Nothing to Envy Summary and Study Guide

Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy

  • 37-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 20 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a college professor with a PhD in English from Brown
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Nothing to Envy Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 37-page guide for “Nothing to Envy” by Barbara Demick includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 20 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Effects of Propaganda and The Effects of Propaganda

Plot Summary

Barbara Demick’s 2010 nonfiction book, Nothing to Envy, is based on interviews with North Korean defectors from the city of Chongjin, six of whom are profiled in the book. It relays the history of modern Korea, from the end of Japanese occupation after WWII, to the division of Korea into two by the United States, to the economic rise and fall of the North Korean state in the late 20th century. There is a particular focus on the decades after 1980, during which six individuals in the book came of age. Chongjin, the third-largest city in North Korea, is less insulated from the country’s economic woes than the Potemkin village of Pyongyang. An industrial center, it is both the dumping ground for the “hostile class” of North Koreans with questionable backgrounds, as well as an economic and geographic location of significant importance to the government. It is thus home to both ardent believers in North Korea’s brand of socialism, as well as skeptics, who must keep their opinions quiet to avoid detection and punishment.

The plot is loosely structured around the love story of Mi-ran and Jun-sang, who meet in the 1980s. Their romance begins at a movie theater, when Jun-sang spots Mi-ran and is impressed by her short hair, rebelliousness, and atypical beauty. He harbors a crush on her despite his knowledge that her low song-bun, or class rating, makes her a poor match: his parents expect him to attend college in Pyongyang and to eventually join the Worker’s Party. However, even after he begins college, he thinks of Mi-ran often, so he eventually approaches her. Their romance blossoms as North Korea’s economy fails: they witness the end of electricity, movie theaters, and much of economic and social life. This period of hardship contains a hidden gift to the two, however; the darkness provides a cover for them as they go on walks, getting to know each other intimately through conversation, although they do not hold hands for three years and never have sex, as is the norm in North Korea’s repressive culture.

Jun-sang is admitted to college in Pyongyang, where he discovers his skepticism towards the Worker’s Party regime on the occasion of Kim Il-sung’s death. When he fails to muster tears, he realizes that he does not believe the ideology he has learned since birth: he does not love the leader as much as the classmates wailing around him seem to. However, he does not voice his doubts to Mi-ran. As he is exposed to media from Russia, South Korea, and the West, he continues to discover that much of what he has learned about North Korea—and the rest of the world—is a lie. When famine sets in in the 1990s, he is well insulated by his family’s wealth, but he nonetheless sees starvation and death, especially when he travels back to Chongjin. As he begins to pirate South Korean television, he learns of the international aid given to his nation, and sees the regime’s lies for what they are. He wants to defect but fear holds him back.

Meanwhile, the famine provides an opportunity for Mi-ran to overcome her song-bun, which is low because her father was a member of the South Korean Army and a prisoner of war. She gains admission to a teacher’s college; at this point, food and heating are so scarce that spots are open even to members of the hostile class. Jun-sang tells her that if she tries hard enough, she can change her life; following his advice, she becomes a kindergarten teacher. In this role, she witnesses her students starving, and becomes disenchanted with the regime as well. When her father is near to death, he asks that his children notify their South Korean family. The opportunity to travel to China and make contact with these relatives presents itself. Spurred on by Jun-sang’s words, Mi-ran crosses the border with her brother, mother, and one sister, never to return. She does not tell Jun-sang of her plan to defect.

As the book progresses, the social and historical factors that shape Mi-ran and Jun-sang’s lives are also seen through the eyes of other characters. Mrs. Song is a factory worker and true believer in Communism; she is hesitant to turn to the black market for food and money, even as famine sets in. Likewise, Dr. Kim is a motivated, hardworking physician with a strongfaith in the regime that persists even as she witnesses her young patients starving to death. By contrast, Mrs. Song’s oldest daughter, Oak-hee, is resentful and skeptical of the labor she is forced to do from a young age. She marries an abusive alcoholic, and becomes further frustrated with her life. Although she has enough food to eat during the famine, her husband will not let her share it with her mother, and her father and brother both die. Finally, Hyuck is a young boy at the beginning of the famine; after his mother dies, his father sends him to an orphanage in the hopes that he will receive sufficient food there. He does not, and he becomes a “wandering swallow,” a homeless youth who depends on theft and wits for survival.

As the book turns to the famine, it describes the gruesome realities of life in North Korea throughout the 1990s. Each of the six characters is forced to cope with the realities of hunger, starvation, and death. The sale and purchase of food items is illegal, as is accepting gifts as a doctor, renting out a room for prostitution, or crossing the Chinese border. Each individual, however, must find a way to purchase food on the black market, or steal it, in order to ensure his or her survival. These six characters make it through, most of them breaking the law to do so. Oak-hee and Hyuck both travel to China several times, and realize that the quality of life is much higher in other countries.

As the realities in North Korea turn increasingly grim, all six make their way across the border to China and eventually to South Korea, where they are guaranteed citizenship. Their journeys feature varying degrees of hardship, and the process of acculturation is difficult as well. They must undergo months of training to integrate themselves into a thriving capitalist nation after years of living in extreme poverty, without electricity.

Jun-sang is the last to arrive. He reunites with Mi-ran, who is now married with a child. Their romance is not rekindled. Life in South Korea remains challenging for each of the individuals profiled in the book. However, Demick describes the North Korea of the 2000s as just as bleak as the period these characters survived.

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