Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick is the book we're discussing tonight
in the book group I'm attending. Since my niece teaches English in South Korea, I was intrigued by the topic. I'm looking forward to the discussion. First, we go around the room so everyone has a chance to say something. We talk about what struck us while reading it. Here's the passage I picked. It's from a doctor who escaped to China in 1999. "Dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea."
In 2001, Demick moved to Seoul to cover both Koreas for the Los Angeles Times. But she had to get answers about North Korea by talking to defectors. Nothing to Envy is the result of seven years of conversations with North Koreans who had defected. The author focuses on the lives of six people who were born in North Korea, and eventually fled sometime after Kim Il-sung died in 1994.
After World War II, North Korea was totally dependent on the Soviet Union and China. And, the people were totally dependent on the government for jobs, clothes, food, a place to live. All good things flowed from the man who appeared to be god, Kim Il-sung. But, once the Soviet Union and China turned their sights and money elsewhere, North Korea collapsed. They went black to the rest of the world as their inefficient economy collapsed. There were days with no electricity, no water, and, finally, during a famine, no food. By 1998, an estimated 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans had died as a result of the famine, as much as 10% of the population.
Demick tells the story of six survivors of those years. Jung-sang and Mi-ran met at the movies as young teens, but kept their feelings for each other secret through their years in college because of the different in their class in society. As a young boy, Kim Hyuck was forced to steal in order to survive. As an adult, though, his actions were seen as a crime against North Korea, and he paid the price. Dr. Kim worked in a hospital for years, doing everything she could to become part of the Workers' Party. Mrs. Song, Song Hee-Suk was a true believer in the government, a factory worker, mother of four, and a model citizen. Her oldest daughter, Oak-hee, felt differently, though. Life in North Korea is revealed through the daily lives of these six, both before and after the death of Kim Il-sung. In time, all of them fled.
Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy is a powerful book, precisely because it's told through the lives of ordinary people. It's easy to compare our lives against theirs. It's difficult to see the isolation of a country and it's people, a country where none of them know about the advances in the world. And, when they finally arrive in South Korea, it's not always easy for them to adjust to a world that passed them by. Demick's book is a revealing look inside a world that remains isolated and secretive.
Next month for the book club? Susan Vreeland's novel, The Passion of Artemisia.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick. Spiegel & Grau. 2009. ISBN 9780385523905 (hardcover), 314p.
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