Nothing to Envy - Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

  • December 14, 2013 · 10:00 AM

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


Barbara Demick's award-winning study of North Korea sheds light on the lives of some of the world's most oppressed people

Review by Imogen Carter, The Observer Sunday 15 August 2010

When their great leader Kim Il-sung died in 1994, many North Koreans fell to their knees and, like malfunctioning robots, began banging their heads on the pavements. In the weeks that followed, hundreds killed themselves or died from grief and many children, dangerously dehydrated from crying in the sun, were admitted to hospital. For almost half a century the communist dictator had treated his people like slaves, executed the innocent and, following the country's economic collapse in the 1990s, allowed millions to starve to death.

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Koreaby Barbara Demick

Weaving together the accounts of six North Korean defectors, the American journalist Barbara Demick has created a fascinating portrait of a population bred from birth to be state automatons. Schoolchildren are taught songs such as "Shoot the Yankee Bastards" and bombarded with propaganda portraying Kim Il-sung as a god who "caused trees to bloom and snow to melt". In the face of such indoctrination, Demick asks, "Who could possibly resist?"

But the fact is that many did resist, and their gruelling stories form the backbone of this compelling book, which won this year's Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction. Alongside the daring prison breaks and midnight escapes through icy rivers to reach China, the tales of everyday love and loss make Nothing to Envy impossible to put down. For years, two young people, Mi-ran and Jun-sang, risked everything for their forbidden love but never dared confide their feelings of political disillusionment to each other. As the famine set in, mothers sacrificed everything to feed their families, prostituting themselves for bags of potatoes, while teachers watched helplessly as their malnourished pupils faded away "growing younger, like a movie reel run in reverse".

For most of Demick's interviewees, enlightenment came slowly. Jun-sang's gnawing feeling that North Korea was a corrupt regime was confirmed when he began illegally watching South Korean TV; it was, he says, "like looking in the mirror for the first time and realising you were unattractive". With an eye for the most minute detail, Demick holds this mirror up for the rest of the world, allowing the survivors' stories to unfold without judgment while revealing the trials they now face adjusting to freedom.

Viewed from space North Korea is invisible, a black expanse; when the economy collapsed in the 1990s, the lights literally went out. Demick's important book, by illuminating previously hidden aspects of North Korean life, helps restore humanity to some of the world's most oppressed people.


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  • Jessie H.

    Excellent

    December 15, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Uh oh. Went to bills and they said they didn't have reservations for us. I assume thhe address is wrong an we're meeting at the same bills as last time?

    December 14, 2013

    • VB

      We are in bills - come back!

      December 14, 2013

    • VB

      We are in bills - come back!

      December 14, 2013

  • VB

    Hi Martini, we are in bills please come back! Reservation under Vasanthi Smedley

    December 14, 2013

  • Josefine

    Going to be late, trains are a mess again this weekend, but I will be there!

    December 14, 2013

  • Miriam

    Sorry, i'm going to have to admit defeat on this one - really enjoyed the bits I've read so far though, so thank you to whoever first suggested it. Have a lovely brunch ladies

    December 13, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Sorry! Haven't even started reading it yet and now have a very busy week, so will relinquish my spot.

    December 10, 2013

  • Sissel

    No longer in London this weekend. Enjoy though!

    November 21, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    Sounds like a great way to start the weekend. I have been to Bills in Islington for brekkie with work and was delish.

    October 23, 2013

  • A former member
    A former member

    I am so excited we're doing this book.

    October 23, 2013

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