The country of North Korea and its quarrelsome Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un have taken top billing in the news quite a bit recently, and with the upcoming Winter Olympic Games scheduled in Pyeong Chang, South Korea, we’re likely to hear a lot more. You can learn a great deal about the political climate of the two Koreas, as told by the citizens themselves, by reading a fascinating book entitled Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, written by award-winning journalist Barbara Demick.
The volume traces the lives of six ordinary North Korean citizens who were raised to accept without question the totalitarianism of the Kim regime. One by one, each of these citizens experiences a life-altering disillusionment with their Supreme Leader, and each ultimately feels compelled to attempt defection from their inhuman conditions. Eventually, each one escapes into the welcoming arms of South Korea.
One of these individuals was Mi-ran, a neophyte kindergarten teacher assigned to a school near her girlhood home of Chongjin. Mi-ran dearly loved her little students, but although she faced her class each day with the most cheerful attitude she could muster, she soon became embittered by her government’s expectation that she systematically brainwash her kids into believing they had “nothing to envy” while she watched them die a slow, agonizing death from starvation. The riveting story of Mi-ran’s defection, and the sweetheart she left behind, make fascinating reading. Equally engrossing are the stories of the other five defectors included in the book, one of whom is Mi-ran’s lost love.
Up to now, when Americans think of North Korea, we see only the menacing visage of Kim Jong-Un. The stories of these six ordinary citizens who have survived in, and escaped from, one of the most repressive governments in the world bring a humanizing perspective to that nation.
The book, first published in 2009, was named a National Book Award finalist and was similarly recognized by the National Book Critics Circle. You can find Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick on amazon.com.