19 Mar / Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Barbara Demick, currently the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, spent five years as Seoul’s bureau chief where she had unprecedented access to North Koreans. Her interviews, which began in 2001, eventually became Nothing to Envy, a mind-boggling, heartbreaking, surreal-ly humanizing portrait of six North Koreans and their lives on either side of the infamous DMZ that divides the two Koreas.
Interwoven with the fascinating personal stories is the grueling history of North Korea from its post-Korean War state as a paragon of Communism initially propped up by the Soviet Union and China, to the nepotistic changeover from Kim Il Sung to his son Kim Jong Il, to the country’s deathly collapse in the 1990s that led to massive starvation for its citizens, to the totalitarian regime which still somehow manages to stay in power even with the capitalistic transformations of its former Communist neighbors and supporters.
Demick takes her ironic title from a North Korean propaganda song that all children must learn: “… We will do as the Party tells us. / We have nothing to envy in this world.” Indeed, the power of brainwashing is astonishing as citizens believe with all their heart that North Korea is the best place to live, led by a god who keeps his citizens safe and free from the degradations caused by evil Americans.
In this controlled climate, chaste star-crossed young lovers, Mi-ran and Jun-sang, meet and court, hidden nightly from prying eyes by the complete darkness because most of North Korea lives without electricity. Their love-story-of-sorts drives the book, intertwined with the stories of four others – a Party-line toe-ing local leader, her daughter who refuses to be blinded by the government’s impossible claims, an orphan boy desperate to seek any opportunity that will lead to a meal, and an idealistic doctor who is ever-grateful for her free medical training until she realizes she can no longer save her patients’ lives.
Demick’s most notable accomplishment is in capturing individual real stories from the millions who have become statistics – horrifying, tragic statistics, albeit, but still more numbers than humans. Demick gives voice to Mrs. Song who watches her husband and son shrivel and die and still she polishes the required portraits of the Great Leader, to Dr. Kim who can never forget the eyes of her youngest patients she could not help, to Mi-ran who still sees the near-corpses she forced herself to walk by because she knew they were far beyond helping. Readers will not be able turn away as Demick’s defectors finally journey from North to South, where new challenges await …
My mother’s family is North Korean. As I was surrounded by maternally extended family as a small child when learning Korean, then maturing into an English-dominant speaking adult, my palate (and vocabulary) remains stuck in 1960s Pyongyang Korean even decades and decades later. My mother’s immediate family, plus a paternal aunt and her family were the only relatives who escaped Pyongyang before the country split in two. Demick’s book makes we wonder again and again, ‘are these my relatives?’ And surely, I am reminded once more the luck involved in the accident of birth and all the things we can and must do to make a more equitable world …
One quibble I must add that doesn’t have to do with the book exactly … I listened to the audible version of Demick’s book, read by Karen White. With some 66 million Korean speakers in the world, why oh why do producers think butchering someone else’s language is okay? White did an otherwise fine job of reading, but one phone call to a Korean-speaker could have prevented parts of the recording from being downright embarrassing (and insulting). Demick must be rolling her eyes. White, of course, is not alone … Shelly Frasier who reads Planet India, Nathaniel Parker who reads the Artemis Fowl series … I could go on and on and on …