Sunday, July 4, 2010

95. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

When my sister Annie came home for my other sister Mollie's bridal shower in March, she had two books to lend to me -- Persepolis and this one. It's kind of funny that they both feature totalitarian governments, but I think it was just a coincidence. :)

Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years -- a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the North Korean population.

Taking us into a landscape that most of us have never before seen, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today -- an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, in which radio and television dials are welded to the one government station, and where displays of affection are punished, a police state where informants are rewarded and where an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life.

Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors. Through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her six subjects -- average North Korean citizens -- fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we experience the moments when they realize their government has betrayed them. 

Nothing to Envy is a groundbreaking addition to the literature of totalitarianism and an eye-opening look at a closed world that is of increasing global importance. 

Summary taken from the book jacket.

The information in Nothing to Envy was organized differently than I was expecting, so it took some time for me to get into it. It's hard to describe how it differed from my expectations; as best I can remember it seemed to jump around at first. Once I got used to the writing and organization, the book went really quickly for a non-fiction about a non-cheery topic like totalitarianism in North Korea and its effects on average citizens. I have to say, I kept mixing up Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il while I was reading; the names look too similar in print! That's a little embarrassing, but the really shame-inducing part is that I had no idea what the conditions were like in North Korea, let alone that there was a famine in the 1990s. A famine -- that just seems like something that can't happen anymore in this day and age. The limited electricity, no access to the Internet, a famine -- as Demick puts it, North Korea is where South Korea was fifty years ago. That's hard to wrap your mind around, even though the book describes average people's experiences very well. Reading about the ruling of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il reminded me of reading about cults. To generalize, cult leaders excel at isolating their followers. They cut people off from the rest of the world, taking away their resources --money, family and friends, information. They don't want you to want to leave and if even if you do, they make it so that you won't be able to leave and survive. This also seems to be the point of North Korean rule. Citizens are told repeatedly that they have nothing to envy in the world -- they have it the best of anyone. And because accurate information about the outside world is so limited, just about everyone believes it. On of the most interesting parts of the book to me was when Demick wrote about the efforts of South Korea to accommodate North Korean deflectors.

As serious as the book is, it's not altogether completely depressing. One thing that made me smile was reading about Jun-sang, one of Demicks' ordinary North Korean citizen interviewees, and his voracious reading habits. He read anything that he could get his hands on, something that led to his decision to defect to South Korea. I loved that he enjoyed reading Sidney Sheldon's Rage of Angels (I have much-loved copy of that one on my bookshelf) and that Gone With the Wind (also on my shelf) is his all-time favorite book.

This book was eye-opening for me, and a really valuable experience. I'm going to wrap this one up with some quotes that spoke to me while reading:

"For all the support provided by the government, defectors can sense the pity and fear and guilt and embarrassment with which South Koreans view them. The mixed welcome is part of what makes them feel like strangers in their homeland."

"Guilt and shame are common denominators among North Korean defectors; many hate themselves for what they had to do in order to survive."

"Choosing where to live, what to do, even which clothes to put on in the morning is tough enough for those of us accustomed to making choices; it can be utterly paralyzing for people who've had decisions made for them by the state their entire lives."

"Kim runs his country as though it were in the thick of the Cold War, churning out bombastic propaganda, banning most foreigners from visiting, threatening real and imagined enemies with nuclear weapons and missiles."

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