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Non Fiction

Nothing to Envy – Real Lives in North Korea: Barbara Demick

I visited Seoul back in 1996. A picture of affluence, wealth and beautiful people travelling in large Korean-made sedans, I was enchanted. The mention of the word “Koreans” conjures up the image of South Koreans I have in mind. Recent years while I was doing my graduate program, there were many South Koreans classmates amidst, I made friends with some of them and not in the tiniest fragment of my memory would I compare or contrast any of the Koreans that I have met with their Northern counterparts. Until now…

Our father, we have nothing to envy in this world.
Our house is within the embrace of the Worker’s Party.
We are all brothers and sisters.
Even if a sea of fire comes towards us, sweet children
Do not need to be afraid,
Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy in this world.

The book title draws inspiration from the titular song which every North Korean children learnt by heart. When Kim wrote about this book in her review, I quickly bumped the book up on my TBR list and reserved the library copy. This was before the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island that happened in November 2010. I have a more comprehensive picture of Chinese politics and I thought North Korean’s would be similar. This book smashed all my rose-tinted glass view about the country. I knew the situation is bad…. But I didn’t expect it to be this bad…..

Nothing to Envy weaves together the stories of adversity and resilience of six residents of Chongjin, North Korea’s third largest city. Chongjin is chosen because traditionally the city is earmarked for political dissidents. It also offers a greater insight into the “real” North Korea that exists outside the show capital of Pyongyang.

“If you look at a picture from the sky of the Korean Peninsula at night, South Korea is filled with lights and energy and vitality and a booming economy; North Korea is dark.” – Rumsfeld


The image was made by the orbiting Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellite over regions of the world at night. As North Korean economy collapsed, so do the national electricity grids.

The story follows the lives of six people and their extended families before the famine, their upbringing, up till the decision that propels them to embark in death-defying defection out from their birth country. Mi-ran and Jun Sang are two underground lovers, one a promising star student in Pyongyang university and one an elementary school teacher. Due to differences in family and political backgrounds, they kept their romance secret for a decade. A stalwart factory and party worker, Mrs Song devotes her life to keep her family alive while serving unwavering to the ideology of the father and the son (not God and Jesus Christ, as quipped in the book), Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. Mrs Song has a strong-willed daughter named Oak-Hee, and if she is not kept in check, may send all their family members into trouble with the authority. Dr. Kim is a loyal party doctor which scours for alternatives as the medical supplies dwindles. Kim Hyuck is a street kid, a thief and a convict.

6 people, 6 North Koreans from all walks of lives, from the privilege to the downtrodden, Barbara Demick traced their journey from repression to freedom. As a totalitarian state mired in abject poverty, everything that happens in North Korea is a secret, no foreign correspondents are allowed into the country, foreign visitors are escorted, the superiority of Pyongyang military prowess is put up as a front. In this true account of Chongjin’s residents. Barbara has given a face and a voice to the suffering North Koreans. From repression, to famine, to government lies and propaganda, human trafficking, defection, love, familial ties, assimilation and acceptance into life in South Korea etc.; this book is all encompassing, multi-faceted and awe-inspiring.

I am tempted to paint a scenario and give you a flavour of a typical North Koreans daily life here or even write about some horrific facts that I have learnt from the book. After much thought, I gave up the idea. I think it is best if you read this book (please go read the book!) without any preconception at all, and stand to gain a little bit more.

Barbara has deftly pieced together fragments of defectors’ oral interviews, historical research and pictures of the places she hasn’t been before and give it a cinematic treatment to the subjects of her stories. It reads like a novel or even a thriller – and a very good one too. I have read so many journalists accounts of wars and sufferance and yet none has moved me like this one. I wonder why and after much thinking, the clue was that it is because of Barbara’s painstakingly, beautifully narrated details of her interviewees’ daily inconveniences that made me invested in their lives at the very beginning. To top it off, these are true stories. When those little inconveniences culminate into a bigger tragedy, it became too much for me to bear. I am a tough nut when it comes to soppy novels. I don’t cry. But for this book, I did. I reached the part in the book when Mrs. Song has to choose between her son and penicillin. When she finally made her choice, I have to close the book choked with emotions. I fought back my tears while waiting for the train to begin its journey home………

Not sure if it is the same as how Jong Tae-Se feels when he heard his national anthem played in the international arena of soccer world cup earlier this year?


