I’ve been sitting here considering just copy-pasting “wow” two hundred and forty-nine times. I’d give this book six stars if I could.
I think North Korea holds a fascination for many of us in the west. Certainly it does for me. I was eight when the Berlin Wall fell; old enough to know that something was happening, but too young to really grasp the significance. North Korea is the only closed country I’ve ever been aware of. Cuba is near enough and porous enough that we can fill in a lot of details. But North Korea is half a world and half a century away. For all the news we get out of Pyongyang, aside from dire human rights bulletins, summary executions, and the drunken ramblings of former NBA players, we might as well throw up our hands and write, “Here be monsters,” across the map.
But, of course, people are people – with the exception of the monsters at the head of the state – and that is the real triumph of Nothing to Envy. Demick’s thoroughly researched and reported book shines a light into this black hole of a country and takes us through 15 years in the lives of six residents of Chongjin, North Korea, all of whom eventually defect. Jun-Sang and Mi-Ran are teenagers when they fall in love during long, secret walks in the dark. Dr. Kim is a young medical doctor, devoted to her country and despairing that she cannot save the children starving to death in her hospital. Mrs. Song is a true believer; her daughter, Oak-Hee, escapes an abusive marriage, defects to South Korea, and eventually manages to get her mother out as well. Kim Hyuck is an orphan who survives famine on the streets and almost two years in an “enlightenment center” (i.e. labor camp). Through their recollections we see their growing disillusionment with the propaganda produced by their government. We feel their frustration at living in a nation in which the only social mobility is downward into the “hostile class.” And we endure the slow apocalypse of famine after the fall of the Soviet Union ended subsidized food and oil shipments to the country, throwing the economy into a tailspin.
The stories Demick relates are almost unbelievable. You’d expect to find them in dystopian literature like 1984 or The Road, not in reportage about a country on this earth in the 21st century. The statistics are staggering: roughly 1 million starved to death (as many as 2.5 million by some estimates) in the famine of the late 90s; between 400,000 and 2 million cycled through prisons each year for “economic crimes” like stealing food; another 200,000 confined for life in brutal labor camps for “insulting the authority of the leadership” or other “antistate crimes.”
I had to put this book down several times out of pure despair. But I kept coming back, because the writing is simply wonderful. The defectors’ stories form the spine of the book and give it the feel of an oral history. Of course their words have been translated into English, and Demick adds anecdotes from her own state-chaperoned visits to North Korea and later interviews with her subjects, informative statistics and research, as well as more narrative passages relating the history of the country. The result is something that reads almost like a novel. Some readers may find this off-putting or inappropriate for non-fiction, but I found myself very taken in by Demick’s voice.
Nothing to Envy didn’t end my fascination with North Korea – I’ve just been over on Amazon browsing more memoirs from defectors, and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son is waiting on my bookshelf. But rather than fascinated, I find myself angry. How can leaders do so much violence to their citizens? How could they let 24 million people sit in the dark every night? How could they let cities full of people starve, eating weeds and grass and ground-up tree bark to fill their stomachs? How long can you hold a country hostage like this? If there’s one ray of hope, it’s that the modern world is increasingly interconnected. It’s getting harder and harder to stay isolated, to keep people in the dark – figurative or literal! I have no idea when or how it will happen – “basketball diplomacy” doesn’t seem to be the way forward – but I’m sure we’ll see a Pyongyang Spring someday.
Ultimately, what’s stuck with me the most from this book is the tragedy of a nation stuck in time. While the rest of the world has moved forward, North Korea has closed itself off and calcified for 60 years. Buildings fall into disrepair, factories sit idle, train tracks are rusted and overgrown. As Demick writes in the introduction: “North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world.”