Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Koreans who have experienced a great deal of hardship and turmoil living under one of the most notorious communist regimes. Throughout the years these North Koreans lived through the death of their great Kim Il-Sung, the rise to power of his successor Kim Jong-Il, and the horrific famine that has left many in despair. Although North Korea is constantly in the news globally it is surprising to realize little is known about the country itself.
Communist dictatorship has shut out the North part of the Korean peninsula from the outside world and has ruled with an iron fist.
In the years following WWII Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong Il have created a society full of censorship, propaganda, and famines. Demick is a journalist who through interviewing defector’s of North Korea can shed light on communism and the many human rights violations that still ensues in North Korea.
She works for the Los Angeles Times and moved to South Korea in order to report on the happenings between both North and South Korea. Although no contact could be made with North Koreans, especially for a foreigner, Demick was able to hear stories from defectors over the years.
The real face of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea began to surface with the descriptions given by defectors now living in South Korea. North Korea still to this day blanketed from the western world and its capitalist ways. All media from the outside world is censored and manipulated in order to brainwash North Koreans into thinking they live in a prosperous nation unlike the enemies, South Korea and the U. S. Even as children, communism and socialism is entrenched in their minds. Kim Il-Sung was and still is, revered as their grand marshal and Father.
Although, living conditions rivaled that of 3rd world countries, citizens were fed propaganda telling them to endure and march on. There were promises of rice and other sources of food, but many people were left to starve. In order to receive any type of food ration one must work and if shifts were missed they were to go hungry. A salary wasn’t expected for most workers especially after the electricity and power shortages started. You were expected to work and in turn were assured food rations whenever they would start up again. Living in fear of imprisonment or even death kept citizens quiet and without complaint.
North Koreans were to believe in their leaders and their socialist ideals. Ideological classes were mandatory and were meant to sustain ones loyalty to the regime. Years of oppressive rule and starvation led people to question the real reasons they were being treated this way if they were living in such a powerful country. Questioning the regime and its rules can bring about serious repercussions. Nobody was to be trusted and neighbors were pitted against each other. The Imimban, people part of neighborhoods who reported to authorities, were always around and listening for non-believers.
Non- believers would be the ones who did not truly follow their Grand Marshal and anyone who would criticize the regime. Demick reveals what is meant to live under one the most cruel totalitarian regimes in history, where government has total power, censorship is rampant, displays of affection are illegal and any stark aside can mean being sent to the gulag for life. The author spotlights people who originated from Chongjin, one of the largest cities in North Korea and where people were more affected by the food shortage in the 1990’s.
The city is closer to the Chinese border and far from the bustling city of Pyongyang. Pyongyang was where universities resided and where the elite would go to become educated. The author begins with Mi-ran, whom she meets as a woman in her thirties. Mi-ran had defected with her mother, younger sister and older brother. Left behind were her two sisters, who were loyal to the regime and would never dare attempt to leave. Tae-woo, Mi-ran’s father had passed and gave her a list of relatives they should try to contact. The family was considered to be part of the lower class system because Tae-woo is of South Korean origin.
After he fought in the war he was taken as a POW in what was now part of North Korea and had to assimilate in the communist country. This meant he was sent to work in the mines and would never be able to achieve any higher ranking. This unfortunately was also the case for anyone related to Tae-woo, especially his children. No matter how hard they would study and work, they were to meet the same disappointment their father had faced. “Your song-bun, as the rating was called, took into account the backgrounds of your parents, grandparents, and even second cousins “(26).
Even ordinary citizens were subjected to invasive screening in order to rank their political trustworthiness. Mi-ran began an innocent relationship with a young man named Jun-sang, who was a few years older than her. Although, Jun-sang came from a good family and was in turn in a higher class, he was intrigued by Mi-ran. They would often walk in the dark of the night, since there was rarely electricity, they were able to do so inconspicuously. She worked hard for her education and was even accepted into a teaching school. She grew tired of the small emaciated children she would see everyday.
Children would many times come to school without any food and would ultimately stop coming to class. She did not like to think of reasons why they would not be in class anymore, she had to become numb. Eventually, Mi-ran came to realize her family would have to escape their horrible life in South Korea and look for the relatives that her father had told her about. Not knowing whether she should tell Jun-sang or not about her decision to defect proved difficult. She didn’t want to leave him in the dark, but also did not want him interfering with her plans.
