Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

The year 1994 was a disaster for North Korea. The country’s Great Leader and Hero of the Revolution, Marshal Kim Il-sung, died suddenly. Crop output was only 75% compared to the previous year, an ominous sign of the famine that would come. The economy was on the verge of collapse and there wasn’t a safety net to catch anybody. Twenty-four million people were held in the firm grip of the Korean Workers’ Party, who had spies on every block and who deemed it a capital crime merely to be caught listening to South Korean radio. In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick tells the stories of six North Koreans over a fifteen-year period starting in 1994, the year the country plunged into literal darkness.

After the shocking death by heart attack of the Great Leader, Eternal President Kim Il-sung, the North Korean public felt orphaned. Marshal Kim Il-sung was revered as a Father to the Korean People, and without his love and guidance the population felt lost and without hope. Nationwide scenes of mass hysterical mourning, which can be viewed in news clips on YouTube, seem plausibly real and not as staged teary wail-athons when you read the testimony of the Koreans who were there at the time.  

Demick conducted all of her interviews with defectors who had risked their lives crossing the North Korean border with China. These defectors mourned en masse for their Great Leader, yet crawled over dead bodies lying in the street as famine gripped the nation. Starvation killed millions in the northern part of the country and you will wince in horror as the defectors describe how the creeping bony hand of hunger came closer every month to snatching their lives away. People ate weeds and grass, and ground the bark of trees to make a flour substitute. The elderly and very young died first, and for one kindergarten teacher Demick profiles, Mi-ran, the number of students she taught fell from fifty to fifteen. Although the people of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea relied on the government in every aspect of their day-to-day lives, during the time of the famine, however, the government did nothing to save them. Food rations stopped, crops and fields were bare and store shelves remained unstocked. As the economy collapsed, electrical blackouts turned into a permanent state of powerlessness, leaving machinery idle and people unemployed. The Korean Workers’ Party left millions of its own people to fend for themselves, dying a slow death by starvation. 

Demick interweaves these stories and testimonies and sometimes it was confusing trying to figure out who was who. Four of her six interview subjects were women, who happen to make up the majority of North Korean defectors, and I often carried one woman’s story from one chapter to the next, not realizing that Demick was now talking about someone else. 

When the defectors finally arrive in the South, they are held in confinement for a period of one month for debriefing, in order for the Southern authorities to ensure that the people claiming asylum are bona fide political defectors and not North Korean spies (which has happened far too often). However, once the North Koreans are permitted to enter the South, they often find integration difficult: 

“North Korean defectors often find it hard to settle down. It is not easy for somebody who’s escaped a totalitarian country to live in the free world. Defectors have to rediscover who they are in a world that offers endless possibilities. Choosing where to live, what to do, even which clothes to put on in the morning is tough enough for those of us accustomed to making choices; it can be utterly paralyzing for people who’ve had decisions made for them by the state their entire lives.” 

Eventually loyal party ideology is trampled by pangs of hunger, and the human desire for survival. Those who had previously viewed defecting as treasonous were now lining up to make deals with brokers who would ensure their safe passage across the Chinese border. The six people whose stories are told in Nothing to Envy were able to bring some family members to the South yet their hearts ache for the children and family they had left behind.

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