Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
Barbara Demick, 2009
A remarkable view into North Korea, as seen through the lives of six ordinary citizens
Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population.
Taking us into a landscape most of us have never before seen, award-winning journalist Barbara 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, in which radio and television dials are welded to the one government station, and where displays of affection are punished; a police state where informants are rewarded and where 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. Through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her six subjects—average North Korean citizens—fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we experience the moments when they realize that their government has betrayed them.
Nothing to Envy is a groundbreaking addition to the literature of totalitarianism and an eye-opening look at a closed world that is of increasing global importance. (From the publisher.)
• Where—New Jersey, USA
• Education—B.A., Yale University; Fellowship in Journalism,
• Awards—numerous journalism awards (see below)
• Currently—lives in Beijing, China
Barbara Demick is an American journalist. She is currently Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood (1996) and Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009).
Demick was correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer in Eastern Europe from 1993 to 1997. Along with photographer John Costello, she produced a series of articles that ran 1994-1996 following life on one Sarajevo street over the course of the war in Bosnia. The series won the George Polk Award for international reporting, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for international reporting and was a finalist for the Pulitzer in the features category. She was stationed in the Middle East for the newspaper between 1997 and 2001.
In 2001, Demick moved to the Los Angeles Times and became the newspaper's first bureau chief in Korea. She reported extensively on human rights in North Korea, interviewing large numbers of refugees in China and South Korea. She focused on economic and social changes inside North Korea and on the situation of North Korean women sold into marriages in China. She wrote an extensive series of articles about life inside the North Korean city of Chongjin.
In 2005, Demick was a co-winner of the American Academy of Diplomacy's Arthur Ross Award for Distinguished Reporting & Analysis on Foreign Affairs. In 2006, her reports about North Korea won the Overseas Press Club's Joe and Laurie Dine Award for Human Rights Reporting and the Asia Society's Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Asian Journalism. That same year, Demick was also named print journalist of the year by the Los Angeles Press Club.
Demick was a visiting professor at Princeton University in 2006-2007 teaching Coverage of Repressive Regimes through the Ferris Fellowship at the Council of the Humanities. She moved to Beijing for the Los Angeles Times in 2007 and became Beijing bureau chief in early 2009. Demick was one of the subjects of a 2005 documentary Press Pass to the World by McCourry Films. (From Wikipedia.)
Ms. Demick's book is a lovely work of narrative nonfiction, one that follows the lives of six ordinary North Koreans, including a female doctor, a pair of star-crossed lovers, a factory worker and an orphan. It's a book that offers extensive evidence of the author's deep knowledge of this country while keeping its sights firmly on individual stories and human details.
Dwight Garner - New York Times
As a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Demick discovered that the country isn't illuminated any further by traveling there. So she decided to penetrate North Korea's closed society by interviewing the people who had gotten out, the defectors, with splendid results.... Nothing to Envy conveys the emotional riptides and overall disintegration of stopped factories, unpaid salaries and piled-up corpses.
Stephen Kotkin - Washington Post
Excellent new book is one of only a few that have made full use of the testimony of North Korean refugees and defectors. A delightful, easy-to-read work of literary nonfiction, it humanizes a downtrodden, long-suffering people whose individual lives, hopes and dreams are so little known abroad that North Koreans are often compared to robots.... The tale of the star-crossed lovers, Jun-sang and Mi-ran, is so charming as to have inspired reports that Hollywood might be interested.
San Francisco Chronicle
There’s a simple way to determine how well a journalist has reported a story, internalized the details, seized control of the narrative and produced good work. When you read the result, you forget the journalist is there. Barbara Demick, the Los Angeles Times’ Beijing bureau chief, has aced that test in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, a clear-eyed and deeply reported look at one of the world’s most dismal places.