The common North Koreans have got nothing to eat. A decade on since 1996, an estimated of 2 million of the population has died of famine. They are barred from fishing, farming or trade in black market. They are deprived of aids reaching them as goods from Humanitarian Aids get siphoned off by the armies and sold in the black markets with rocket-high prices, Doctors Beyond Borders are prohibited from operating in the country. The North Korean government are not helping their own people yet stop people from finding ways to survive!!! As far as I am concerned, it’s genocide!!! It’s murder and I am so angry!

Rating: 5/5

This is definitely my favourite book of the year. No matter how much I rave about this book, it will never do the book justice. So please, please trust me on this one, go read it and tell me if you are (or are not) affected by this. Out of the 69 reviews at Amazon.co.uk, 57 rated this 5-stars, 8 4-stars. After this, I will never look at a bowl of rice the same way again.

Jun-Sang recalled a passage from the 19th century’s Hungarian poet Sandor Petofi poem:

Liberty and love

These two I must have.

For my love I’ll sacrifice

My life.

For liberty I’ll sacrifice

My love.

And with that, Jun-Sang made his choice.

My heart bleeds for them. I pray, I pray a miracle will happen soon.

Paperback. Publisher: Granta Books, July 2010 .  Length: 314 pages, Setting: 1960’s to 2010 North Korea. Source: Library loot (ordered a copy from Amazon). Finished reading at 12th December 2010.

Other views:

Kim of Reading Matters wrote an informative review on the book and you can watch the goose-stepping marching of the North Korean army.
Wilfrid Wong
Lotus Reads
Biblio File

About the writer:

Barbara Demick is an American journalist. She is currently Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood (Andrews & McMeel, 1996).

Demick was correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer in Eastern Europe from 1993 to 1997. Along with photographer John Costello, she produced a series of articles that ran 1994-1996 following life on one Sarajevo street over the course of the war in Bosnia. The series won the George Polk Award for international reporting, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for international reporting and was a finalist for the Pulitzer in the features category. She was stationed in the Middle East for the newspaper between 1997 and 2001.

In 2001, Demick moved to the Los Angeles Times and became the newspaper’s first bureau chief in Korea. Demick reported extensively on human rights in North Korea, interviewing large numbers of refugees in China and South Korea.

In 2006, her reports about North Korea won the Overseas Press Club’s Joe and Laurie Dine Award for Human Rights Reporting and the Asia Society’s Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Asian Journalism. That same year, Demick was also named print journalist of the year by the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2010, she won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction for her work, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. The book was also nominated for the U.S.’s most prestigious literary prize, the National Book Award.

She moved to Beijing for the Los Angeles Times in 2007 and became Beijing bureau chief in early 2009. Demick was one of the subjects of a 2005 documentary Press Pass to the World by McCourry Films.

I read many comments over the Internet that questions the authenticity of Barbara’s account and if it is clear of any USA political propaganda to defame the regime. The argument for this is that ultimately, the stories of North Korea belongs to North Koreans themselves, and its through their eyes that these stories must be told.

This will not happen for now for sure, because what I think is that the North Korean defectors are busy trying to forget their pasts and assimilate into their new lives. The North Koreans who still live in the country cannot even eat let alone breathe a word of dissidence, explicitly or implicitly. They don’t have electricity, Internet, proper pen and paper, let alone write about their plights. The ones who have the privilege to write are more interested in protecting their own status (or lives) and stay in favour with the regime. So we won’t see a good number of reference and resources about North Koreans writing about their own countries except patriotic and leaders flattery propagandas; but this is not to say there won’t be one in the future. It is for this reason, I feel Barbara is doing a service, by giving a voice to the plight of a group of people who have none before, now we know.

Barbara Demick’s Awards and nominations

  • 2010: Awarded, BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
  • 2006: Awarded, Overseas Press Club’s Joe and Laurie Dine Award for Human Rights Reporting
  • 2006: Awarded, Asia Society’s Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence in Asian Journalism
  • 2006: Awarded, Los Angeles Press Club Print Journalist of the Year
  • 2005: Awarded, American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Award for Distinguished Reporting & Analysis on Foreign Affairs
  • 1994: Awarded, George Polk Awards, The Philadelphia Inquirer
  • 1994: Awarded, Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, The Philadelphia Inquirer
  • 1994: Nominated, Pulitzer Prize, The Philadelphia Inquirer

About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.


