Published by Spiegel & Grau
Published on December 29th 2009
Genres: History, Non-fiction
A National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle finalist, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy is a remarkable view into North Korea, as seen through the lives of six ordinary citizens.
Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years--a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today--an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors, and through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her subjects fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we witness their profound, life-altering disillusionment with the government and their realization that, rather than providing them with lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them.
For the past few months, nothing could really hold my attention when it came to books; however, I decided to pick up a non-fiction book that has been sitting on my shelf for a while. I have always been interested in history, but it has taken a backseat. I love reading stories related to the Nazi period. Those kinds of stories make me realize how lucky I am to have been born at a time and place where worst things are long gone.
Nothing to Envy is about the ordinary lives of six North Korean people. They shared bits and pieces of their story about their youth, their adulthood, and their lives after leaving North Korea. Most of the stories were relateable, as there was Mi-ran, who experienced her first love during her teens. She fell in love with someone whom she can’t be with in public. In North Korea, if you’re not of the same class (like the Caste system), you can’t be together. It’s not as simple as your family not wanting to be associated with a different class, but it is forbidden by the government. Mi-ran is of tainted blood. His father was one of the POWs (Prisoners of War) that was given North Korean citizenship after being imprisoned at a labor camp.
The man Mi-ran loved, Jun-sang, is from a better class. He has the chance to become part of the Workers’ Party, the only ruling political party in North Korea. He is a filial son who did everything to get into one of the top universities in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.
Their love story took place after sunset. North Korea has no electricity and is pitch black at night.
They took long walks towards the woods, where no one would see or recognize them. Their relationship lasted 13 years, with sometimes seeing each other only twice a year. It took years for them to hold hands, and more years before a sort-of kiss; just a light brush of lips on the cheek.
The book also covered how impoverished North Korea is. A lot of people died of starvation. They relied on their government to supply them everything; from food to shelter to clothes. They are forbidden to buy, sell, or trade. It is considered an act of “egotism”.
In school, children were taught a different history. North Korea is always the hero, while the Americans are the bastards, and the South Koreans, the enemy.
Books and paper were always scarce, and ambitious mothers had to hand-copy textbooks if they wanted their children to study at home.
The children’s songs and poems were about killing the enemy, or worshipping their leader. At a young age, they were already fed a propaganda that is hard to get rid of until you grow up.
I learned that some defectors, those who escaped North Korea, wanted to go back. They were overwhelmed by how different the world is outside of their homeland. Those left in the country is said to be stuck in the 1960s. A doctor who defected learned that her medical degree cannot be practiced in South Korea, unless she goes back to school. But most of those who defected are living better lives. They are not starving anymore. They don’t live their lives in calculated movements. They are free.
This is one of the books that I recommend you read before you die. If you’re into dystopian novels, here’s a real-life one. If you’ve read 1984 by George Orwell, you will see some similarities. You will cry. You will get angry. You will feel blessed. #