Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
  • Title: Nothing to Envy
  • Subtitle: Real Lives In North Korea
  • Author(s): Barbara Demick
  • Publisher: Granta
  • Year: 2010-06-10
  • ISBN-10: 1847083374
  • ISBN-13: 9781847083371


Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick provides a captivating glimpse into the lives of ordinary citizens in one of the world’s most secretive and repressive regimes. Through extensive interviews and in-depth research, Demick sheds light on the realities faced by North Koreans, challenging the prevailing propaganda and stereotypes surrounding the regime.

The book is organized around the personal stories of six individuals who lived in the city of Chongjin, ranging from a doctor to a young couple in love. By following their lives before, during, and after the devastating famine of the 1990s, Demick highlights the resilience and determination of the North Korean people. She vividly describes the hardships they faced, including chronic food shortages, censorship, political indoctrination, and the constant fear of surveillance.

In addition to recounting personal accounts, Demick provides historical context and analysis, delving into North Korea’s founding ideology, the cult of personality surrounding the ruling Kim family, and the country’s isolation from the rest of the world. She expertly untangles the complex web of North Korean society and politics, illuminating the reasons behind the people’s loyalty to the regime despite its failures.

Nothing to Envy” is a deeply compelling and eye-opening book that humanizes the often-misunderstood citizens of North Korea. Demick’s meticulous research and powerful storytelling reveal the immense challenges and sacrifices faced by individuals living under an oppressive regime. This book is a must-read for anyone seeking a deeper understanding of life in North Korea and the resilience of the human spirit in even the most challenging circumstances.


Book Review

"Nothing to Envy: Unveiling the Courage and Resilience of North Korea's Forgotten People"

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick is an extraordinary journey into the lives of ordinary North Koreans, exposing the harsh realities of a repressive regime. Through the deeply personal stories of six individuals, Demick paints a powerful and haunting portrait of a society plagued by poverty, censorship, and fear. With meticulous research and compelling storytelling, this book sheds light on a largely unknown and misunderstood corner of the world.

Demick’s thorough examination of North Korean history, political structure, and ideology serves as a solid foundation for the personal narratives that follow. By providing this context, she fosters a deeper understanding of the social and political forces that shape the lives of the protagonists. One such individual is Mi-ran, a young girl who dreams of becoming a teacher. As we follow her journey from a childhood full of propaganda to the harsh realities of everyday life, we witness the transformation of her hopes and dreams. Demick’s vivid descriptions bring to life the hardships faced by Mi-ran and her family, from the constant struggle to find enough food to the dangers of speaking out against the regime.

Another standout story is that of Dr. Kim, a talented physician revered by his community. Through his narrative, Demick exposes the dire state of healthcare in North Korea. Dr. Kim’s dedication to his patients endures despite the scarcity of medical supplies, frequent power outages, and the heartbreaking loss of lives. His story serves as a poignant reminder of the resilience and compassion that can thrive even in the darkest corners of society.

Demick’s poignant writing style ensures that the reader becomes deeply invested in the lives of these ordinary people, making their triumphs and tragedies feel all the more real and affecting. The author’s interviews with North Koreans who managed to defect to South Korea provide unique insights into the secretive country. These personal accounts lend an authenticity to the narrative, and the stories shared are powerful testaments of the human spirit’s ability to endure and hope for a better life.

One of the most troubling aspects revealed in the book is the extent of governmental control and manipulation of information. Demick astutely illustrates how the North Korean regime exercises a firm grip on its citizens through strict censorship, ensuring that they remain loyal and uninformed. It is through the narratives of those who managed to escape that we gain a deeper understanding of the immense sacrifices required to break free from the regime’s clutches.

Nothing to Envy” not only educates readers about the everyday struggles faced by North Koreans but also provides important insights into the brainwashing and cult-like adoration of the ruling Kim family. Demick dismantles the notion that everyone in North Korea blindly accepts the propaganda, highlighting the individual agency and resilience of the people.

In conclusion, “Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea” is a remarkable and eye-opening book that humanizes the people of North Korea, revealing their courage, resilience, and unwavering desire for a better life. Barbara Demick’s well-researched and compassionate storytelling shines a light on the harsh realities faced by North Koreans, offering a vital perspective often overlooked in Western media. This book is an essential read for anyone seeking an authentic and deeply moving account of life under a repressive regime.

