Nothing to Envy

When Barbara Demick moved to Seoul, South Korea as a the Beijing Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times, North Korea was a mystery. The country had media controlled by the state which preached propaganda. Even throughout her reporting there, Demick found it difficult to hone in on the lives of the citizens of North Korea.

Until she focused on the defectors or people that left North Korea for its ill-liked southern counterpart, in her book “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea” focuses on six.

The book opens with a love story or rather the promise of one. Mir-an, a now married and pregnant schoolteacher living in South Korea remises on her first love Ju-Sung. Their story is a bit star-crossed because he is of a higher family ranking than hers.  Other stories include an orphaned teenager, a female doctor, a mother and daughter, and a model citizen middle-age factory worker.


Demick traces their lives through major events and provides brief historical context recounting how the Koreas became separated, the famine of 1996 and the death of ruler Kim Sung II. She trails them, pinpointing the exact moments that they lost faith in the regime, when they fled to South Korea and why.


She vividly describes the famine and how food rations slowly became smaller until all the defectors turned to the black market for food.


They would look at me with accusing eyes. Even four-year-olds knew they were dying and that I wasn’t doing anything to help them, “said Dr.Kim. “All I was capable of doing was to cry with their mothers over the bodies afterward.” 


Last year the Center for Protecting Journalists ranked North Korea the second most censored country in the world. It’s review read, “nearly all the content of North Korea’s 12 main newspapers, 20 periodicals, and broadcasters comes from the official Korean Central News Agency and focuses on the political leadership’s statements and supposed activities. Ruling elites have access to the World Wide Web, but the public is limited to a heavily monitored and censored network with no connections to the outside world.”


Demick provides detailed examples of this. She writes about how many of the other Asian countries achievements were dismissed by the North Korean government, such as South Korea or China’s booming economies.


For Dr. Kim, it wasn’t until reaching South Korea, a trip she made to find her extended family, that she realized what she had believed her whole life about the southern country was wrong.   


“As it happened, Dr. Kim’s resolve weakened during her first hours in China when she saw the big bowl of white rice and meat set out for the dog. With each passing day, there was a fresh observation that would heighten her outrage over the lies she’s been fed. (257).


Dr. Kim, like many of the others, still felt guilt over abandoning their native land and faced some difficulty fitting in with the vastly different culture of South Korea.


Overall, Demick does an excellent job of narrating the lives of six vastly different people at various times in their lives. She moves through their stories with a gentle touch that reveals much more than current headlines about life in a country the size of Pennsylvania.







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