Nothing to Envy: Love, Life and Death in North Korea by Barbara Demick

nothing to envyIn my non-fiction binge period in year transition, I jumped at this book when I heard it from JoV. Since I visited South and North Korean border back in 2008 I had been looking for books on North Korea. This country who has cut itself from the outside world and seems to be in perpetual state of war with everybody, fascinates me. Nothing to Envy is perfect to satisfy my curiosity. The book is a journalism account by Barbara Demick who spent ten years researching in the area (coincidentally there are similarities with my last nonfiction: Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks: female journalist, 10 years of research, repressed countries). Most of the facts she acquired from talking with the defectors–North Korean people who have fled their country.

An enormous share of the country’s wealth was squandered on the military. North Korea’s defense budget eats up 25 percent of its gross national product–as opposed to an average of less than 5 percent for industrialized countries. Although there had been no fighting in Korea since 1953, the country kept one million men under arms, giving this tiny country, no bigger than Pennsylvania, the fourth-largest military in the world. ~ p65

Much wisdom in the saying “One death is a tragedy; a thousand is a statistic.” and Demick understood this. She followed the life of six defectors and took the human angles of the catastrophe that is North Korea. It must be the weirder place on the planet at the moment, like a place you would read in dystopian fictions. It is ruled by an absolute dictator who brainwashes everybody in the country to think that their leader is God–not just a respected country leader, but God–the true and only path to salvation, the provider of everything that you need in your life.

Most people, like me, are probably curious of why the citizens do not make a move, when it is obvious their leaders the Kims are losing control of situation, when people are starving everywhere, dropping like flies. You would understand when you read the book. The government controls so much of every aspect of its citizens’ life that it is impossible to stray off path. First, with absolute communism system, nobody practically gets salary. They get a tiny amount, like a few dollars a month, that they could use for extra things like hair cut or make up. But the food is provided by the government based on coupon system, which people get when they do work. Everybody is assigned workplace and house. There are “community polices” everywhere in the neighbourhood to ensure everyone is behaving. A tiniest scruple or disagreement expressed about their leader would get people in trouble. Radio and TV are restricted to only North Korean channels, all carefully constructed to let the citizens know that North Korea is the place to be. South Korea, China, Japan are poor and horrible (hence the title of the book, which is taken from a popular national chant). US is their ultimate enemy. Don’t even mention Internet. North Korea is the only country in the world not connected to the Internet by choice. And I’m just barely scratching the surface here.

North Korea was (and remains as of this writing in 2009) the last place on earth where virtually all staples are grown on collective farms. The state confiscates the entire harvest and then gives a portion back to the farmer. ~ p67

The peak of North Korean starvation happened in 1998, when millions were dying while the rest did unthinkable things to survive. The coupon system came to a halt, nobody got food or salary. People ate bark trees, grass, rotten fruits, you name it. I found out that in famine the females have more chance to survive than the males, even though the males are usually given priority for food in the family. Death also gets to the young and the old first. Mrs. Song, one of the defector featured in the book, lost her aged mother-in-law, her husband and soon her son. People don’t necessarily starve to death. Often some other ailments get them first. Chronic malnutrition impairs the body’s ability to battle infection and the hungry become susceptible to all kinds of illnesses.

This is a very emotional book for me for many reasons as I kept seeing parallels with my own life. Coincidentally 1998 was also the darkest time for Chinese-ethnic citizens in Indonesia. In May 1998 there was mass anti-Chinese attacks that crippled the whole nation for 10 days and chased away many out of the country. People were killed, home and business were burned down, and there were mass gang-rapes of women including children, too horrible to even mention. It was a massive turning point for all Chinese-ethnic Indonesians. People’s lives were changed forever. Even now 13 years later it is still talked about among us, the wounds are raw and effects are always carried. My life too was changed forever. I fled the country a few months later, did not finish high school, and was told by my dad to never come back, leaving everything behind: home, family, friends, school, and the only place I ever knew. I guess I too am a defector. I fled and renounce my birth citizenship. For many people this is a rather foreign concept. Your home, your citizenship, is the place where you were born and grew up in and nothing can change that. Sometimes people ask me whether it was a hard thing to do, to “give up” my citizenship. As if it is something worth holding on to. It’s hard to explain. How do you explain the dark side of your country that made you leave and never look back? I wonder if someday I could possibly visit my hometown without any trace of bitterness. I’m lucky to personally survive pretty much unscathed, thought it’s not the case for thousands of people.

