One of the great benefits of reading is the chance to step outside your world. Some readers prefer fiction for this, but given a book like Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick, one is reminded that truth is stranger than fiction. This is full of astounding information on the lives North Koreans have been living for the past fifty years. The title, a line from a patriotic North Korean ballad, does double duty as a warning of what is ahead for the reader: a journalistic look at what must be the modern world’s most completely totalitarian regime.
Demmick, a newspaper bureau chief stationed in Seoul, got to know former North Koreans who defected to South Korea. She tells the stories of six of them. No matter what their station in North Korea, they all suffered through waves of famine in the 1990s, and watched malnourished countrymen drop dead in the street. Privileged university students and professionals hardly fared better than the rank and file; even if they had their daily rations, they had no heat, electricity, or medicine to get through their days.
This review can’t do justice to the deprivations and fear that are customary for North Koreans. People who gathered the courage to defect knew that if discovered, they would be banished to prison camps, and that fate would meet their families if the government realized their disappearances were defections, not deaths. Defection required either a great deal of money for bribes, or a willingness to endure arduous border crossings in terrible weather with little or no gear for protection.
While the book focuses on six North Koreans, it’s also a summation of the history of the Korean peninsula post-World War II, and an insightful look at how totalitarianism functions from the ground up. It’s full of details on everyday life, and every page presents a tremendous contrast to the life we know.