Book Review: Nothing to Envy, by Barbara Demick

Not having been born in North Korea is something new to add to my list of things I am grateful for. Who knew? North Korea has been like a little black box to me. I feel like I've come at these stories of what life is like there from different points of view over the years. The standard spooky and indistinct newspaper articles, or maybe they just seemed indistinct because I was too young to fully understand them. Then, in high school, there was the sizeable South Korean population, some with recent ties to the country. I learned first-hand how offensive it could be to ask a Korean, "are you from North or South Korea?" Later, in college, the Koreas came up again in the context of Japanese history classes (aka, Why Koreans Hate Us So Much).



I had a Korean roommate for a year and taught English to Koreans in Moscow. And most of the people whose spoken English abilities I evaluate for my job are - you guessed it - Korean.

But it was bits and pieces and hearsay all jumbled together and I could never get a sense of what was really going on in North Korea. There was the goofy but terrifying dictator, those ubiquitous shiny tracksuits, the 7-0 loss to Portugal at the most recent World Cup. Refugees climbing embassy walls in China, magic cell phones, a legendary DMZ. North Korea is like the last remaining enigma on earth, at least as far as countries go.

Nothing to Envy cuts right to the chase and illuminates what has, until now, been a very murky picture for me. I would say it's an incredible story in the literal sense of the word (i.e., unbelievable) but unfortunately, it's true.

At first I thought the title was a little smug for a book about a downtrodden, oppressed nation. I wasn't really planning on becoming jealous of North Koreans, thanks, but can we not even give them a chance? But it turns out the title comes from a North Korean Communist anthem, and the people who have no reason to envy others are meant to be the North Koreans:

Uri Abogi, our father [Kim Jong-il], 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.

Read this book, and find out why the above lyrics should bring bitter tears to your eyes.

Now I want to read Logavina Street, by the same author. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer back in the 90s but it is now apparently out of print. How does that even happen to a finalist for the Pulitzer? I hope Nothing to Envy will spur Logavina Street's re-release so I can get my hands on a copy.

As an aside: a guy who I worked with for a couple of years in Provo disappeared in China's Yunnan province in 2004. His family conducted a very thorough investigation and came to the conclusion that it was possible and maybe even likely that he was (and remains) detained by Chinese authorities on suspicion of aiding North Korean refugees on their path to South Korea (this guy spoke Chinese and Korean and had lived in South Korea as a missionary). Before I read this book, I didn't really understand how that explanation could fit his situation. Now, I think it is a very strong possibility. That he was detained as such, I mean. I do not believe he actually WAS aiding North Korean refugees. After reading this book, I am haunted more than ever by his unexplained disappearance and I would like to believe that sometime soon, this mystery can be solved.

Foster dog

Merry Christmas!