Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea (By Barbara Demick)

This book marks the end of my literary journey through the harsh terrains of North Korea. The next time I touch on anything dictatorial (or communistic, for a better choice of words), it’s got to be more visual than this – and more physical; I still hope for a day when I could finally travel to this supposedly ‘pariah’ nation, to witness all that is (left) of this autocratic regime.

My previous readings of the North were mostly about the harsh reality of life there, both from the perspective of a high ranking officer and a camp prisoner . In this book, the topics that Demick touched on did not deviate much from the usual calls for alarm about the abhorrently inhumane conditions suffered by the North Koreans, especially those belonging to the lower castes in society. A commonality found across such writings includes the much hackneyed description of the conditions of famine and drought. Nevertheless, what makes this book a page-turner and a much more exciting and immersible read is the narrative style that Demick brings into her writing. She turned each of the North Koreans that she has interviewed into a unique character who plays a distinct role in the storyline that she has weaved for them. The explicit focus given to each of these character’s simple dreams and hopes in life – to attend university, find a partner they love, earn enough to feed their family – has also enabled readers to bond with these characters quite easily. One can’t help but find themselves empathising with the North Koreans and cheering them on to embrace these simple dreams of theirs. The narration of each character’s dreams elucidate the fact that this population is no different from any populace in other parts of the world.

The inevitable separation among family members that followed a war, such as that of the two Koreas, has always been too perplexing a phenomenon for me to come to terms with. It has never made sense to me how a man-made conflict could lead to the deprivation of so many innocent people to be able to see their loved ones again. The particular case given in the book – that of Mi-ran and her family – illuminated how this could be so: simply because they fought at the wrong side of the front line during the war. Although this incident led to dire consequences that followed through till the next 3 generations while they were in the North, the paradox was that Mi-ran’s family was eventually able to make use of the same family ties with their South Korean relatives to get out of the bottomless pit, thus redeeming the future of their offspring. Not everyone was as lucky as them though.

The tagline of the book lends itself further attention for deeper thoughts about the paradoxes in life. What makes for an ordinary life might depend heavily on the type of society a person lives in. However, the forces of globalisation – even in the hermit land of the North – cannot be resisted. How ‘ordinary’ a life can or should be immediately becomes a subjective debate. One thing for sure is that for many of these defected North Koreans, the ‘ordinary’ life in the North became no longer bearable the moment they got wind of the ‘ordinary’ lives that their southern counterparts are enjoying. The failure of the North Korean media in instilling the Juche mentality – to be self-sufficient and have ‘nothing to envy’ of others – is palpable and downright disgraceful. I suspect the author’s intention of the title ‘nothing to envy’ is a purposeful twist to the message that was originally intended for the North Koreans about the need to remain contented with what is given to them. Readers of this book should have realised that the message is intended for us, not themselves, to tell us that there is indeed nothing at all about the lives of the North Koreans that could make us green with envy. Because they have nothing. Full stop.

But then again, who’s to say that this view is not a biased one? After all, our capitalistic and globalised world has seen many downfalls and unrest as well: the economic crisis, the Great Depression, the many cases of fraud, the countless incidents of racial and religious disharmony. But at least, we had the freedom to pick ourselves up again.

This is one of the best books that I’ve read about North Korea so far. A good read, with many revelations and insights relating to the country’s political leaders and activities.

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