This is my review of Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.
The title is an ironic take on the brainwashing of North Koreans to think that there is "nothing to envy" in other countries. Based on lengthy conversations with a handful of those who managed to escape to South Korea via China before the border was tightened up, this book provides a very convincing picture of life in the world's "last undiluted bastion of communism". It has defied expectation in surviving into the C21 even though the inefficient systems leave many people malnourished, forced to forage for weeds as food, and reduced to squatting blankly, staring straight ahead "as if they are waiting..for something to change". Behind the artificial showcase of the parts of Pyongyang that foreigners are allowed to see, life seems bleak indeed.
The book begins with the striking observation that viewed from a satellite by night, North Korea is "curiously lacking in light" owing to the inability to pay for electricity.
Making a mockery of communism, we learn how people have been classified as members of the "hostile class" and denied education and work opportunities if they have "tainted blood", which could simply be the result of having a father unlucky enough to have been brought from south of the border as a POW after the Korean War. Again contrary to pure Marxism, the head of state is regarded as an infallible god-like figure: people weep extravagantly at his death out of fear of failure to conform to the expected tide of grief, and perhaps some still believe the idea that he might return to life if they cry hard enough.
We sense the continual risk of being denounced and sent to a prison for some minor offence, which could include failing to keep sufficiently clean the obligatory pictures of Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-il, or daring to listen to South Korean television – inspectors come to check you have not removed the paper tape over the tuning buttons, but a long thin sewing needle may serve to twiddle them, such is human ingenuity when persecuted. Then there is the lunacy of a state being unable to provide its people with basic food, but still trying to prevent them from setting up their own private enterprise which will save them from starving. Hopefully things are beginning to change, marked by a recent protest, "Give us food or let us trade!"
The author is good on people's dawning realisation of the extent to which they have been misled, and also on exactly how some people managed to escape to South Korea and the problems of adjustment they have faced there – not least the guilt over punishment of relatives left behind.
The only aspect of the book which troubled me was the embroidery of memories to create dialogues and inner thoughts which must be in part fictionalised. The basic details are too fascinating for this to be necessary. The American journalese also grates at times, and an index would have been useful but overall this is a very readable book on an important theme.
It left me ashamed of my comfortable life, and much more sympathetic towards economic migrants, with respect for their resilience.