She crossed the Tumen River with her family and never looked back. They were able to phone the distant relatives, who at first were skeptical. After obtaining illegal passports they made their way into South Korea. When they arrived in South Korea they could then tell authorities the truth and receive amnesty. The laws there state that a North Korean may obtain citizenship in South Korea as long as you arrived there on your own volition. At first Mi-ran was amazed by everything they were missing while living in North Korea, it was as if South Koreans were traveling from the past into the future.
The way they dressed, spoke, as well as their mannerism were that of people from decades earlier. She soon came to realize her life as good as it was came with a price. She heard rumors of her sisters back home being taken in the middle of the night and assumed they were brought to labor camps. In the late 90’s more than ever, families of those defected received harsh punishment to be made examples of. Mi-ran decided to go back to school and while completing her graduate degree was married and having her first child. She had assimilated fairly well into society because of her younger age and willingness to accept change.
Unlike Mi-ran, Jun-sang came from a wealthier family of Japanese decent. His family did not have some of the worries other families were burdened with such as food scarcity. He had family back in Japan who would often send Japanese currency because it would enable them to trade it for goods. Jun-sang’s parents grew vegetables in a small plot next to the family’s small house. His father was part of the Worker’s Party and was expected to follow in his footsteps. During his times with Mi-ran he often wondered what their future held since she was obviously in a lower class, although they never spoke of it.
It was unheard of for one to talk about their social status. His father would never allow such a relationship to occur and Jun-sang knew this. He was accepted into a prestigious university in Pyongyang and would visit Mi-ran every chance he could get. It wasn’t until the death of Kim Il-Sung did Jun-sang realize he was different than everyone else. He did not feel as upset as others and did not understand why. Later on he was able to get a hold of some books only the elite were given permission to read and also rigged his television set to receive South Korean channels.
HE would often listen instead of watching the television in the middle of the night. If he was to get caught watching these illegal channels he was sure to be sent to prison or worse. It was now that his true fears were realized, that his whole life has been a lie. While seeing Mi-ran after these epiphanies proved tough for him because he wanted so badly to tell her everything he had heard and seen. But, he was afraid it would sadden her more than she already was after seeing her students die one after another.
Jun-sang was terribly hurt when he found out Mi-ran has left so suddenly, he understood that she was braver than he because she had escaped before he could. So he decided to move back home and save money to plan for his passage into South Korea. His father was very disappointed in his decision, but did not know his son was ready to leave. When he finally made it to South Korea he had to work manual labor jobs because his North Korean education was no longer valid. While being interrogated when first arriving in South Korea, which was required of all defectors, he asked if he could find Mi-ran.
After finding out she was married he first did not want to contact her. He finally decided to contact her after running into her brother Sok-ju. Their first reunion was so incredible to him, he couldn’t believe she was now married and a mother all the while assimilating into South Korean society. Ultimately their friendship grew to texts and phone calls. With a graduate degree and a family under her belt, Jun-sang was no longer the one with the higher status. He in time decided to attend pharmacist’s school and obtain a decent paying job. Dr.
Kim was a female doctor who excelled as a young student and wanted to be a part of the highly regarded Workers’ Party. She was a perfect candidate to become a party member thanks to her strict discipline and dedication taught to her by her father. Dr. Kim was a hard worker and excelled as a youth. The free health care system was welcomed with opens arms and was at first a success compared to pe-communist era. Unfortunately by the 1990s problems surfaced and medical equipment was no longer provided. Doctor’s had to carry with them their own medicine and tools.
Year after year the hospitals began receiving less supplies and the responsibility to obtain any would be up to the doctors. They were forced to trek up into the mountains to collect various natural herbs and plants in order to make medicine. Bandages were also made with homegrown cotton by. Eventually all that Dr. Kim could do was write prescriptions for their ailments and hoped they could obtain any on the black market. She would soon become frustrated over this broken system and her personal life would also suffer. She was married and had child, but the marriage did not last.
When couples divorce in North Korea the custody of the children automatically goes to the father. Dr. Kim discovered although a loyal citizen, she herself was under surveillance. She decided to defect first to China and did it alone because she did not have enough money for a guide. When she finally landed in South Korea she was upset to find out her entire medical education was not recognized. She had also lost her resettlement money in a bad investment. Many defectors were often scammed out of their money when first arriving because they were naive and did not understand the workings of this new economy.
Dr. Kim ultimately decided to attend a medical school and resume her career. Like many defectors she hoped to one-day return to North Korea after the regime fails and help to rebuild the country. Mrs. Song was a devout communist and never questioned anything else. As the daughter of a war hero she was a model citizen and was practically guaranteed entrance into the Workers’ Party. Mrs. Song worked at a clothing manufacturer all the while produced four children. Chang-bo was her husband who also came from good lineage and had a well-respected job as a journalist. Mrs. Song worked long hours and believed she was doing it for the good of the country and even thought she was not working hard enough. After her job became obsolete she started multiple business ventures selling various homemade goods. Her daughter Oak-hee was unlike her mother and was curious as to what the regime really care about. She married a man who was of a higher class, but was also a drinker. Her husband would eventually lose his job over an altercation with another co-worker and was denied any chance of becoming part of the Workers’ Party, which created a strain on their already tumultuous relationship.
Chang-bo and her son Yong-su would ultimately die because of the wide spread famine that hit Chongjin especially hard. Oak-hee was the first to venture across the border to China in search of help and money. She decided to become a bartered bride in order to make a living and learn more about China and South Korea. After a few years she became independent and on her own trying to make money selling on the streets of China. She was arrested and taken back to North Korea where she spent time in a prison and was eventually released thanks to her mother.
Mrs. Song learned that everything could be bought and brought cigarettes to the guards of the prison her daughter was being held. Oak-hee would tell stories of the different life in China and what she had heard about on T. V. about South Korea. Mrs. Song did not like hearing these stories and was always angry at her daughter for telling such lies. Oak-hee was already planning her trip back and this time she was not to return. She had to pay for her mother to cross although Mrs. Song was highly skeptical and was against it.
Oak-hee paid a lot of money to ensure that her mother traveled in luxury and was even picked up by a private car. Oak-hee had a difficult time trying to live in South Korea and had money troubles because of bad investments. Her mother was also affected because this place was essentially decades ahead of what she knew and found it difficult to make decisions for herself. Many defectors found it extremely difficult to assimilate into South Korean society because they were used to decisions being made for them and did not understand how to live a life on their own.
Kim Hyuck was a part of what was called the “Kochebi”- wandering swallows (160). These were children whose parents had passed away or left to look for food. He was left to fend for himself and ultimately became homeless living from train station to train station. He was a mischievous little boy and would constantly steal to deal with his unwavering hunger. He was sent with his brother to live in an orphanage because his father could no longer care for him. Hyuck came to realize his misdeeds as an adult will lead to serious implications, unlike those of a child.
His travels back and forth from China had attracted the attention of the police (175). He ended up as prisoner at Kyohwaso No. 12, a labor camp not far from Onsong. He was released early to make room for more serious criminals. Since Hyuck did not have money to be guided through China to North Korea, he traveled with a group through the desert to the Mongolian border. If a North Korean made it across the Mongolia they were automatically deported to South Korea. He had to spend nearly a month waiting to be deported because one of the children they were traveling with has died and they had to investigate.
Hyuck already a difficult person to deal with found it hard to live in this new environment. He had a hard time learning the basic etiquette of the South Korean people, he often ignored small talk and polite glances from people (265). He decided to get an education and met a man who offered to teach him English for free. While reading this book I couldn’t help, but feel anger towards this totalitarian regime that has repressed so many people. The stories of these defectors reveal the strength of human perseverance.
To have lived through the death of loved ones, periods of extreme starvation and hardship amazes me. I also learned how defectors wanted to return to their homeland in the future. They were hopeful that the regime would end its power in the near future. I feel North Koreans will be unable to free themselves from communist rule and will continue to defect. South Korea may need to take initiative because sooner or later they will be a country filled with defectors, which will no doubt strained their economy.
Cite this essay
Nothing to Envy Book Review. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/nothing-envy-book-review-new-essay