Nothing to Envy is Barbara Demick’s rightly praised history of North Korea in the early to late 1990s, as experienced by North Koreans. Demick spent years interviewing North Korean defectors living in China and South Korea to compile the book. Through their stories, Demick follows the crises in the isolated state that started developing with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many political commentators assumed this would lead to the collapse of North Korea as well. As of time of writing, this has clearly not yet happened.
Most of Demick’s interviewees were people from one of the areas most heavily affected by the famine of the mid-1990s, the city of Chongjin near China’s border. While it is far easier these days to access information about daily life in North Korea, because of the number of defectors active online and in the media, the book was still an excellent glimpse. Importantly, Demick weaves in pieces of North Korea’s past, before the crises started building and, apparently, before the surveillance state became quite as extreme as it is now. While life was frugal and oppressive, and opportunity restricted based on political class, it doesn’t seem to have been all that bad in North Korea before the 1990s. Indeed, North Korea’s economy was better than South Korea’s for several decades after the Korean War.
The defining points in the narrative are the death of Kim Il-Sung and the complete breakdown of state food distribution. Demick makes clear that Kim Il-Sung’s death was a faith-shaking moment for many North Koreans, despite the regime’s efforts. But others held onto their faith in the system even after the state food distribution system collapsed. As Demick points out, there is a common survival instinct amongst people to think that things can’t get worse, and that bad times will pass over and normality return. Even on the brink of starvation, many of Demick’s interviewees were still determined to believe in the regime.
Demick also goes into some detail about the experiences of her interviewees as they defected. They took a wide range of routes and left for various reasons. Not all of them adapted very well to life outside North Korea either. Demick examines this, and it is not always a matter of learning new technologies, the bamboozling array of choice in hyper-capitalist South Korea, and finding work with outdated skills and general knowledge. There are other aspects to life as a defector which create hurdles as well, such as exploitation and general personality difficulties.
Demick uses a good narrative journalistic style to present her piece. She does not editorialise too overtly, and often lets the stories and the facts stand for themselves. There are times when information is repeated that has appeared earlier in the book, or aspects of someone’s story. I found these irritating and don’t know if they were intentional, or if there has been some oversight in copy-editing. The mostly chronological structure is manipulated to create a sense of the escalation in the crisis and the political clampdown of the late 1990s – early 2000s.
I would recommend Nothing to Envy as a comprehensive and informative look at recent North Korean history from the ground level. It is given in an accessible way and is a good starting point for research into the area, should you be so inclined. Otherwise, it is just an interesting, if troubling, read.