Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Review: Nothing To Envy by Barbara Demick

 Nothing to Envy
 Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Author: Barbara Demick
Publisher-Format:Tantor Media, audio, 12.5 hr
Narrator: Karen White
Year of publication: 2010
Subject: Lives of North Koreans who defected to South Korea
Setting: various venues in North and South Korea
Genre: investigative reporting
Source: Public library

Ever since North Korean Communist dictator Kim Jong-il's death in December 2011, I realized I knew little about that country.  I had visited South Korea twice in the late 1980's and enjoyed the energy and unbridled enthusiasm for capitalism that I saw, but North Korea remained a mystery.

Barbara Demick, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, was assigned to Korea for several years, and found the North Korean enigma difficult to crack.  Unable to get any North Koreans to talk to her, she changed tactics and located defectors from North Korea who had managed to escape to safety in South Korea.  Her stories of the famine, the lack of work, electricity, transportation, clothing, basic health and opportunity, the lack of color and culture, the terror felt by ordinary citizens about anything and everything, the flourishing black market, the absolute lack of trust in anyone and the total control of "the party" over every phase of  everyday life painted a very clear but bleak picture of the lives of North Koreans from the end of the Korean War to the present.

She has chosen six different people to follow from their younger days in North Korea to their now settled lives in the south.  Their stories of escape, capture, imprisonment, and final flight to safety through China was every bit as engrossing as the first part of the stories when we see how utterly awful life was for people with no hope.  By detailing the process of repatriation to the south, through de-briefing, and a forced enculturation experience we are able to see how totally deprived the people of the north were. In the north, where most had never seen a telephone, they had no mail service, books, very little transportation, no writing paper, and basic hygiene articles were not easy to acquire.  Even a top engineering school graduate had never used the Internet before he was able to escape to the south.  Radio and TV (when electricty was available) was limited to a few pre-set and government approved channels.

This is not a pretty or easy book to read.  It is gut-wrenching, appalling, and frightening.  It is also totally engrossing, and for me at least, very enlightening.  I was so anxious to read it that I grabbed the audio book that was available at the library.  I do intend though to get the print version, because there are illustrations that should enhance my mental picture of this 5 star report.

Demick was awarded the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction in 2010.


  1. I knew that people were starving in North Korea but hadn't realized they were also starving for news, books, even everyday toiletry items. How sad that people must live such a shut-in life. They don't even know what they're missing and probably very few can manage to escape. This is a crime.

  2. no, it is not a pretty story. and maybe the worst is that so little can be done about it.


Welcome, thanks for stopping by. Now that you've heard our two cents, perhaps you have a few pennies to throw into the discussion. Due to a bunch more anonymous spam getting through, I've had to disallow anonymous comments. I try to respond to all comments posing a question, but may not always get to you right away.