This was a more research-oriented piece for my history class, but I hope you enjoy it - it was honestly a really eye-opening book and I’m just grateful to have read it.
[Written February 21, 2014]
Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009).
In the epilogue, the author points out that North Korea is a bit of mystery. After all, here is a country that has been able to, under rule of one of the last remaining family dictatorships, avoid an economic collapse that experts have been predicting for at least 15 years. Here is a country who is continuously victorious in keeping the majority of its citizens ignorant of the world outside their degrading shell and making sure others are not able to witness the impoverished ambience within that said shell. Here is a country living in the past, avoiding the present, and where life is hard to remotely understand or imagine.
Had I not read the novel, I would never been able to realize how North Korea is in fact living, present-day proof that literary works like Animal Farm and 1984 are more than just fictional tales. Nonetheless, there is some bias since Demick only provides the elaborate anecdotes in her narrative reports of six North Korean defectors, in the hundreds of thousands of North Korean families who remain torn apart. There is also very little mention of the possibility of failure the Western nations had in bringing appropriate humanitarian aid to starving North Koreans, and the book itself is somewhat outdated, but still very relevant given that it was published five years ago. However, Demick’s agenda is very much objective, not personal, and aims to provide a different social perspective from a heredity totalitarian state where one is not allowed to have their own opinion or basic right of freedom.
Demick’s work is endowed with the validity and vitality needed in this present-day globalized era, as she discusses her earliest visits from the 1990’s and presents factoids all the way up until 2009. Demick explains clearly how in the early nineties before foreign aid rallied, North Korea’s society took a turn for the worse, with many crimes, suicides, and even cannibalism (in remote areas starving adults would have access to homeless orphans) becoming commonplace.
Through these tales, I was able to make out alternative point of views within this obsessive self-surveillance regime nation where selling anything privately or insulting the Workers Party could result in long-term prison time, labor camps, or just plain old execution, and one’s life standard is literally dictated by Party loyalty. I realized that perhaps those undernourished children singing songs extolling North Korean did not believe it themselves when they sang the refrain: “We have nothing to envy,” which is irony by definition. As a professional American journalist and from her experience as the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, Demick possess the power to wonderfully weave narratives that caused me to pause several times in disbelief, sadness, and overall moments of gratitude for being born elsewhere. Ergo, yes, the novel was definitely well written, possesses a clear thesis, and yields expertly researched backgrounds.
So does this piece of brilliant journalism present itself as good or bad history? It’s hard to say. The story itself presents scenes of a small piece of humanity undergoing this hazy nightmare in this shed of society isolated from the rest. It’s a bad part of history presented in the best way possible then. Because while most parts of the world today can provide large pieces of literature or some sort of documentation to convey their past struggles and successes, North Korea’s population lacks even basic necessities in their “hermit abyss”. I cannot therefore recommend a better book that adds to the understanding of North Korea’s concealed present state in this twenty-first century as it delivers captivating human stories as well as informative pieces of political description of a despondent nation under the rule of one of the last family dictatorships in our time.