North Korea. Just saying the words conjures up images of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un overseeing some arbitrary task or standing stoned faced as millions upon millions of his subjects cheer in admiration. North Korea is as close to the Orwell’s 1984 as you can get in the 21st century. However, Demick’s novel, “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea”, takes a deeper look at the people behind the adoring eyes and proud smiles.
Demick focuses on six individuals living in the industrial city of Chongjin, located in the North Hamgynong province, near the China and Russia border. The lives of the individuals is chronicled over 10 years and digs deep into the psyche of North Koreans and their reactions, or often lack thereof, of a once powerful country that slowed slipped into the depths of poverty and famine. The book touches on the educational systems of North Korea, the healthcare, and even the few privileged, all told through the eyes of the people who lived it firsthand.
At times it feels as though you are reading a novel, fictional portrayals of a dystopian saga. But masterfully, just as the reader is getting sucked into the stories of the citizens profiled (I don’t want to use the term characters, but it is tempting) Demick sucks you out of that trance, slaps you in the face and screams, “This is real life!” As someone who studies North Korea, and tries to learn as much about one of most mysterious countries on earth, it is easy to separate yourself from these citizens. We tend to look at North Korea as a sideshow, too strange to be real, and often times (mostly though without a compassionate thought) as some strange dark comedy. North Korea becomes the punchline of a bad joke. Their leader, a despicable, fat fool who is mocked by the rest of the world because of his diluted self absorption is a common running joke on late night talk shows. But behind the laughter and mocking, we tend to forget that there is a deep, dark well of suffering in the neighbor to the north. Maybe the suffering is so bad, that we have to laugh at it in order not to break into tears. Demick claws her way into the underbelly of North Korea, going through the stomach and up to the heart. She pulls it out to show us that it is real, and it IS GOOD.
There is one character that sticks out, and I think it is because I can relate to her as an educator. The character is Mi-ran, a kindergarten teacher, who watches each one of her students disappear one by one during the great famine of the 1990s. As the students dwindle away, she continues to work, going methodically through her day, passing people (including children) on the brink of death on her way to school. She knows in her heart the reason for her students disappearance, but her mind shuts off. This is not because she is cold or heartless, but as a defense mechanism for her own survival.
Just survive. A motto in the ordinary lives of North Koreans.
Barbara Demick recently did a Reddit AMA: Click here
To buy Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea: Click here