Review – Nothing to Envy, Real Lives in North Korea

My Rating: ★★★★☆

After reading Escape from Camp 14 I felt I wanted to get more background about the current state of the ordinary citizens of North Korea, the ones not in a internment camp.  This book fitted the bill perfectly.

NothingUKBarbara Demick covers in depth, the lives of four people and their families and their lives through the rule of Kim Il-sung the brief regime of Kim Jong-il and briefly the current leader Kim Jong-un.   Most of the accounts come from the industrial northern city of Chongjin where no western tourist is ever allowed to go.  This city is called the city of iron and its main commercial output was the steel industry.

Mi-Ran who is a decedent of a south Korean prisoner of war and was therefore seen to have tainted blood and regardless of how well she or her sisters did in school, where never chosen for good jobs or a chance in life.  Her childhood sweetheart Jun-sang however was from a family who voluntarily emigrated from Japan in the 1960s and was of a much higher social standing and had a chance at party membership and a life in the capital city and they therefore conducted chaste relationship in secret for many years.

Mrs Song on the other hand was a woman who was a model North Korean citizen and Nothing1until she was tricked into defecting by her daughter Oak-hee.  Mrs Song was a true believer in the great leader and his government.

Dr Kim’s shorter account provides the background on the state of healthcare in North Korea and its failings.

These four people and their family’s provide the bulk of the histories in this book, but they are supplemented by shorter accounts from a few others.

The narratives start from when the regime was functioning, with the support of the other communist powers of China and the USSR, but when these evolved and support was withdrawn the North Korean system  crumbled without foreign money.  People where still forced to work in jobs where they haven’t been paid in months.  The food supplied by the government dried up and everybody who survived was forced to forage and get creative in locating food.  This resulted in the huge famine in the 1990’s where independent analysis estimates that between 800,000 and 1,500,000 people died due to lack of food and the related diseases, many being children and elderly people. (accurate figures are difficult to come by).

I think this is a pretty reliable account of the real lives in what is the most controlling regime in the world.  It showed how due to isolating the population of any outside influence the government succeeded in deifying the leaders of the regime and instilled such loyalty in the face of such hardships for so long.

I would recommend this book to anybody who wants to get more information about what is really happening in North Korea for the past 40 years or so.    It is written in a fairly journalistic style as you would expect, but is a fairly gripping read.

barbara-demickAbout the Author

Barbara Demick is a journalist from America who was the corespondent for the Los Angeles Times in Seoul covering both North and South Korea, she has also worked as the head of the bureau in Beijing.  She is currently their New York correspondent.   During  her time in Seoul she talked to many people who had defected to the South the accounts of which became the basis for this book.  Her other book is Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood (Andrews & McMeel, 1996) which looks really interesting.  She tweets at @BarbaraDemick.

Buy this book on Wordery




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