Nothing to Envy – book review

Barbara Demick’s book on the ordinary lives of North Koreans weaves together the testimony of several North Koreans from Chongin to build a picture of life in the Workers Paradise from the 1990’s onwards. The background to life in North Korea at that time is emergence of a food crises, peaking to famine and then on-going food shortages. Everyone’s life is affected and defined by the food shortage.

The lives begin in poverty but with stability and calm. The lives of those whose stories we hear all descend into tales of how they survived and who they saw die. What led them to leave North Korea, how they did it and finally the problems of assimilating to life in South Korea.  I stayed up late reading this book and then couldn’t sleep for the images it left behind.

Like so many others, these people did not necessarily flee persecution so much as were compelled to move on for food, or because life simply wasn’t worth living in North Korea anymore. After the ordeal of getting to South Korea many are quickly and easily cheated out of their money and left disillusioned and without a clear sense of purpose. Language is another problem; with so many English words part of the vernacular in South Korea, communication is tricky and causes the newly arrived North Koreans to stand out from the South Korean siblings.

Nothing to Envy is a breath of fresh air from political non-fiction books on North Korea. Admittedly I haven’t read some of the more recent books on North Korea. I am getting better at getting the library to order these books so I don’t have to pay for them or keep them after I’ve read them.  But there are so many books out there that present an over view of North Korea’s political system, food crises, and foreign relations and then use that information to argue why we should or should not try to engage with North Korea.  This book, thankfully, does not do that. It also strikes that very delicate balance of being readable and interesting to people who might know nothing about North Korea and those who are better informed.

Of course, others have read this book ahead of me and also put up reviews which may be of interest: One Free Korea and Life in Suzhou.


3 Responses to “Nothing to Envy – book review”

  1. March 23, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    I read this book last month and it is definitely one of the best written and thought-provoking books I have ever read about North Korea and its people. We all know that North Korea is facing fuel shortages and one of the worst famines in recent history but this book really helps put a human face to these tragic events.

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March 2010
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