This is indeed an outstanding work of journalism, the second of the two books I bought at the airport. The book title “Nothing To Envy” is taken from one of the frequently used propaganda messages in North Korea. Due to the restricted media access, much of what life is like inside North Korea is sealed off from the rest of the world. Except perhaps Pyongyang that is staged to impress the international media. Prior to reading this book, I only had a limited understanding of North Korea: a communist country that is poor, with her leader rather spends the resources on nuclear weapon than food and a country that is labeled as evil by the Bush administration. But there is much more than that.
To tell the story of North Korea, the author has chosen one city – Chongjin – that is far away from Pyongyang, relatively inaccessible by the media, and was used to be a place for the exiled officials. Chongjin is the third largest city in North Korea close to the Chinese and Russia borders and has important role to play during the Korea War. To tell the story of the North Koreans, the author has chosen six North Koreans who came from the same city, Chongjin, and now defected. To prepare for this book, the author has interviewed over a hundred North Koreans who have defected to either China or South Korea, made nine trips to North Korea between 2001 to 2008, and has reviewed some of the rare to obtain video footages and still photographs. At the beginning of each chapter, a black and white photography is shown. The one that has the most impact to me is the satellite image of Korea peninsula at night. While the majority of South Korea is lit up at night, the entire North Korea is engulfed in darkness with a tiny dot of light at Pyongyang. The entire country with a population of 23 million is out of electricity (out of food for that matter). You may wish to stop for a moment and ponder upon what it means.
From the narration point of view, the author has done an excellent job in keeping the story fresh and accessible to the readers. It is still a dry topic – the history of Korea War, the economic and social outlook from 1960s to today, the regime under Kim Il-sung, the famine of the 1990s, and the life as a North Korean today. What the author manages to do is that through the main characters whom she interviewed and kept in touch over the years and through the stories told by the family and friends of these characters – a compelling story is weaved in telling what real lives in North Korea are like. As an icing on the cake, there is even an element of romance in “Nothing To Envy”. I could not help but to scream (in my head of course): There she has it, a wining story. What it also means is that Barbara Demick has built a trusting rapport at a personal level to not only pry open what lives are like in North Korea, but also get them talking about the happiest and most painful moments of their lives. No wonder the characters come alive with so much intimate details.
The characters chosen in the book are of a diversed background. Some are of a relatively upper class while some are of the lower class. Some have relatives in Japan, China, or South Korea. In terms of people’s jobs, there is a miner, a school teacher, a young scientist, a factory worker, a doctor, and etc. Each story thread has a moving story on why most initially vowed loyal to the Fatherland (as part of the indoctrination process that is probably hard to imagine for the outsiders), how they have to adapt and endure when the situation in North Korea has deteriorated a great deal, and how eventually they made it out of North Korea as defectors.
So what do I get out of “Nothing To Envy”? At the macro level, I learn that against all odds, North Korea has survived the breaching of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of the Soviet Union, the market reforms in China, the death of Kim Il-sung, the famine of the 1990s, and the two terms of George W. Bush’s presidency. At the micro level, I have a better understanding on the indoctrination process powered by the North Korean media propaganda reinforced by neighbor watch and police force, the tragic reality of famine when people have to hunt for grass and weed and tree barks to eat as the last resort (many babies died because they were unable to digest these food) and the desperate things they did for food. There is also good insight during and after the death of god-like dictator Kim Il-sung, on how the social landscape has shifted and how the illegal free market was born out of necessity when totalitarianism collapsed. It is a painful revelation when some of the North Koreans have come face to face with the reality that the world outside has – in contrary to what they were made to believe – progressed while North Korea simply stuck at the 1960s. How some of the North Koreans managed to flee the country as traders or even brides only to be caught and sent to the labor camps back in North Korea and then once out of the camps, they tried fleeing again. One of the most relevant insights – to me – is how the North Koreans who are defected to South Koreans eventually settled down and tried to come to term with a reality, having to face free choices rather than the government to dedicate all that they do and receive. Because that could well be a reality in the future should North Korea collapse one day. To end this brief book summary, I would like to quote the author:
While the persistence of North Korea is a curiosity for the rest of the world, it is a tragedy for North Koreans, even those who have managed to escape.