To be honest, it has not been very long since I decided to make North Korean human rights my goal, my devotion in life. I went to college thinking I would later become a psychologist and counsel young children. What I didn’t know was that several chance encounters would have me graduating college as a political science major fervent about bringing freedom to North Korea. I could tell you about all of these special encounters but today I’d like to focus on just one: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick.
Barbara Demick is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and has been interviewing North Korean refugees and defectors since 2001, when she moved to Seoul. During her stay in Korea, she has interviewed over a hundred defectors. Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six of those North Korean defectors, all from the same North Korean town but as different from one another as is possible.
Of the six is a young couple budding their love in secret: a young college boy from an impeccable family background and a girl with “tainted blood” because of her father’s southern origin. There is also a female doctor who helplessly watches as her young patients starve to death, a factory worker whose belief in the government is unshakable and her rebellious daughter, and finally an orphan boy who is forced to live on the streets. The time is set in the 1990’s, as Kim Il Sung dies and the North Korean economic system fails, leading to the Great Famine of the 90s.
What is so amazing about this book is that Demick successfully humanizes the most isolated country in the world. It’s hard to know what North Korea is really like behind the government’s façade but Demick takes us behind the scenes into the minds of the people. She makes these six people very real; all of their pains, their devotion to their loved ones, their need for survival, and ultimately their thoughts on their beloved country is very well conveyed. As you read along, Demick makes one feel as if these feelings and thoughts were one’s one. It is impossible not to feel the characters’ anguish, fears, hopes, and even their love.
The phrase “nothing to envy” actually comes from a North Korean song taught to children that says, “Our father is General Kim Il Sung. Our home is in the arms of the party. We are all brothers. We have nothing to envy in the world.” While reading through this book, it was the hollowness of these very words that impacted me the most. After finishing the book, I sat for a while staring at these words thinking, “Really?” Despite the efforts of the phrase, it makes one think about everything that North Koreans could envy, and that list seems endless.
But I love that this is not all that Demick chooses to focus on. Even through the bleak realities of North Korea, Demick manages to convey to her audience that despite everything, North Korean people continue to love.
Whether in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia or in the East Asian studies department of a university, people usually analyze North Korea from afar. They don’t stop to think that in the middle of this black hole, in this bleak, dark country where millions have died of starvation, there is also love.
I think it’s important to remember this. It helps in reminding us that these are real people with real emotions living very real lives. It’s so easy to get caught up in thinking about the North Korean people as merely images of hungry children. Yes, this is absolutely important but this narrow focus may trap one into thinking about these people as mere numbers; the number of people starving, the number of rice needed to be sent to North Korea, the number of people in prison, etc. But they are so much more than mere numbers. They are people. They all have uniquely different lives and each has a story to tell. And this is why the world should care.
This book certainly has impacted my life. Read it and I hope it impacts yours as well.
*All quotes and references have been taken from the book Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. Image taken from http://nothingtoenvy.com/