Nothing to envy. Real lives in North Korea

Author:                          Barbara Demick
Publisher:                     Granta PublicationsNovel
Year of publication:    2014
ISBN:                             978 1 84708 141 4
Pages:                            319
Price:                             £ 9.99






Barbara Demick is an American political journalist. In the years from 1993 to 1997 she was correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer in Eastern Europe. Along with photographer John Costello, she produced a series of articles for which she won the George Polk Award and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for international reporting.  These articles were the basis for her book “Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood”, which was published in 1996. Beginning in 2001 she was a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and reported from the Middle East and South Korea.
Demick lived in Seoul before she moved to Bejing in 2007, where she is currently located. During a timeframe of seven years, she wrote a series of articles that focused on former residents of Chongjin, interviewing a large number of refugees in China and South Korea. These articles are the foundation for her book “Nothing to Envy. Real Lives in North Korea” which was first published by Spiegel & Grau/Random House in December 2009 and was awarded by the Dine Award for Human Rights Reporting.


Nowadays the ongoing discussions about North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-un draws our attention to the world’s most closed-off country in the world. Especially ongoing threats about nuclear weapons and threat of war by North Korea is universally known. Having talked to Korean people it was surprising for me that they see Germany as ideal, as our country was once separated into east and west and was reunited  in 1990. Moreover, Korean people seem to be very emotional about their country being separate. Due to the fact that I will spend my semester abroad in Seoul, it was my motivation to know about the history of the country Korea and especially the half which appears to be enormously secretive towards the rest of the world. The book „Nothing to Envy. Real lives in North Korea“ (2014) is based on real stories of six Koreans and their lives in the northern Korean Peninsula. Barbara Demick has used interviews of refugees who have lived in North Korea and do now live in South Korea or China. Reading this book, I aim to learn about North Korea, the most world’s most closed-off country.


On-site research in North Korea is difficult in general and especially for authors trying to find out the truth about the northern, communist Peninsula of Korea. Barbara Demick’s only chance to get information about this part of the country was to interview refugees. Seven years, she had numerous interviews with refugees who fled to China or southern Korea. The life stories in this novel take place in the town Chongjin, which is the third biggest town in North Korea. The city lies on the east coast of North Korea on the Japanese Sea and is almost entirely closed for foreigners. Demick complements the reports and descriptions with historical background and information, which makes it easier for the reader to understand the overall context.


The novel follows the lives of six characters, who could not be more different except for one similarity, the escape from North Korea.

Mrs. Song behaves accordingly and shows her sincerity towards the North Korean regime. She is married to Chang-bo with who she has three daughters and a son. Her life is characterized by a full day working time. She takes care of the household as well as the children and works six days a week in a clothing factory. Additionally, Mrs. Song participates in the ideological training and implies that she often has short nights and does not get enough sleep. Her life becomes complicated when her children start acting contrary to the requirements of society. Especially, her eldest daughter Oak-hee is a very strong-willed person and questions the whole North Korean system. She gets married to a man who has an alcohol addiction and who becomes very aggressive and violent towards her. In the end, Oak-hee leaves her husband and her children behind and flees to South Korea. After Mrs. Song has lost most of her family members due to malnutrition her doubts in the North Korean system begin. In the end it is her rebellious eldest daughter who makes her go to South Korea.
Mi-ran is the daughter of a former South Korean soldier and daughter of a North Korean mother. Her father lived in war captivity before he received the North Korean citizenship. Due to her father’s prehistory the family lives under difficult conditions being domiciled in the lower class of society. Therefore, the children do not have the same prospects as other children and they are denied further school education as well as social advancement.
Jun-sang was born into a family where both parents are ethnical Koreans, born in Japan. As a result of a certain prosperity they have a better life than a lot of other North Koreans, but are also treated with scepticism by the regime due to the fact that they are in contact with their relatives in Japan.
The young Jun-Sang falls in love with the low positioned Mi-ran. It is Jun-sang’s dream to be promoted to the labour party, which induces that they will never be able to show their love for each other in publicity. His love to Mi-ran due to her family status would damage his future plans and his chance of social advancement. They are aware of the circumstances from the beginning, but nevertheless start meeting each other secretly and continue for years. Meeting each other unnoticed is simplified due to the fact that electricity was a scarce resource in North Korea and the darkness extends them cover from the imniban, who could betray their love to the regime.
Mir-an dreams of marriage and knows that her secret love goes along with the fact that she will never be Jun-sangs wife. She realizes the hopeless situation and starts making plans about leaving North Korea, her fatherland and thus, Jun-sang. At this time, she does not know that Jun-sang illegally finds out about the real catastrophic state of North Korea, the corrupt regime and the dishonest leader. Thereupon, he thinks about leaving the country and even about asking Mi-ran to go to China with him, but by the time he makes up his mind, Mi-ran and her family have already left the country forever.
Dr. Kim is the daughter of a simple worker with a low status in North Korea, but beside everything gets the chance to become a pediatrician. She feels like she is in the regimes debts for having been able to study and thus is a very hard working and compliant citizen. When the famine causes many deaths she tangles with her boss and starts questioning the whole system. The last words of her dying father are the contact details of their relatives in China. Years after her father’s death, Dr. Kim decides to leave North Korea and find her distant relatives.
Hyuck and his elder brother are raised by their father after the mother died when Hyuck was three years old. His father remarries and the stepmother favours to feed her own child, which she brings into marriage. The brothers do not have an alternative if they want to survive but become criminals as begging and stealing is their only option. Hyuck loses his father and his brother and leaves the country over a very complicated escape route.


The story follows the lives of six people and their extended families before the famine, their upbringing, up until the decision that they would leave the country. Barbara Demick makes it possible for us to get an insight to the totalitarian state North Korea. Everything that has happened under the leadership of the three dictators Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il as well as Kim Jong-un is more or less a secret. No foreign correspondents are allowed into the country, foreign visitors are accompanied and visitors are shown a life which can, as far as we know nowadays, not be true. Barbara Demick has given a face and a voice to suffering North Koreans who went from repression, to famine, to government lies and propaganda into life in South Korea or China. This book is all encompassing and incredibly versatile.
Again and again I had to put the the novel “Nothing to envy. Real lives in North Korea” aside and think about what I had just read. Moreover, knowing that all these stories are real horrifies me and the annual figures let me lose my breath, as the latest date she writes about is the year of 2014. Especially, Demick’s precise reproduction and complements of these life stories with historical background is an admirable work. She manages to outline the turning points when the protagonists lose their belief in the regime and start making plans to leave their country. Having read the book, I do now understand the obstacles North Koreans face when leaving their country. The author describes these challenges in detail and makes the reader understand how difficult it was for them when they arrived in China or South Korea. Most of them want to go back home as they are overstrained with their freedom, the technology and the behavior of people in the modern world. The refugees are more than decades behind of the development in South Korea.
In my opinion, the point of view from the South Koreans that Barbara Demick describes is very interesting. Although, they all long for a reunited Korea and dream of a reunification, they are not sure how to handle the masses that would enter from the North. A lot of economists are engaged in preparing for this situation and try to figure out what could be the best method to handle this situation. If there will be a reunion one day and all the information will be released for public, it is going to be interesting what exactly happened in North Korea, because today nobody knows exactly and there is much speculation. This bestseller should definitely be read.

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