Nothing to Envy: A Review

This is a review of the nonfiction book published way back in 2009 called Nothing to Envy that I posted in goodreads in 2013. It’s an introduction to the horror that is North Korea and is a good example of nonfiction writing based on interviews. I haven’t got a chance to re-read this because some descriptions can be graphic and difficult to imagine. It would have been easier if this is a fiction novel, but sometimes, in order to understand the evils in our world, one must confront the very thing if only through a writer’s account.


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If you have a conscience, you have to read this, my friend Michael once told me.

At the time, my reading list is dedicated to classics and literary fiction—-your required list if you want to learn how to write well. Real world stories hold little appeal to me, not because I’m not curious enough, but because they’re often incomplete.

Meaning: they don’t satisfy my need to understand how and why things happen not just once, but over and over again. It seems to me pointless to read news everyday if it can’t reveal the underlying issues and causes. How much can one journalist tell in a 300 to 500-word news anyway?

But put the reporting in one book and write it without sentiment, irony, and all those styles that hide the truth, and I’m a convert. And this is exactly what Barbara Demick did in Nothing to Envy, a synthesis of seven years of research about the plight of North Koreans.

It is written sincerely, like a novel. Simply, it told the truth about North Koreans.

It starts with geography, a satellite view of the country, setting the tone of what the reader must know immediately in order to convince him that North Korea is not just any poor country that we must give attention to. Demick describes it accurately: North Korea is simply blank.

It has no electricity. That’s the shocking fact. Without electricity, how can a country build its economy? How can it feed its people? But more importantly, why doesn’t it have energy in the first place?

Demick finds out through interviews with six defectors from the third largest city, Chongjin. It’s located near the border of North Eastern China, separated by the Tumen river.

From Chongjin, the lives of the teacher, Mi-ran, university student, Jung-san, the loyal communist, Mrs. Song and her headstrong daughter, Oakhee, divorcee, Dr. Kim, and orphan, Kim Hyuck are told in stark detail, from their practices as loyal subjects to their escape and new lives in South Korea.

The famine in the 1990s that each defector experienced was most affecting as well as the imprisonment of some and their relatives. In North Korea, one’s life is as cheap as a bowl of salted water with cut grass for vegetables. You steal a copper wire from an inactive electric power pole, and you get executed in public by a firing squad.

This is a country in the 21st century that violates human rights as much as Kings and powers that be did in the medieval ages. And yet, it remains. That’s the saddest part. The most hatred part.

How do we save the North Koreans if they can’t save themselves?

Demick doesn’t give us theories. The personality alone of Kim Il Sung, as described by the defectors, is to blame. He thought he was an all-knowing God who can deliver his people from dependence. You know that you have one dangerous leader if he can make his people believe that we have everything and nothing to envy.

But apart from the failure of North Korea’s autocratic leaders, there’s a revelation of human nature here that I can’t stop thinking about. How easy is it for us to give up our freedom to think or feel when given a leader who organizes a party and military just to keep him in our hearts and minds?

If the freedom to think or feel is inherent, how do we find ourselves imprisoned in our very own country? What does it take to give up those freedoms so easily?

Indoctrination in NK is a serious business, starting in private homes. Add to that the lack of physical freedoms that we enjoy, thanks to NK’s military and spies. So you have a country that is beyond saving when its very own people can’t protect their own.

The six defectors interviewed here have happy and sad endings. This is not the book you read if you just wish to be entertained. You read this for empathy.

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