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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

By Marra Alane | Books | June 17, 2010 | Comments ()

By Marra Alane | Books | June 17, 2010 |


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I read the first chapter on the NYT website, and it's certainly an attention grabber. Mi Ran, a young woman who became a school-teacher despite her father's dirty South Korean blood,* falls in love with a young man in her town. They aren't allowed to be together because they belong to different castes, but at night, when it's pitch dark (because there's no electricity), they walk around the edges of town - not even really talking, just holding hands. Years later, they discover that they both defected and had been living relatively close to each other in South Korea, and they meet again. I wanted it to be like Casablanca - Mi Ran had married a South Korean man - but mostly it was just awkward.

Things were pretty good for North Korea in the 60s and 70s, propped up as it was by the USSR and Mao; but then China moved towards capitalism and the Iron Curtain fell, and shit really hit the fan. Without outside regimes to give them resources and food, North Korea was pretty much fucked. They have no raw materials and thus nothing to make in their factories, the collective farms fail year after year, and pretty soon everybody is skipping work to forage for leaves and twigs to eat. There's no way to get a direct account, but it's estimated that millions died.

Demick interviews six defectors; most of their recollections are about the 1990s famine, the so-called "arduous march" (which is a really excellent name to give your horrible famine - it's evocative and inspiring, even to those starving to death because of it) and their defections. The accounts of Mi-Ran and Dr. Kim Ji-Eun are especially difficult because their descriptions of the starving children they were in constant contact with are completely dehumanizing. There's also Jun Sang, who as a university student had access to such western decadence as One Hundred Years of Solitude, and even rigged up a TV to get South Korean broadcasts. Kim Hyuck is probably my favorite, because he seems to have a sense of humor (as far as any North Koreans have a sense of humor, which is to say, they don't). His father gave him to the state orphanage because he couldn't take care of him, but Kim left to live in a train station where he could band together with other kids and make a better living. Kim's father was ashamed of Kim's stealing and hustling to get buy - Kim's father was a man who had followed the rules - never trading at the illegal markets, going to work every day, living only on his allowance of rice and what he could forage. He starved to death pretty quickly.

One of the central questions Barbara Demick tries to answer is whether or not we can really understand what life is like for North Koreans. She makes a valiant effort, but I think my own intellectual failings limit her effectiveness. For example: I don't know if you've ever seen "Rome," but towards the end of the second season, when Antony is withholding Egyptian grain from the Roman people in an effort to spark rebellion against Octavian, and Octavian's posse is lounging around eating fresh fruit and wondering why they haven't heard any dogs barking in a while, and Pullo has to explain to them that the common people have eaten all the dogs to keep from starving to death? And I was like, man! What a good way to hammer home to the audience just how desperate the situation had gotten. I was thinking about this scene when I read Mrs. Song's description of coming upon a bowl of rice and meat left out in someone's backyard after crossing the river into China, and realizing that Chinese dogs eat better than North Korean people. Then it dawned on me that I had completely fictionalized the people documented in Nothing to Envy. I'm sort of embarrassed at how difficult it was for me to connect that this wasn't fiction - that these people were real, that Mrs. Song or Dr. Kim weren't characters in a morality play.

Demick does an excellent job of weaving the first-person accounts and facts and figures into a larger picture of what life in North Korea is like. It's a compelling narrative - horrifying for sure, but also very human and relatable.


*I admit, I'm not well educated about any particular communist regime, but it always strikes me as odd how focused they seem to be on race/ethnicity/class when their whole thesis is equality.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Marra Alane's reviews, check out her blog.


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