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

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (Four Stars)

When I finished this book, I felt the same as I have after reading other books on North Korea. Hell isn’t big enough to inflict pain equal to the pain inflicted on the people of North Korea by the narcissistic murderer Kim il-Sung and his equally bloodthirsty, narcissistic, and thoroughly revolting son, Kim Jong-il. (Kim is actually the family name.) North Korea isn’t a Communist country. It’s a kleptocracy masquerading as a theocracy.

North Korea is the type of police state the Soviets and Nazis dreamed about. Everyone watches everyone else and people are brainwashed into obedience to their leaders. Kim il-Sung, the first kleptomaniac murderer-in-chief, has been elevated to the level of God and proclaimed “Eternal President of the Republic” by his son, who now seeks to pass the sword of state to his son, Kim Jong-un. Since the face of the “Eternal President” is on the inflated and worthless currency people receive for their work, some protest by defacing the likeness of “Eternal President” on the currency. If you are caught doing this, you are executed. If you criticize the leadership, you are executed. If one of your family members manages to get out of the country, all of the other family members, often including in-laws and their families, are sent to labor camps where they are quickly worked to death.

The author of this book is a journalist and damn fine one at that. She spent many years as Bureau Chief of the LA Times in Seoul. For the book she did something unusual and creative. Instead of writing about the entire country, which is difficult since there is very little verifiable information about North Korea, she focused on Chongjin, a down-at-the-heels industrial city in the north of the country and one that is relatively close to China. The latter is important because those who manage to get out of North Korea do so by crossing into China, itself a highly risky move. Hence, people living in cities closer to China have a better chance of defecting and they do.

By keeping her focus on this one place, she was able to construct a remarkable history of this city over the previous 15 years and follow the lives of six residents of that city during that time. Because of her remarkable knowledge of Chongjin, even though she has never been there, she is able to separate the truth tellers from the liars since she can ask them if they know where the Museum to Kim il-Sung is located and other such questions. The good news is she has produced a remarkable book to which I give four stars. The bad news is the portrait she so accurately paints is so horrifying that one can be forgiven for thinking that North Korea must be on another planet because it is not like anyplace you have ever heard of, read about, or traveled to.

Chongjin, DPRK. Statue of Kim Il Sung in the center of the city in 2008.

In the midst of the tales of horror of simply living in that God forsaken place, she describes through the experiences of people who were there, the famine which occurred in the 1990s. Food is always short in North Korea but it is estimated that as many as 2 million people starved to death. Kim Jong-il and his fellow thieves were spending money, lots of money, on both themselves and building a nuclear bomb. There wasn’t enough money to do that and feed everyone. Simple math. If you have a country of 22 million people and you only have the money to feed 20 million, then 2 million have to die. By starvation. And they did.

Although a true believer, a physician, whose weight had dropped below 90 pounds, knew she had to get out of North Korea or she would die. She managed to get across the river which is the border with China. It was winter. She had waded through freezing water and was hypothermic. And starving. She saw some farmhouses in the distance and walked to the gate of the first one, pushed it open, and peered into the yard. From the book:

On the ground she saw a small metal bowl with food. She looked closer – it was rice, white rice, mixed with scraps of meat. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a bowl of pure white rice. What was a bowl of rice doing there, just sitting out on the ground? She figured it out just before she heard the dog’s bark…She wanted to believe that her country was the best in the world…beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime…But now she couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.

[Image courtesy of Wikimedia.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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