A captivating creation, American journalist Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea recounts the chronicles of six individuals who endured and survived the daunting task of escaping famine-stricken North Korea into prosperous South Korea. Demick does an amazing job of interviewing each escapee and translating each of their testimonies into a page-turning adventure. And when I say “page-turning,” I mean it.
Protagonists include lonely orphan boy Kim-Hyuk, North Korean patriot Mrs. Song, adventurous daughter of Mrs. Song Oak-hee, love-stricken boyfriend Jun-Sang and girlfriend Mi-Ran, and forever-hopeless Dr. Kim. Demick opens with a basic background of each of the six major characters, their family’s social classes, and the events that compose the early stages of the future escapees’ lives.
An example of the complex and intriguing plot points Demick transcribes include the straight-out-of-Hollywood romance between Jun-Sang and Mi-Ran, who are so infatuated with each other that both are willing to go on dangerous walks in the pitch-black night in order to not be seen by neighbors. Jun-Sang, with an elitist background, cannot afford to be spotted with Mi-Ran as her family ranks among the bottom of North Korea’s version of the caste system. Meanwhile, Dr. Kim lives a meager life even as a doctor and, without proper equipment and medicine, watches helplessly as countless North Korean children die everyday to malnutrition. Hospitals are so underfunded that used beer bottles replace IV pouches, while North Korean officials steal UNICEF grain intended for the poor and needy. Kim-Hyuk suddenly becomes an orphan when he finds out that his father has abandoned him. Living a life without prospects, his hunger forces him to fend for himself, oftentimes stealing from those poorer and more vulnerable than himself. Each day becomes a fight between life and death with the smallest parcel of food dictating the victor. Mrs. Song, a diehard nationalist, does everything within her ability to feed her family, but finds that even this full-fledged effort isn’t enough to save her husband from his slow march to death. Her rebellious daughter, Oak-hee, flees to China where she sells herself into marriage with a Chinese farmer, who feeds her and takes care of her in exchange for his expected role of a wife.
The North Korean lifestyle, as one will find, is so very unique as it paints the picture of the true Communist society. So compelling and unique is this collection of stories that everyone, everywhere can appreciate the value and meaning presented.
To say that North Korea and America, Communist regimes and the Free World, endure simple societal differences would be a severe understatement. The large majority of Americans fully understands but one society: ours. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about North Korean society and North Korea in general. A persevering image that many Americans hold is a view where North Korea stands as a Western-hating, nuclear weapon-bearing country that wants to start wars. And this belief is true for the most part. Unfortunately, it is a tendency that we many-a-times prematurely jump to conclusions about the North Korean people. Preconceived ideas of who the people are is what is a disappointing reality. Rarely do we nowadays talk about the horrors described in Demick’s book. Demick does a fantastic job promoting the idea that the brainwashed North Koreans are merely a people whose main priority is simply survival. Her opponents, the select number of higher-up elites in North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang, find their displayed evil facade of nukes and military parades to be torn down and exposed by her powerful piece.
Each and every well-documented account has meaning. They prove to be not only deeply interesting, but also thought provoking in a very special way. So powerful and special is Demick's work that I have made the promise to myself that somehow, in some way, I will devote my life towards the formation of a newly-unified Korea.
As a former head of bureau in both Seoul and Beijing for the Los Angeles Times, Barbara Demick clearly understands the significance of this subject; her goal is to help the general public understand it. She truly captivates the reader’s full attention from the get-go as she ensures that her described stories contain an indescribable element of “humanness” in them. To say that this masterpiece falls in my list of all-time greats would be to not give credit where it is truly due; I am forever grateful that I have had the opportunity to read such a work. And although I am only able to give a brief summary of each character’s stories, I sincerely believe that if one was to read this book, he or she would be able to find for themselves a deeper and more complete meaning to each character’s North Korean years.