I thought about my uncle a lot while I was reading "Nothing to Envy". In it author Barbara Demick pieces together the lives of 6 North Koreans who eventually defect to South Korea. It is an incredible and difficult read, especially the chapters outlining the devastating famine of the 1990's which claimed almost 10% of the population. The stories are riveting and framed beautifully. This isn't some dry recounting of facts outlining the poverty of North Korea but wondrously intertwined narratives that don't end with pat answers once they reach South Korea.
Nothing to Envy is a record of six refugees from DRPK who fled to the South and their experiences of living in both countries. Althought the book is completely gripping, it is also very hard to read at times - remember that this is non fiction, and all of this actually happened - the stories of the defectors are very moving, like the story of two young North Koreans who fell in love, and thanks to the complete blackout were able to take long walks, and very tragic - stories of people dying from starvation (can you believe that during the time from 1994 to 1998 as much as 80,000 (that's eighty thousand) to 3,500,000 (that's three and a half million) people died in a famine? Through the individual lives of these defectors we are able to see a broader picture of life inside the DRPK, and although the society is a collective one the theme of individuality is the one which carries the book: each defector has a separate and fascinating story to tell, shocking and gripping. They're escape to the South is not the end of their problems, as one of the defectors mourns that she has left her children behind; some North Koreans find themselves unable to exist in a society which we would call "normal"; two soldiers from the North who accidentally crossed the border have asked to be send back to the DRPK. The book shows how an individual is affected by an opressive regime, and how a whole nation can be brainwashed to accept an ideology. A nation where people die from hunger, but which is among the world's most militarized nations; which disappears from sight during the night, but has active nuclear and space programs. A nation where ordinary lives have been turned into a grim horror story or a macabre joke; where stories like these take place every day.
And, yeah, to circle back to my opening paragraph... The sense of individuality in this book will stick with me. I'm completely overwhelmed by just how many lives have been snuffed out in the North Korean famine. So many people with stories akin to those featured in Nothing To Envy. Gone.
Straight off, I need to say that this is not tragedy porn. That's not why I felt so overwhelmed by this. Demick is respectful of the North Korean defectors that she interviews, and never ventures into the realm of the maudlin. The individual lives take center stage, illuminated by what we know of North Korean history. The reader isn't allowed to rest on their laurels. Capitalism doesn't make their lives 100% better when they escape, and pretty much right off the bat Demick clarifies that Nothing To Envy is not about "oh those wacky North Koreans!" Much of this book demonstrates how to brainwash an entire country into an entire ideology... as well as how, and when, the North Koreans discussed here realized they had been deceived. I was astonished by the ingenuity of every single one of the people profiled, both when it came to surviving the famine and when they had to escape. This book bring back individuality to a nation that's so often reduced to a horror story or a joke.
Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea
No preview available - 2010