Barbara Demick wrote “NOTHING TO ENVY, Ordinary Lives in North Korea”. This was the result of her work and research as a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. She spent 7 years assigned to Korea. She chose her subjects from a single town, Chongjin. This was as far North from Pyongyang as you could go. She interviewed over 100 people but settled on detailing the lives of 6 people and their families, all from Chongjin. She covers the history of Korea back to the Korean War and before and what stands out is how little anything has changed in North Korea.
She writes of children who were forced to sing praise for the Great Leader and had nothing. They lived on grass, bark, and whatever they could beg and steal. The Great Famine in the 1990’s killed millions. Death by starvation was common and the people just lived with it as a fact of life.
Mi-ran, was a girl from a poor family who became a teacher. Mi-ran’s relationship with Jun-sang, a university student, lasted 13 years before she left for South Korea without him. Mrs. Song had always been a true party believer. Her daughter, Oak-hee, was not a believer and was a real rebel. Dr. Kim was a female physician, and Kim Hyuck was a boy alone with no family who had survived alone on the streets. They all eventually made it to South Korea and told their stories to Demick.
When Dr. Kim crossed a river into China she saw that dogs in China eat better than human beings in North Korea. The day to day life, living with physical challenges ,and the psychological pressure of living under a totalitarian regime, where just saying the wrong word might be overheard and could result in imprisonment or death, were made very real.
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. China and Mongolia both played roles in these people escaping to South Korea.
Even today North Korea, seen at night by satellite, is just a dark place with little electricity. Not much has changed, but the military presence has changed and today more than ever this is an important book.
“North Korea was, at least thru 2009, the last place on earth where virtually everything is grown on collective farms. The state confiscates the entire harvest and then gives a portion back to the farmer.”
― Barbara Demick,