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.
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!
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
For liberty I’ll sacrifice
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.
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