Author, Barbara Demick, Book review, Granta, Non-fiction, North Korea, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea’ by Barbara Demick


Non-fiction – paperback; Granta Books; 314 pages; 2010.

North Korea is one of those intensely secretive countries that most of us know very little about. Media coverage is virtually non-existent, unless it’s something to do with nuclear weapons, George W. Bush’s “Axis-of-evil, or leader Kim Jong-il, the latter usually covered in a humorous isn’t-he-kooky? kind of way.

But in recent weeks, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has opened its doors to the Western media, albeit in a very controlled way, in order to show the world that Kim Jong-un, the leader’s youngest son, is now the leader-in-waiting. This has provided a brief, but fascinating glimpse of a unique country, where conformity, not individuality, is the guiding principle.

The footage above is the North Korea that the North Korean Government want you to see. But Barbara Demick’s book, Nothing to Envy, which won this year’s BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction, is filled with all the stuff they don’t want you to know about.

This is a nation where citizens are encouraged to spy upon one another; where they are forbidden from listening or watching any media other than those run by the state; where every household must keep a portrait of the president on display; where they are so cut off from the rest of the world they truly believe the motto that they have “nothing to envy”.

Demick, an American journalist, was a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, covering both North Korea and South Korea, in 2004. She was based in Soul, but made several trips to the North, and conducted extensive interviews with North Koreans who had defected. It is from these interviews that Demick shapes her book: a non-fiction account of six ordinary citizens living in the world’s most secretive and repressive state.

The book has all the hallmarks of a great literary novel, because Demick uses narrative techniques to interweave the individual stories of six main characters living in Chongjin, the nation’s third largest city.

The following description of the North Korean urban environment sets the scene:

There is almost no signage, few motor vehicles. Private ownership of cars is largely illegal, not that anyone can afford them. You seldom even see tractors, only scraggly oxen dragging plows. The houses are simple, utilitarian and monochromatic. There is little that predates the Korean War. Most of the housing stock was built in the 1960s and 1970s from cement block and limestone, doled out to people based on their job and rank. In the cities there are “pigeon coops”, one-room units in low-rise apartment buildings, while in the countryside, people typically live in single-story buildings called “harmonicas”, rows of one-room houses, stuck together like little boxes that make up the chambers of a harmonica. Occasionally, door frames and window sashes are painted a startling turquoise, but mostly everything is whitewashed or gray.

In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only colour to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea.

The story initially focuses on two young lovers, Mi-ran and Jun-sang, who kept their relationship secret for six years but did not hold hands until three years later. In a society where sexual relationships outside of marriage are frowned upon and sex-education is non-existent, it took another six years before they shared their first kiss. Mi-Ran says when she eventually fled North Korea she was “twenty-six years old and a schoolteacher, but I didn’t know how babies were conceived”.

Further into the story we meet the indomitable Mrs Song, a factory worker, mother of four and model citizen. Two-thirds of the way into the book we are introduced to her oldest daughter, the wayward Oak-hee, who is trapped in a terrible marriage and believes that defection is her only hope of beginning a new life. By this time Mrs Song’s mother-in-law, husband and son have died as a result of the famine that swept through the country in the 1990s.

There are two more characters: Dr Kim, a young medical doctor, and Kim Hyuck, a homeless teenager who grew up in an orphanage when his father abandoned him to marry his second wife. (Hyuck’s mother died unexpectedly when he was just three years old.)

Demick paints each of these characters as incredibly resilient people with strong survival instincts. By tracing their lives over a 20- to 30-year period, she is able to demonstrate how their ingrained behaviour to obey the Communist regime slowly gets worn away, to the point where each comes to realise that the only way out is to flee. Their tales of escape are heart-hammering, and heart-warming, by turn.

Interestingly, Demick explains that defection was very low: only 923 citizens defected from the North to the South in the roughly 50-year period between the end of the Korean War and 1998. But that began to change in the late 1990s, brought about primarily by the famine that swept the country and the growing prosperity of neighbouring China, which became more and more of a temptation to those Koreans grappling to survive with no food, no money and often no employment.

The thing that amazed me most about this book, was less the glimpses of life lived in a Totalitarian society (it’s no exaggeration to say this is George Orwell’s 1984 writ large, the only thing missing seems to be the “two-minutes hate”), but the devastating impact of the nation’s food shortages. According to Demick, this resulted in some 10 per cent of the North Korean population dying of starvation — in 1998 the estimated casualties totalled 600,000 to 2 million.

