We Have Nothing to Envy in the World

Book review: Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick

“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.”

I saw this book mentioned in an article about David Sedaris’ special habit when going on a US speaking tour. He recommends a book for each tour, and then discusses it (I guess?) at some point during his speaking event. It said he “promotes” the book, but Nothing to Envy was published in 2009 and was his pick for his 2013 tour, so I don’t think it counts as plugging/trying to sell something.

Isn’t that a cool idea? I love the thought of having a mini book club moment with a favorite author. (And I think reading this book last week brought me good luck, because I just got tickets to his next event in my city. I’ve never been to one, and I’m beyond excited! Has anyone attended an event of his? Or read anything else from his tour’s recommended reading list?)

This is a group or collective biography, relating the lives, in exquisite, sometimes excruciating detail, of ordinary citizens who lived much of their lives in North Korea before defecting. Several of the figures covered are family or otherwise connected to each other, like through an unbelievably innocent young romance.

Demick lets them describe in their own words, memories, and impressions what their lives were like, from childhood until leaving their isolated, tightly insulated homeland, even beyond as they adapt, sometimes struggling to do so, in China or South Korea. She provides beautifully written historical, social and political commentary alongside these highly personal stories, giving greater context to these individual lives.

“As soon as you leave Pyongyang, the real North Korea comes into view, albeit through the windows of buses or fast-moving cars.”

Pyongyang is fashioned into a model, showpiece city, a Potemkin’s village, where residents are carefully vetted and public spaces maintained to create the illusion of a country with happy, satisfied citizens who all have enough to eat. Demick chooses her biography subjects from the city of Chongjin instead. The country’s third largest city and capital of North Hamgyong Province (North Korea is roughly the size of Pennsylvania), this city and its residents provides better examples of the everyday reality of life under the regime than those picked and allowed to live in the capital (not that it’s paradise itself, but that’s another story.)

The book is remarkable, an incredible journalistic feat. The brainwashing North Koreans endure under rigid Communism and structured worship of their “leader” is the stuff out of dystopian science fiction, and it’s all too real. And it’s still happening. There’s a sense of unreality reading some of this; that surely it must’ve taken place centuries ago, the harsh conditions and impossible, unreasonable edicts can’t be anywhere near modern. But no. This is all painfully contemporary history.

The culture of hero worship, the blind idolatry that surround Kim Il-sung and later his successor, son Kim Jong-il (at the time of publication, it wasn’t yet clear who was chosen to succeed) is hard to imagine. Demick paints as transparent a picture as possible – no easy task, and so otherworldly as to seem unbelievable.

“North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people. But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory daycare centers, that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-Sung, that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-Sung’s divinity. Who could possibly resist?”

One man is shocked when he hears Kim Jong-il’s voice for the first time on a South Korean TV show broadcast over an illegally jury-rigged TV set. He was used to the Dear Leader’s words being given voice by professional news announcers, who affected a “quivering, awestruck tone” to heighten the mystique of the man. In this moment he realized the leader was a real person, and this was a tremendous shock.

It explains why so many citizens went crazy, despite their horrific living conditions, when the elder Kim died. It barely occurred to them that he was mortal. But when the disillusionment hits, it hits hard, fracturing everything they understand about their world and their identities, both national and personal. These were some of the most telling aspects of the biographies here; when the subjects reflect from a distance on what they thought and why, how it was all possible when it seems so surreal from the safety and prosperity of another land.

The refrain of a propagandistic song, known and sung everywhere from children to adults, reappears throughout the stories, ubiquitous as the striking red propaganda imagery. “Let’s live our own way / We will do as the party tells us / We have nothing to envy in the world.”

That’s partly because clothing, food and housing are all state “subsidized”, but of course the reality isn’t as the state pretends, and all of those things are painfully difficult to come by. Labor camps are horrifying realities, infrastructure is underdeveloped and overburdened, theft is rampant, government spies are everywhere, everyone is starving and the black market is thriving, as the military steals and sells for profit much-needed food provided by international aid organizations. The electricity grows dimmer and dimmer until the country is plunged into nightly blackness. At some point during the economic crisis and nationwide famine, salaries just stopped being paid. For years.

Sample math problems from a first grade math book show an example of how the slanting of history is controlled from every conceivable angle: “Eight boys and nine girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim Il-sung. How many children are singing in total?”

“Three soldiers from the Korean People’s Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers?”

Worth noting that no prior knowledge of North Korean history or geopolitics is necessary to understand and appreciate the book. I came into mostly unaware aside from the basics, and Demick teaches in compellingly written, accessible, and often surprisingly graceful language, everything you need to know.

“So much of the supposed North Korean miracle [a country where Communism worked] was illusory, based on propaganda claims that couldn’t be substantiated. The North Korean regime didn’t publish economic statistics, at least none that could be trusted, and took great pains to deceive visitors and even themselves. Supervisors routinely fabricated statistics on agricultural production and industrial output because they were so fearful of telling their own bosses the truth. Lies were built upon lies, all the way to the top, so it is in fact conceivable that Kim Il-sung himself didn’t know when the economy crashed.”

Stunning, deeply affecting stories of incredible lives who broke free from a bleak and misled nation.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
by Barbara Demick

published December 29, 2009 by Spiegel & Grau

I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository. It means I get a small commission if you buy via these links. I’m never paid to promote or review any title.

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