Among the 6 defectors that are the focus in the book, I connected most with Mi-ran and Jun-sang and their little teenage romance, since again I saw some parallels with my own life. I too had a little something with a boy from high school at a tumultuous time and place, unfortunately, and got separated to live in different countries. Mi-ran and Jun-sang had to go to great lengths to reach each other, spending most of their later years staying at different cities and communicating with slow unreliable postal system. My boyfriend and I used to send one letter every week and number them, so we knew if any got lost. Sometimes the letters wouldn’t come for a month and a few came together at once. And I just broke down when before running away from her village Mi-ran had to burnt all the letters and left everything Jun-sang gave her. She could not even tell him the plan. It was too dangerous to trust anybody. I too had the collection of letters and little presents in a box from the boy I loved, which I held on to even after years of separation, because there was a little hope that one day something might change. Burning them means no turning back. It’s devastating. What happened to Mi-ran and Jun-sang after that? You have to read to find out for yourself. As for me, I married my high school sweetie 10 years after I ran away from Indonesia and left him. So very lucky to have a happy ending.

Liberty and love
These two I must have.
For my love I’ll sacrifice
My life.
For liberty I’ll sacrifice
My love.
~ 19th-century Hungarian poet Sandor Petofi, p279

Answer to why Mi-ran left Jun-sang.
Also answer to why I would never go back to that hell hole of a country even if my love was there. He had to get out and come with me.

How do people go from absolute trust and loyalty to defection? When North Koreans defect, there is no way to go back. The regime takes extraordinary measures to keep its population locked up. When North Koreans left the country on official business, they had to leave behind spouses and children who were effectively held hostage to assure their return. Defectors had to be able to live with the knowledge that their freedom came at the expense of loved ones who would likely spend the rest of their lives in a labor camp. As South Korea stands as the true Korea, any North Koreans that cross over to their side are accepted as citizens. But these people have to go find their own way to the South. Crossing the North and South Korean border is impossible because that’s where the strongest defense is. So people cross over to China. But if China finds out they’d send them back to North Korea and the consequences are fatal. The ones with money and connections could forge a fake passport to fly to South Korea. The ones without have to find their way to Mongolia up North, which accept North Korean defectors and send them to South Korea.

Only a small fraction of the 100,000 or more North Koreans in China are able to make it to South Korea. In 1998, there were just 71 North Koreans who requested South Korean citizenship; in 1999 the number rose to 148; in 2000, there were 312 defectors; and in 2001, there were 583. In 2002, 1,139 North Koreans were admitted. Since then, anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 have been arriving steadily each year. ~ p246

barbara demickFeel like I need to apologize for interspersing my own personal stories in a book review but I guess it just goes to show that you can only read a book in the way you know how. It struck the chord in me in so many ways. I had memories floating around and emotions running wild. Even my post seems scattered and all over the place, but I just had to let it out otherwise this would’ve stayed in draft forever. Really I’d like to reiterate how informative Nothing to Envy is, so eye-opening, so personal, so heartbreaking. It’s a story of human survival and unbelievable will to live. Inspirational at so many levels. Read it.

5 stars
2010, 314pp

ps: I don’t usually pay much attention to the edition of the books I have or read, because most of them are imported. Where and when they’re printed or published or first published seem inconsequential. But this one caught my interest. I borrowed my edition from a local library and it was actually published by Harper Collins Australia in 2010. The subtitle says Love, Life and Death in North Korea as opposed to Ordivary Lives in North Korea or Real Lives in North Korea for the US/UK publications, which I thought was a great choice, and a better one. There’s also Korean characters on the cover (as you can see above) which adds a nice touch. Cheers for the Australian publisher!

2010 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction
Finalist of 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction

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30 thoughts on “Nothing to Envy: Love, Life and Death in North Korea by Barbara Demick”

  1. I have been wanting to read this book for a while so I’m really pleased that you’ve given it 5 stars. I was fascinated to read about your story – I had no idea that you fled Indonesia. Please don’t apologise for including your story – I loved reading about it and it made your review come alive with emotion. I’d love to know more about what happened to you and I suspect the fact I know you through the blog would make it even more powerful. It is wonderful to know that it has a happy ending too – relationships with childhood sweethearts always make my heart melt.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Jackie. I’ve been thinking to write more of what happened, not just about me, but also the people around me, about the massacre that happened and the aftermath. It’s not a very widely known incident internationally, because the government has denied many things, and I guess in the big picture of things it happened to only a fairly small percentage of the country’s population. But we know what happened. The diaspora is clear. Many countries at that time accepted Chinese-Indonesians as refugees. Maybe one day I’ll try to put things into words. I know many voices need to be heard. Just approach any Chinese-Indonesian and ask them, where were you May 1998? Floods of stories.

      But going back to Nothing to Envy, yes it’s a great book! Hope you get to read it soon. I’m sure you’d like it!