22 thoughts on “Nothing to Envy – Real Lives in North Korea: Barbara Demick

  1. I’m really pleased to see that you loved this one. I am waiting for a copy at my local library and hope i enjoy it as much as you did.

    Posted by Jackie (Farm Lane Books) | December 14, 2010, 2:17 pm
  2. Yes. I concur with you. People, pick this and read. One fine piece of journalism.

    Posted by Wilfrid | December 14, 2010, 3:49 pm
  3. Oh you know I want to read this one Jo. So I skimmed the summary part a bit. Glad to know an excellent book is waiting for me to be read!

    ps: My library has it and it has no queue. Yay.

    Posted by mee | December 14, 2010, 9:52 pm
  4. I have not yet read this book but my brother did and he really liked it-I emailed him a copy of your very insightful post

    Posted by Mel u | December 15, 2010, 12:22 am
  5. Wow, those satellite photos leave me stunned. Thanks for posting those. I think I will be moving this book to the top of my TBR.
    THANKS !!!

    Posted by maphead | December 15, 2010, 4:50 am
    • Maphead, you are very welcome. The satellite photo is quite shocking isn’t it? It took awhile for the significance of North Korea’s “darkness” to sink in for me. Then when I read the book, it became clearer. I am so glad I am able to urge to read this one!! As an avid non-fiction books reader such as yourself, I wouldn’t want you to miss out on this one!

      Posted by JoV | December 15, 2010, 1:42 pm
  6. Excellent review. So pleased I gave you the push you needed to read this one!
    And I agree, I think this has been my favourite book of the year. It was certainly an eye-opening one.

    Posted by kimbofo | December 16, 2010, 1:24 am
  7. It’s great that this book exists. I read a graphic novel about North Korea earlier this year, and it was really terrifying. The author is a cartoonist who spent a few months there. He was always under guard (“escort”) and very rarely was able to walk around freely. I’m adding this to my list. I love oral history!

    Posted by Jenny | December 17, 2010, 12:45 pm
  8. Jenny, I hope you get to read this. If there is one non-fiction book you need to read this year, read this one… (Hurry up! Not many days left till end of the year!) 😉

    Posted by JoV | December 17, 2010, 9:53 pm
  9. Oh, I have to read this! I had read three other books on North Korea before this, so I am not entirely unfamiliar with this country ruled by such despots. Do try, if you can, to read Aquariums of Pyonggang. I think you may like that book too just as much. Thanks for the beautiful review 🙂

    Posted by Soul Muser | December 19, 2010, 2:19 am
  10. It’s a really good book and well worth reading. My only criticism if you can call it that is that the author does seem to infer throughout the book, that we cannot be happy unless we all have say, a Starbucks and KFC on our doorstep. Perhaps that’s just a traditional American world view I don’t know. As for the satellite picture, I was more struck by the chronic waste of power by the surrounding wetsern nations, illuminating the sky at night. This light pollution is shameful.

    Posted by Giles | August 4, 2011, 12:27 pm
    • Giles,
      It is true what you said about the waste of power. I didn’t read it so far as Barbara would expect a Starbucks or KFC, because the extend of deprivation these people goes through all I ask is if they could be given enough food to eat, please? Just give them some food!! It is heartbreaking to read a book like this but makes us think why people in some countries suffer so much, it is because of those good for nothing politicians.

      Posted by JoV | August 5, 2011, 9:10 am


  1. Pingback: Bookie Mee | Nothing to Envy: Love, Life and Death in North Korea by Barbara Demick (2010) - March 6, 2011

  2. Pingback: Bookie Mee | Nothing to Envy: Love, Life and Death in North Korea by Barbara Demick - March 6, 2011

  3. Pingback: Escape from Camp 14 by Blaine Harden | Maphead's Book Blog - July 30, 2012

  4. Pingback: Godless, Hallucinations, and Nothing to Envy | Maphead's Book Blog - January 26, 2016

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

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The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City

JoV's favorite books »
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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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