Word Count: 588

It was a time when North Koreans were supposed to be happy, chastened by the famine of the 1990s. With enough photo albums, Regina Kim realized, nobody had to see how poor her family really was. There were half a dozen albums on the shelves by the television set, meticulously filled with family portraits taken at the annual visits to the Chongsan-ri People’s Resort. Hers were among those that most likely had never done any work or engaged in a factory sport. But they looked the most prosperous because they were holding sacks of rice in front of their chests. When they posed, they smiled the bright smiles expected from North Koreans. Only their eyes betrayed their worry.

Key Ideas

In “Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick, several key ideas emerge that shed light on life under the repressive North Korean regime. These ideas include:

  1. Human Resilience Demick portrays the remarkable resilience of the North Korean people in the face of extreme hardships. Despite widespread poverty, food shortages, and constant surveillance, individuals like Mi-ran and Dr. Kim find ways to survive and maintain hope. Through their stories, the book emphasizes the indomitable spirit of the North Korean people.

  2. Propaganda and Control One of the central themes in the book is the extensive propaganda and control exercised by the North Korean regime. Demick highlights how the government carefully controls the flow of information to maintain loyalty and obedience. By exposing the extent of censorship and manipulation, she raises awareness about the suppression of individual freedoms and the consequences of living without access to critical information.

  3. Famine and Its Aftermath The devastating famine of the 1990s, resulting from a combination of natural disasters and government mismanagement, is a key focus in the book. Demick describes the widespread hunger and desperation faced by the North Korean people during this time, highlighting the human toll and the long-lasting impact on individuals and communities.

  4. Cult of Personality The book explores the notion of a cult of personality surrounding the ruling Kim family. Through interviews with defectors, Demick provides insights into the deeply ingrained reverence and loyalty fostered by the regime. She unpacks the intense propaganda surrounding the Kims, which presents them as god-like figures and perpetuates their absolute authority.

  5. Escape and Defection “Nothing to Envy” illuminates the harrowing journeys of those who manage to defect from North Korea. By sharing the stories of individuals who risk their lives to escape, Demick demonstrates the lengths people are willing to go to seek freedom and a better life outside the oppressive regime. Their experiences shed light on the challenges they face during their defection and resettlement in South Korea.

Overall, the key ideas in “Nothing to Envy” challenge Western perceptions of North Korea, offering a humanizing and nuanced perspective. Through personal stories, Demick reveals the resilience and agency of North Koreans, exposes the mechanisms of control and propaganda, and explores the lasting impact of the famine and the cult of personality surrounding the Kim family. The book serves as a powerful testament to the strength and courage of ordinary people living under extraordinary circumstances.


Target Audience

The book “Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick is targeted at a diverse audience interested in gaining a deeper understanding of life in North Korea and the human experience in oppressive regimes. This book is recommended reading for the following audiences:

  • General Readers and Non-fiction Enthusiasts “Nothing to Envy” offers a compelling and accessible exploration of the lives of ordinary North Koreans, making it suitable for general readers seeking a thought-provoking and engaging non-fiction narrative. Demick’s storytelling prowess and the human-centered approach make this book highly readable and relatable.

  • Those Interested in Global Politics and Human Rights The book provides a unique and intimate glimpse into the inner workings and social conditions of one of the world’s most closed-off and secretive countries. It sheds light on the human rights violations and political oppression faced by the North Korean people, making it valuable reading for anyone concerned with human rights and global politics.

  • Social Scientists and Researchers “Nothing to Envy” is a valuable resource for scholars and researchers studying North Korean society, politics, and culture. Demick’s rigorous research, the extensive interviews with defectors, and the well-documented historical context provide a wealth of material for those interested in understanding the complexities of life under a repressive regime.

  • Journalists and Foreign Correspondents For journalists working in international relations and conflict zones, “Nothing to Envy” offers crucial insights into the lived experiences of individuals within North Korea. It provides nuanced perspectives that challenge mainstream narratives and aid in comprehensive, accurate reporting.

  • Advocates for Human Rights and North Korean Defectors The book serves as an important tool for raising awareness about the human rights abuses in North Korea and the challenges faced by defectors. The personal stories shared in “Nothing to Envy” humanize the North Korean people, fostering empathy and compelling action towards improving their conditions.

In conclusion, “Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea” is recommended reading for a wide range of audiences. Its engaging storytelling, in-depth research, and unique personal narratives make it an accessible, eye-opening, and thought-provoking exploration of life under a repressive regime. Whether seeking a better understanding of North Korea’s politics, human rights issues, or simply wanting to connect with the human spirit in challenging circumstances, this book offers valuable insights for all who delve into its pages.

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