Thursday, October 14, 2010

Nothing To Envy: North Korea

The lives of the people in North Korea are nothing to envy.  With only a basic knowledge of this communist country, that much is clear.  However, the title of Barbara Demick’s book, “Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea,” has a dual meaning.  The first seems obvious.  The second becomes clear well into the novel when we learn “nothing to envy” is one of the propaganda catch phrases of the regime.  In other words, North Koreans are so fortunate, they have nothing to envy in the world.  A childhood song goes like this:                     

Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.

Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party.

We are all brothers and sisters.

Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children

Do not need to be afraid,

Our father is here.

We have nothing to envy in this world.

With my change of address to South Korea, I suddenly find myself fascinated by the hermetic nation of North Korea.  It’s not really the politics that fascinate me.  It’s what this book is about – the ordinary lives of the people.  What are their lives like?  What do they know about the world?  What propaganda are they taught?  Are they happy?  Do they know that better things exist?

Each of these simple questions has complicated answers, as every North Korean has a unique experience.  But, this book follows the lives of six people who eventually defected to South Korea.  That’s the only reason their stories can be told.

We learn of adults in the 2000’s defecting and learning of the existence of the internet, cell phones, and how babies are conceived.  Raised to think they were the luckiest people on earth, after crossing the boarder to China, one woman discovers the dogs are eating better than her.

What’s also fascinating is that North Korea was a developed nation.  It was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union that brought disaster and eventually famine.  The loss of these allies and their money brought industry to a halt, job losses, and power outages.  So, while it was once plausible that lives were bearable, it’s been hard to imagine so for two decades.

It’s interesting how the change of address has me fascinated.  But, when living in the States, North Korea is a half a world away.  It feels even farther – it feels unreal.  Now, if I could cross the boarder, I’m just a short drive away.  It’s hard to believe such a juxtaposition of modernity that is South Korea, is so close to people who may still believe they have nothing to envy.

This book was fascinating and insightful.  As the author chronicles the lives of six North Koreans you learn about the power of the human spirit and the will to survive. 

Author:  Barbara Demick

Title:  Nothing to Envy:  Ordinary Lives In North Korea

Click Here for the author's website

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