When you look up the best books about the actual situation inside of North Korea (one which we know very little about), one of the most oft-cited book is Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick. Demick previously was the LA Times Beijing bureau chief and long-time China expat. Her book is specifically about the lives of ordinary people in North Korea, and thus she focused on a city called Chongjin, not Pyongyang, which is the country’s seat of power. The book is based on interviews with 100 North Korean defectors over seven years but primarily follows six main characters (interviewees): a doctor, a housewife, student, miner, and two children.
Reading about the specifics of everyday life in North Korea is shocking. If you haven’t gotten acquainted with this subject, it is shocking to learn about the everyday conditions of life in the country. When you picture North Korea, what do you see? The country is so shrouded in mystery that we hold many misconceptions. One of which is that North Korea is a remote country which civilization hasn’t yet reached, but it’s actually a country that has fallen out of the developed world. Elderly North Koreans remember when North Korea was richer and more prosperous than South Korea.
One of the main themes of Nothing to Envy is how the soul of North Koreans endures or is extinguished by the system that they live in. The North Korean way of life forces you to sacrifice much of what we consider being human. It is frightening stuff. Although this is ugly subject matter, it is beneficial to know what’s going on since North Korea is an increasingly volatile but pivotal figure in modern geopolitics.
The United States has a special relationship with North Korea. We seek to end their way of life, and we were about to achieve that goal and liberate the country in the early 1950’s. Just as General Douglas MacArthur was approaching the Yalu River which separates China from North Korea, the Chinese army entered the war and pushed the U.N. coalition of countries back South. Last week Kim Jong Un left his shell in North Korea for the first time in years to meet Xi Jinping in Beijing. I feel like in a way I’m in the middle of this US, China, North Korea triangle.
Below are a few of my favorite passages from the book. I exported all of my highlights which are here: Nothing to Envy Book Highlights
“In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only color to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea. Images of Kim Il-sung are depicted in the vivid poster colors favored by the Socialist Realism style of painting. The Great Leader sits on a bench smiling benevolently at a group of brightly dressed children crowding around him. Rays of yellow and orange emanate from his face: He is the sun.”
“To a certain extent, all dictatorships are alike. From Stalin’s Soviet Union to Mao’s China, from Ceauşescu’s Romania to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, all these regimes had the same trappings: the statues looming over every town square, the portraits hung in every office, the wristwatches with the dictator’s face on the dial. But Kim Il-sung took the cult of personality to a new level. What distinguished him in the rogues’ gallery of twentieth-century dictators was his ability to harness the power of faith… Broadcasters would speak of Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il breathlessly, in the manner of Pentecostal preachers. North Korean newspapers carried tales of supernatural phenomena. Stormy seas were said to be calmed when sailors clinging to a sinking ship sang songs in praise of Kim Il-sung. When Kim Jong-il went to the DMZ, a mysterious fog descended to protect him from lurking South Korean snipers. He caused trees to bloom and snow to melt.”
“By the 1980s, Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il, who was increasingly assuming his father’s duties, offered “on-the-spot guidance” to address the country’s woes. Father and son were experts in absolutely everything, be it geology or farming. “Kim Jong-il’s on-site instructions and his warm benevolence are bringing about a great advance in goat breeding and output of dairy products,” the Korean Central News Agency opined after Kim Jong-il visited a goat farm near Chongjin. One day he would decree that the country should switch from rice to potatoes for its staple food; the next he would decide that raising ostriches was the cure for North Korea’s food shortage. The country lurched from one harebrained scheme to another.”
“It is axiomatic that one death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic. So it was for Mi-ran. What she didn’t realize is that her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring. In time, Mi-ran would learn how to walk around a dead body on the street without paying much notice. She could pass a five-year-old on the verge of death without feeling obliged to help. If she wasn’t going to share her food with her favorite pupil, she certainly wasn’t going to help a perfect stranger.”
“North Korean students and intellectuals didn’t dare to stage protests as their counterparts in other Communist countries did. There was no Prague Spring or Tiananmen Square. The level of repression in North Korea was so great that no organized resistance could take root. Any antiregime activity would have terrible consequences for the protester, his immediate family, and all other known relatives. Under a system that sought to stamp out tainted blood for three generations, the punishment would extend to parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins. “A lot of people felt if you had one life to give, you would give it to get rid of this terrible regime, but then you’re not the only one getting punished. Your family would go through hell,” one defector told me.”