Cleveland Plain Dealer
A fascinating and deeply personal look at the lives of six defectors from the repressive totalitarian regime of the Republic of North Korea, in which Demick, an L.A. Times staffer and former Seoul bureau chief, draws out details of daily life that would not otherwise be known to Western eyes because of the near-complete media censorship north of the arbitrary border drawn after Japan's surrender ending WWII. As she reveals, “ordinary” life in North Korea by the 1990s became a parade of horrors, where famine killed millions, manufacturing and trade virtually ceased, salaries went unpaid, medical care failed, and people became accustomed to stepping over dead bodies lying in the streets. Her terrifying depiction of North Korea from the night sky, where the entire area is blacked out from failure of the electrical grid, contrasts vividly with the propaganda on the ground below urging the country's worker-citizens to believe that they are the envy of the world. Thorough interviews recall the tremendous difficulty of daily life under the regime, as these six characters reveal the emotional and cultural turmoil that finally caused each to make the dangerous choice to leave. As Demick weaves their stories together with the hidden history of the country's descent into chaos, she skillfully re-creates these captivating and moving personal journeys.
For most Americans, North Korea, one of the last Communist dictatorships, is a totalitarian menace but socially a great blank space. Demick, a Los Angeles Times reporter based first in Seoul and now in Beijing, fills this void with well-rounded life stories based on seven years of interviews with individuals who escaped to South Korea or China. Mi-ran, for instance, as the daughter of a political outcast, could meet with her young man only after dark, when they would take advantage of the complete absence of electric lights to walk for miles and miles unobserved—without, however, going even so far as to hold hands. She could not let him know of her plans to leave for fear that the authorities would hold him responsible or that he would need to inform on her to protect his family. This and other life stories form a welcome portrait of "ordinary" lives in an extraordinary society. VERDICT Recommended for readers interested in North Korea who want to supplement their political studies or simply enjoy the personal approach. —Charles W. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL
Strongly written and gracefully structured, Demick’s potent blend of personal narratives and piercing journalism vividly and evocatively portrays courageous individuals and a tyrannized state within a saga of unfathomable suffering punctuated by faint glimmers of hope. —Donna Seaman
A detailed, grim portrait of daily life under the repressive North Korean dictatorship, where schoolchildren are taught to sing anthems in praise of their leader asserting that they "have nothing to envy in this world." Los Angeles Times foreign correspondent Demick bases her account on seven years of interviews with North Koreans who escaped to South Korea. She focuses on individuals whose stories began in the 1990s and continue to the present, including Mi-ran, a lower-class girl who became a teacher; Jun-sang, a university student who eventually got a glimpse of outside life through books, radio and television; Mrs. Song, a middle-aged true believer, and her defiant daughter Oak-hee; Dr. Kim, an idealistic female physician; and Kim Hyuck, an orphan boy surviving alone on the streets. Along with their personal stories, Demick includes background information on the Korean War and the dictatorships of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il. The author also examines the great famine that killed millions of North Koreans in the 1990s. She paints a stark, vivid picture of reality in an industrial city with no electricity and almost no industry, where workers no longer get paid, men are conscripted into military service for ten years, grass, bark and corn husks are considered food, and death by starvation is all too common. In one unforgettable scene, Dr. Kim, having crossed a river into China, sees that dogs in China eat better than human beings in North Korea. In addition to the physical hardships is the psychological stress of living under a rigid totalitarian government where a chance wrong word overheard and reported by a neighbor can mean imprisonment or death. Demick shows the state of mind of each of her subjects, what their daily life was like, how they coped and eventually how each escaped. She also reveals her subjects struggling, sometimes unsuccessfully, to adapt to life in South Korea. Meticulous reporting reveals life in a country that tries hard to keep its citizens walled in and the rest of the world out.
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:
Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Nothing to Envy:
1. Demick follows the lives of six North Koreans. Whose story do you find most compelling, disturbing, horrific—or inspiring?
2. Talk about what happens to those who manage to defect. How do they manage life outside North Korea? What are the difficulties— both practical and psychological—they confront in their new lives?
3. Demick describes North Korea, not as an undeveloped country, but as "a country that has fallen out of the developed world." What does she mean? What would it be like for any of us to live under the conditions in North Korea? What would be most difficult for you? What shocked or angered you most about the book's descriptions of life in the DPRK?
4. Discuss the history of North Korea and its descent into deprivation. How did a formerly wealthy, industrialized country—which attracted Chinese from across the border—deteriorate into its present state?
5. What does it take to survive in North Korea? How do some get around the restrictive laws?
6. Do Koreans love their "dear leader" as much as they claim?
7. How does one explain the disparity between North and South Korea?
8. Talk about your experience reading this book? Was it hard to get through...or did you find yourself unable to put the book down? Were you depressed, angered, outraged, thankful for your own life...or all of the above?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
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