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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