Demick painstakingly reveals the desperate acts so many people had to carry out to find food. It makes for harrowing reading at times. I particularly felt for schoolteacher Mi-ran, who watches her young students wasting away in front of her eyes, knowing there is nothing she can do to save them from starvation.

The resulting collapse of the socialist food distribution system led to highly illegal business enterprises being set up, mainly in the form of food vendors such as butchers and bakers. Mrs Song, ever-resourceful, set up a flourishing trade in home-baked cookies. It says so much about her undying spirit, and her desire to keep forging ahead despite extremely adverse circumstances, that you begin to wonder if she’s really true and not just figment of Demick’s imagination.

The book is so jam-packed with intriguing facts that I couldn’t even begin to list them all here, although several stick in my mind:

  • electricity is in such short supply that the lights are switched off every evening, plunging the whole of North Korea into darkness (this Google image illustrates it perfectly);
  • medical doctors are supposed to act selflessly by donating their own blood for transfusions and their own skin for grafts, as well as growing their own cotton to make bandages;
  • religion is forbidden because everyone must devote themselves to the cult of Kim Jong-il and the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea; and
  • most North Korean clothes are made from a unique fabric called Vinalon, which is made from limestone and anthracite.

Nothing to Envy is a truly astonishing book, and this review cannot do it the justice it deserves. If you’re intrigued by a nation that fell off the map of the developed world and want to know how ordinary citizens have endured extraordinary circumstances, then this book should not be missed. It’s definitely been the highlight of my reading year so far.

18 thoughts on “‘Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea’ by Barbara Demick”

  1. A harrowing and sad story but that is the reality of life in that country. It is good that someone had the courage to publish it but whether anything could be done to improve their lot I doubt.


  2. I’ve wanted to read this book for a little while as I have a kind of weird obsession with North Korea. I’m in the queue at the library and am looking forward to reading it when it’s my turn. When I think about life in North Korea, it reminds me of my childhood, but really, that was nothing compared to life under the regime of Kim Jong-il.


  3. Thanks for introducing the book. I love to read books on public affairs and politics, except that it has to be engaging as well. I’ll check if my local library stock this, if not I’ll buy this from Amazon.


  4. This does sound really fascinating! It recently gained increased publicity here in the States because it’s up for the National Book Award… I know that my husband is really interested in North Korea, so this is probably a book he’d love. Thanks for such a great and compelling review!


  5. I’ve been meaning to read this book since I first heard about it. It really is one country we know so little about. Only a few years ago North Korea actually admitted they kidnapped a number of Japanese people from the west coast of Japan. Although many people suspected this, it’s actually astonishing that it really happened.


  6. I will be reading this one at some point heard writer interviewed about it when it came out ,sounds like a wonderful look behind the curtain of a locked off country ,all the best stu


  7. This sounds like a brilliant book, I am rather fascinated by North Korea and the way of life of people and how little we know apart from what we are ‘shown’ when the chance arises. I would love to read this so its going on the wishlist instantly.


  8. Wonderful review! I have not heard of this book but it sounds really intriguing. I am fascinated by North Korea and its workings. They still remain pretty much shrouded in mystery, though more and more journalistic reports are slowly piecing together a picture. I will keep this on my TBR 🙂


  9. The thing to remember is that you are viewing the country through Western eyes. Take the starvation out of the equation, and you would probably find that most North Koreans are happy with their lot because they don’t know any different. The beauty of this book is seeing how the various characters have the scales fall from their eyes when they realise there’s a whole world out there they know absolutely nothing about…


  10. Yes, I’m sure life in Communist Poland must share some similarities between life in North Korea. The difference is that the Poles have now embraced democracy and the West, while the North Koreans still think it’s 1950 or so!


  11. Well, as you will no doubt know, many books on public affairs and politics are as slow as watching grass grow. But this one is incredibly gripping, because she tells it from the point of view of real people, and by doing so she is also able to tell the history of Korea in an interesting way. Hope you manage to read it soon… do come back and let me know what you thought.


  12. I think it was to get information about Japan and to train North Korean spies. A few of the captives who have married and raised families in N.Korea returned to see their Japanese relatives after many years.


  13. These days everything available in the west about North Korea is pretty much a straight up politically biased view with a little ignorance and little attempt to understand North Korea.
    Who knows what is fabricated and exaggerated about North Korea.
    All that I read in English only tells me the “North Korea” perceived by outsiders.
    I would like to Know North Korea through North Koreans as always the most authentic representation.


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