We in the Biblioglobal household have developed quite a fascination with North Korea lately. First BiblioBoyfriend read The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. (Which he greatly enjoyed and I fully intend to read.) Then we both read Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (published 2009)by Barbara Demick. (From which BiblioBoyfriend learned that much of what he thought was satire or exaggeration in The Orphan Master’s Son, was actually entirely true.) Then there was a Frontline special on PBS showing video covertly taken by North Koreans and collected by a Japanese journalist. Now there are several more books about North Korea borrowed from the library and sitting on our bookshelves.
Barbara Demick was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times stationed in Seoul, with the job of covering North and South Korea. However, given the secrecy of the North Korean regime, she found it extremely difficult to report effectively on North Korea. Her most important sources of information were North Korean defectors who were now living in South Korea. Nothing to Envy is based on their stories. There’s a double meaning in the title. I had assumed it just meant that life in North Korea was nothing to envy, but it’s also a line from a song sung in North Korean schools-
Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.
Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party.
We are all brothers and sisters.
Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid, Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy in this world.
(The father here refers not to a biological father or a religious figure, but rather the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung)
It’s a revealing and well-written book. It really is about ordinary life- falling in love, going to school, working in a factory or in a hospital, all within probably the most regimented society in the world.
Since it’s based on the experiences of defectors, the book doesn’t extend to present day North Korea, but it does give a clear picture of how life changed from the 70’s and 80’s into the 90’s. Earlier on, there’s a sense that people were mostly happy with their lives, that they truly supported and loved their leader. But in the 1990’s after the Soviet Union split and no longer provided aid to North Korea, the economy went into decline, food ran out, and people (the ones who would later defect anyway) began to have doubts about their government. As Demick points out, one of the many unique things about North Korea is that they were once a developed nation. There was electricity throughout the country. Now most of the country is dark, with only the capitol Pyongyang still having somewhat reliable electricity. The electrical wires have almost all been stolen and sold on the black market.
Through the second half of the book, I frequently wondered how it is that the North Korean regime has been able to survive. How is it that the government hasn’t collapsed in the face of famine and deprivation? The PBS special made me wonder that even more. Now there are cell phones in North Korea and many South Korean TV shows and movies are smuggled in on DVDs. North Koreans are learning more and more about the outside world. It seems like only a matter of time, but somehow Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un have been remarkably persistent.
I definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in life in North Korea. (And also for others who just don’t know yet that they are interested in life in North Korea.) Barbara Demick also wrote a another book, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood, while she was reporting from Bosnia during the war there. It might just have to be my book for Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Would that be cheating? Two books from one author? I don’t know.)