  2. I haven’t heard of this one, but it sounds so interesting! I’ve only read a graphic novel (Pyongyang) about North Korea and want to know more. Thank you for the suggestion.

  3. I don’t think I have read any non-fiction on Korea, but I am rather curious about this one. I will have to get to it at some point to broaden my horizons a bit. Great review!

  4. First thanks for the mention Mee and for such a wonderful, brilliant review. What I love most about your review is that it is well thought, honest and deeply reflected… but I didn’t expect this one to be so moving.

    I must say Mee, I almost choked up when you share your personal experience. I knew about the Indon massacre and what happens after that. I also feel a sense of redemption when you and your other half finally found each other. A happy ending in an otherwise tragic setting.

    Although the book touch me not as deep as it did for you, I went out and bought my own copy and left it decorated in my bookshelf. I hope you do the same too. God bless.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Jo. I admit I got pretty nervous about saying too much, that’s why it took me so long to complete the post. I got so emotional every time I came to this post, so I wrote a little and left it again, and again. But at the end I guess nothing is wrong in sharing a little, right? I have you to thank for mentioning the book. What an amazing piece of work. I would love to have it as my personal collection. Maybe not now, but I’m sure later when I have settled a little bit.

    1. Book Dilettante, thanks, that’s quite encouraging. I’m never sure if anybody cares to read to be honest!

  5. This book has been on my wishlist for a while as it looks at a country which most people don’t know much about. It really looks like it struck a chord with you, and I’m really glad you shared your own story. I think we all bring some kind of context to our readings and it also helps us to understand bits of our lives. I certainly did not know anything about the ethnic conflict suffered by the Chinese in Indonesia. It must be a difficult story to tell, but I’m really glad that you and your sweetheart were reconciled.

    1. sakura, thanks. Yes not many people know about what happened in Indonesia, so I tend to share when ever someone is interested to hear it. The government denies it and most of the people in the country turned a blind eye (the Chinese-ethnic is only 5% of the total population). But we can’t pretend it never happened. It deserves to be acknowledged!

      Hope you get to read Nothing to Envy. I’m sure you’d like it!

  6. Fantastic review! I put my name on the hold list for this one at our local library a while back because while I don’t read much NF, this won just sounded too fascinating to pass up. It sounds like you really found a lot in this book that resonated with your own life, and while I don’t necessarily expect that to be true for me, I’m really looking forward to learning about a part of the world that I know very little about. And really, I’m a big believer that people are people, wherever they may be!

    1. Steph, thanks. It’s really a great book about a very fascinating place. I’m sure you’d like it. I think it’d really hit you because it is so recent. The regime still exists and the situation continues. It’s not something that happened a long time ago, and for me not in a place far far away. Like Mi-ran story for example, it resonated so much with me because we’re about the same age, the peak of the disaster happened around the same time, and we live around the same area. My ancestors could have gone North instead of South, and that could’ve been me!

  7. What an awesome review. I have read a couple of books on North Korea and as always the government control on everything is shocking. I had no clue about the 1998 riots in Indonesia. It’s so sad that not many of us know about it and even sadder that you had to go through it too. Thank you for sharing your experience with us and thank you for the review. I will definitely keep it in mind.

    1. Violet, thanks. I read a documentary manga about abductions of Japanese citizens by North Korea not so long ago (titled Megumi–you can search my site if you’re interested), and intend to read Pyongyang graphic novel next. But Nothing to Envy is the first book I read on North Korea that gives a thorough coverage. Very satisfying read!

  8. why north korea is like that? it is so sad to hear that people there can’t live their life in the fullest.

  9. Excellent review – thank you so much for sharing some of your own story – I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to leave everything behind in Indonesia.

    I read Laura Ling’s memoir about her captivity in N. Korea and I was appalled at the way the government treats their own people.

    Thanks for linking up this review to the Immigrant Stories Challenge!

  10. Mee this is an incredible post. Not just because its a great review (of a book that I have been desperate to read for some time but still havent gotten my mitts on) but the story you tell, and you tell it incredibly, that goes along side it. Just incredible, thank you so much for this post.

    1. Simon, thank you for the kind words. Makes me all warm and fuzzy inside :). Hope you get to read the book some time.

  11. Awesome review, this one. Makes me want to find it and read it straight away!

    I’ve just finished a book on war in Vietnam, so maybe that’s why I feel inclined to want to read about North Korea.

    Anyway, hopefully I’ll get to posting my thoughts on the book about Vietnam soon. And hope you’re doing great! =)

    1. Hi Michelle, glad to hear from you! Nothing to Envy is a great book, I’m sure you’d like it. I look forward to your thoughts about whatever book you had read during your blogging absence. Miss having you around. Hope you’re doing well and all :)

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