A great title for a great book. Although the title (presumably) comes from one of the many propaganda signs found ubiquitously around North Korea (세상에 부럼 없어라 – We have nothing to envy in the world.), it could very well be a welcome sign at the “international” airport in Pyongyang, the country’s capital city.
The author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick, does a commendable job of getting six North Korean defectors from in and around the Chongjin (청진) area to open up about their lives, the lives of their family members and friends, and the lives of those around them while they were citizens of the Hermit Kingdom 2.0 and then after they arrive in South Korea. Even the most uninterested non-Koreaphiles will be turning the page and wanting more because it’s no different than reading a (real-life) modern-day version of Orwell’s 1984.
What really sets this book apart is the way the author constructs the narrative of the North Koreans who have escaped the ravages of life under Kim Il-sung and subsequently under Kim Jong-il. The fancy way of putting it is that Demick combines a Greek approach to tragedy through the predicaments these people face and the weaknesses which hold them back from successfully overcoming these challenges with a more modern tradition of making them human, fettered by flaws that are relatable and evoke anguish-filled empathy, with irony dripping over it all at pretty much every turn.
We want to scream out loud as these victims of a state-run campaign to destroy them in every facet of their lives keep telling themselves how great Kim Il-sung is, how great life is in North Korea, and how great everything will be once the rest of the world catches up to them technologically, politically and morally.
Even as people are dropping dead all around them during the Great Famine of the 1990s, it’s “Let’s stay strong on this Arduous March!” Just go! we want to tell these people. Get the hell out of Dodge! Cross the bloody Tumen River and then find a way — any way — to South Korea.
The most memorable revelations in this book are simple everyday moments that make you, the reader, pause for a few heartbreaking seconds and go, Holy shit. There really is a hell on Earth. For me, some of these moments included a woman collapsing as she entered China, falling to the ground, and discovering that the Chinese feed their dogs better, more nutritious food than the North Korean government did its own citizens; a highly educated defector getting to South Korea, reading 1984, and wondering how Orwell nailed it so perfectly years before this nightmare unfolded in North Korea; and hearing Kim Jong-il’s real voice through an illegal TV broadcast and realizing exactly what the Japanese did on August 15, 1945 — that small, tiny, weak voice was what we cowered under for a lifetime?
If you like learning and you enjoy a good ol’ tragedy, you will love this book. It is replete with so many of the most human of traits: through its pages we find first love, we please our parents and strive for the very best, we work hard and have big dreams of success and children and food on the table — and then we have it all obliterated. At the very least, it’s proof that the best of humanity does triumph in the face of unimaginable adversity. And while love may not always conquer every foe — real or imagined — it does propel us to new heights, it does inspire us to achieve the unachievable, and even when it does die a sad, lonely death, we are left with an enduring feeling that we are better people for having loved at all.