North Korea seems almost beyond fiction, as if no story could convey the reality of what people living there experience.

    • Teresa says:

      I’ve heard good things about The Orphan Master’s Son, which I actually have out from the library now, but I’m glad to have started with nonfiction. I wouldn’t believe some of it if I read it in a novel. One of the defectors read 1984 after leaving North Korea and told Demick that Orwell got life in a totalitarian regime right.

      • biblioglobal says:

        Nothing to Envy is a great book! I haven’t read The Orphan Master’s Son yet either, but my boyfriend read it first and then when he was reading Nothing to Envy he in fact found that much of what he thought was exaggeration or satire in The Orphan Master’s Son turned out to be actual fact.

      • Teresa says:

        I’m glad I read this before Orphan Master’s Son then. I can be hard to please with satire, so if seemed too over-the-top, I might not finish. In this case, the reality is pretty over-the-top.

  2. It’s good to hear that there’s some joy to leaven the suffering. I’ve been aware of this book for ages, but the prospect of so much suffering has prevented me from actually reading it. (Behind the Beautiful Forevers, too.) You make it sound great, and you’ve kind of taken away my excuse for not reading it. :p

    • Teresa says:

      There are some parts that are really grim, especially during the famine. But it helped me to know that the people I got to know best would survive. And then the stories of the actual escapes are so exciting, and I was so happy for them, especially Mrs Song! Mrs. Song is the best.

  3. aartichapati says:

    I know exactly what you mean about maybe not believing everything that is in novels about North Korea! And then you read this book, and you realize it is not even scratching the surface…

    While I did not love everything about The Orphan Master’s Son, I did like that he brought the compassion you mention above to his novel – there are still friendships and kindness in such a place.

    • Teresa says:

      I am glad to hear that Orphan Master’s Son is compassionate in its depiction. After getting to love the people in this book, I’d be really annoyed at a book that pokes fun at the people of North Korea.

  4. Pingback: North Korea: A Modern Portrait of the Past? | Globe Drifting

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