Sunday, January 27, 2013

Nothing to Envy - Ordinary Lives in North Korea

by Barbara Demick 2009. I read the Finnish paperback edition from 2012 found in a discount bookstore.

Barbara Demick's book is a powerful look into the lives of six individuals in North Korea. Demick spent years on the Korean peninsula working as a Los Angeles Times correspondent and interviewed refugees, who had braved it to China or South Korea to escape the horrors of  life in the North.

Despite it's small shortcomings - the book seems to have been partly put together from earlier L.A. Times' reports and could maybe have used extra editing to make it more coherent - I read the 400+ page volume in one sitting. The characters in the book all have different backgrounds, from a politically suspect family of a South Korean POW to a disillusioned student in an elite state university,  but share a common hometown, Ch'ongjin. Although most of the people don't know each other, this ties the book together. The book also describes happier times, but obviously concentrates on the horrors of the famine of 1990s.

Some of the tales are truly heartbreaking with starving spouses, children and siblings. It's impossible to read without getting emotional about dwindling numbers of students in a kinder garden teacher's class, or about patients in a children's ward dying, when the cure would simply be more nutrition.

All six individuals eventually make it to South Korea. All seem to have similar problems in their new country; feelings of inferiority, trouble adjusting to the new environment etc. However, all are able to overcome their obstacles to a happier life in the South. Demick also describes recent developments in North Korea. Communication technology is connecting many people to the outside world in ways that were impossible earlier. After reading this book, one can only hope there will be some kind of drastic and quick improvement in the lives of the population.

The Book's homepage can be found here: