Wednesday, March 23, 2011

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

Just what kind of place is North Korea? Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara Demick wanted to know more about the nation that has tried to remain totally communist while its sister states have all abandoned the tenets of Lenin, Stalin and Mao, adopted market economies, and allowed their citizens more rights. Her visits to its capital Pyongyang were unproductive, for North Korean officials did not allow her to interview average citizens or see anything other than a few selected sites. Demick realized that her only hope was to meet North Korean defectors. In Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, she recounts the stories of six such people, all now living in South Korea.

Before World War II ended, there was no division into North and South, as the Koreans were a fairly unified people ethnically, economically, and politically. Everyone wanted the Japanese invaders off their peninsula, and no one anticipated that at the war's end the Soviet Army would occupy the northern part of the country and then be opposed by its former allies when it tried to take it all. The stalemate of the Korean War left the country divided, and all communications across the partition stopped. Korean families on both sides of the line went decades not knowing whether their parents, siblings, and children still lived. The Western alliance supported the development of a capitalist state in the South, while the Soviet Union and China supported Korean leader Kim Il-sung, who built a totally-controlling communist state in the North. According to Demick, the North Korean government provided a higher standard of living for its citizens through the 1950s and 1960s than available in the South. Everyone had work, meals, and a place to live, so long as they adhered to Communist Party rules. The Party told them daily what great lives they had, and most believed, including many of the defectors that Demick later interviewed. Living in a country with one source for all news, they never heard about the economic boom of South Korea that began in the 1970s.

How these six people lost their faith in North Korea is Demick's central story. Sub-plots include a long unrequited romance, an orphan's story, a doctor's account of caring for patients without medicines, and two tales of families split over the betrayal of defection. Late in the book, the author recounts the risks these North Koreans took to escape to South Korea and their difficulties of adjusting to a culture of consumerism. Readers learn much about the collapse of the North Korean economy after the Soviet Union and China stopped funding it and the devastating famine that the governments of Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il never really acknowledged. The book may be enjoyed as history or can be appreciated for its narrative drama. It is an important addition to the literature of how people survive totalitarian states.

Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Spiegel and Grau, 2010. ISBN 9780385523905.

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