The power of a personal story is wielded to strong effect in Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, a largely oral history “based upon seven years of conversations with North Koreans.” In an expertly constructed narrative that blends riveting storytelling, thorough research and astute investigate reporting, Demick paints a shocking picture of daily life in the socialist Republic of North Korea through the stories of six defectors now living in South Korea.

At the close of World War II, after Japan’s surrender in 1945, the U.S. military arbitrarily divided the Korean peninsula into two sectors, North and South, to be overseen by the Soviet Union and the United States. Kim Il-sung soon came to power in North Korea, creating an Orwellian socialist regime that plunged the country into economic chaos and famine. By the 1990s, manufacturing and trade had stopped, jobs and salaries dried up and government systems regulating health care and food distribution crumbled. Millions of people starved to death. Those who survived lived in darkness, both metaphorical and, due to the universal lack of electrical power, actual.

The book’s chilling opening, which shows an entirely darkened night sky over North Korea, stands in terrible contrast to the “enlightened” doctrine that every North Korean is taught: that their country is superior, that their “dear father” (now Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il) is their loving protector-provider and that they have “nothing to envy.” The stories of the North Koreans profiled give the lie to this line of propaganda; theirs are lives of deprivation, secrecy and fear.

Nothing to Envy is an eye-opening book about a country that remains mostly hidden and off-limits to the rest of the world. Demick expertly balances her excellent grasp of North Korea’s history and culture with six sensitively presented personal stories, each rife with the emotional trauma of cultural betrayal, to create an indelible portrait of one of the last modern Communist regimes.

Alison Hood writes from Marin County, California.

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