Nothing to Envy Summary

Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy

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Nothing to Envy Summary

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Nothing to Envy is a harrowing work of nonfiction by award-winning journalist Barbara Demick. As a journalist, and as the former Seoul bureau chief, Demick ‘s book unveils detailed examples of life behind the veil of North Korea’s near-complete media censorship and paranoia machine, giving readers a slice of this hard-pressed life despite all of the strict restrictions the secretive country has on foreign press.

The narrative takes place over a fifteen-year period in the lives of six North Koreans who find themselves at odds with the repressive totalitarian regime. What these individuals encounter provides the impetus for their defection. With the aid of their accounts, Demick provides a unique insight into the workings of this dystopian-style country, revealing how injustices like displays of affection being punished or lifetime sentences of hard labor being doled out for seemingly offhand comments are everyday occurrences.

Though North Korea is known for its secrecy and stern rulers, the specific period in time that Demick documents is particularly noteworthy. As the country careened into the 1990s, it suffered a series of damaging setbacks. It was during this time that Kim Il-sung died, thus ushering in the rise to power of his son, Kim Jong-il. Indeed, Demick’s narrative traces the compact history of the country from its birth as an industrialized Communist country that was supported by both China and the Soviet Union under Kim Il-sung’s leadership to its devastating collapse and subsequent social ailments under Kim Jong-il.

Along with the nation’s decline and shift in leadership, North Korea experienced a catastrophic famine during this time period that was responsible for the deaths of one-fifth of the population. This famine was compounded by lack of medical care, unpaid salaries, the halting of trade, and other nightmares. Amid the devastating meltdown of social life, however, Demick sheds light on the particulars of private life. Her narrative closely follows these six individuals as they raise families, fall in love, face the reality of their country’s failures, and try to survive, despite the odds.

The stories of these six individuals are uniquely different, yet eerily the same in the end. Mi-ran reveals how, despite the fact that her “tainted blood” as a daughter of a South Korean POW meant that she could not be with the man she truly loved, she was able to become a teacher. With the famine, however, she in time was forced to watch her starving students get sick and die off, one by one. Another defector, Dr. Kim Ki-eum, who was devoted to the Workers Party wholeheartedly, finds herself unable to help her dying patients. Like many others in the country, Mrs. Song was a model citizen, and yet this did not stop her from coming face to face with the horrors of the regime after a time when she was forced to find ways to feed herself and her daughter, Oak-Hee. Other characters include Kim Hyuck, who was given to a state orphanage by his father because he could not support him, and Jun-Sang, the boyfriend of Min-ran.

Like the rest of the country, these six individuals have been indoctrinated since birth to believe that the West is evil and that North Korea is sovereign and brimming with abundance. As the narrative unfolds, however, the reader sees just how disillusioned these “characters” become, and how they finally realize that not only has their country betrayed them, but that they must effect change before their country kills them as well.

Though the stories are indeed heartbreaking, Nothing to Envy is also a celebration of the human spirit and its ability to triumph, despite the odds. Demick shows how these defectors were able to gather the strength to effect change in their precarious lives. Their stories, as eyewitness accounts to the horror of a regime still in power and systematically destroying its citizens, are stories that also speak for all of those whose voices have been silenced or who are silently enduing the abuse of North Korea’s political and social grip on their lives, and also those in other oppressive countries. As such, Nothing to Envy can ultimately be viewed as a story attempting to provide hope where once none seemed to exist.