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Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Posted by Lissa on May 19, 2010

Good morning all!  I know it’s Wednesday, and I’m going to work out, I honestly am, but I haven’t written a whole lot this week so I wanted to put actual content down today.

I came across this book — Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick — in a mention from Seraphic Secret. As with all interesting-looking Kindle books, I sent a sample to my iPhone (God I love technology) and tried it out.  I was fascinated. I love stories — it’s the only way I can learn history; dates and rulers go in one ear and out the other — and North Korea is such a weird, sad, mysterious place that I was hooked.  I bought the rest and gobbled down the rest of the book over the next day or so.

It’s not a historical analysis. It’s not comprehensive, and it doesn’t claim to be unbiased.  What it is, is a first-person account and description of North Korea from nine defectors that managed to get out.

A few themes in particular stood out for me:

– The “Eurasia has always been at war with Eastasia” doublethink is real, folks.

A sarcastic inflection when referring to Kim Il-sung or a nostalgic remark about South Korea could get you in serious trouble. It was especially taboo to talk about the Korean War and who started it. In the official histories (and there was nothing but official history in North Korea), it was the South Korean Army that invaded, acting on orders from the Americans, not the North Korean Army storming across the 38th parallel. “The U.S. imperialists gave the Syngman Rhee puppet clique an order to unleash a Korean War,” goes the account in Rodong Sinmun. Anybody who remembered what really happened on June 25, 1950 (and which Korean could forget?), knew it was wise to keep one’s mouth shut.

– One of the big, obvious, flashy signs of living in an oppressive country is whether, once arrived, they allow you to leave.

In the evening, Jun-sang’s father would sit and smoke, sighing glumly. It was not that they thought anyone was listening—one of the advantages of a freestanding house was a certain degree of privacy—but they wouldn’t dare give voice to what they really felt. They couldn’t come out and say that they wanted to leave this socialist paradise to go back to capitalist Japan. So the unspoken hung over the household: the realization sank in deeper with each passing day that a terrible mistake had been made in going to North Korea. Returning to Japan was impossible, they knew, so they had to make the best of a bad situation. The only way to redeem the family would be to play the system and try to climb the social ladder.

– I didn’t realize that North Korea has its own unique flavor of Communist ideology.

Kim Il-sung’s goal wasn’t merely to build a new country; he wanted to build better people, to reshape human nature. To that end, he created his own philosophical system, juche, which is commonly translated as “self-reliance.” Juche drew on Marx’s and Lenin’s ideas about the struggle between landlord and peasant, between rich and poor. It similarly declared that man, not God, shaped his own fate. But Kim Il-sung rejected traditional Communist teachings about universalism and internationalism. He was a Korean nationalist in the extreme. He instructed Koreans that they were special—almost a chosen people—and that they no longer had to rely on their more powerful neighbors, China, Japan, or Russia. The South were a disgrace because of their dependence on the United States. “Establishing juche means, in a nutshell, being the master of revolution and reconstruction in one’s own country. This means holding fast to an independent position, rejecting depen dence on others, using one’s own brains, believing in one’s own strength, displaying the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance,” he expounded in one of his many treatises. This was seductive to a proud people whose dignity had been trampled by its neighbors for centuries.

– And yet, unique flavor or no, some uniting factors appear:

To a certain extent, all dictatorships are alike. From Stalin’s Soviet Union to Mao’s China, from Ceauşescu’s Romania to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, all these regimes had the same trappings: the statues looming over every town square, the portraits hung in every office, the wristwatches with the dictator’s face on the dial.

– Universal healthcare sounds great, assuming that you have doctors who are willing to doctor, machines to do diagnoses and treatments, and enough drugs for painkilling and antibiotics:

For all its shortcomings, North Korea’s public health system provided the public with better care than they’d had in pre-Communist times. The right to “universal free medical service … to improve working people’s health” was in fact written into the North Korean constitution. Dr. Kim was proud to be a part of the health-care system and gratified by the service she provided her patients. But by the early 1990s, the deficiencies in the system became more pronounced. Much of the medical equipment was obsolete and broken down, with spare parts impossible to obtain since the factories in the Communist-bloc countries where they were manufactured were by now privatized. The pharmaceutical factory in Chongjin curtailed its production due to a lack of supplies and electricity. There was little money to import pharmaceuticals from abroad. The bag that Dr. Kim carried on her rounds had gotten progressively lighter until she had nothing inside but her stethoscope. All she could do for patients was write prescriptions and hope that they had a connection in China or Japan, or a stash of money to buy the drugs on the black market.

– The constant, ridiculous brainwashing.  I know we complain about toddlers being brainwashed by the TV or fast food ads and somesuch, but DUDE:

Whether they were studying math, science, reading, music, or art, the children were taught to revere the leadership and hate the enemy. For example, a first-grade math book contained the following questions: “Eight boys and nine girls are singing anthems in praise of Kim Il-sung. How many children are singing in total?” “A girl is acting as a messenger to our patriotic troops during the war against the Japanese occupation. She carries messages in a basket containing five apples, but is stopped by a Japanese soldier at a checkpoint. He steals two of her apples. How many are left?” “Three soldiers from the Korean People’s Army killed thirty American soldiers. How many American soldiers were killed by each of them if they all killed an equal number of enemy soldiers?”

– Even in totalitarian Communist hell, the free market works when given a chance:

THOUSANDS OF MIDDLE-AGED women were doing much the same thing as Mrs. Song. They were self-employed. They ran no workshops or stores; they didn’t dare to set up the kiosks that were so ubiquitous in Russia during the time of perestroika. They knew nothing of business other than what they had been taught—all private endeavor was egoistic. But out of hunger and desperation, they were reinventing the concept of a free-market economy, which required unlearning a lifetime of propaganda. They had figured out that there was value in bartering skills; young people with more endurance could make the hike into the distant mountains to get the firewood that Mrs. Song couldn’t reach and trade it for her cookies. If you owned a ladder, you could collect copper wire from the electric lines (no danger of electrocution anymore) and sell it for food. If you had the key to an abandoned factory, you could dismantle the machines, the windows, and the flooring to put to new use. [snip]

During the 1990s, even as the death grip of famine tightened around Chongjin, strangely, more and more food appeared at the markets. Cabbages, radishes, lettuce, tomatoes, scallions, and potatoes were for sale. The vegetables came from secret gardens that dotted the mountains in the countryside. Farmers had discovered their best chance of survival was to dig their own plot into the slopes, even on land that in the past they had thought too steep to cultivate. Attention was lavished on the private plots, the vegetables in rows as perfectly even as typewriter keys, the beans and squash tied to stakes and trellises, while the collective farms were slovenly with neglect.

In summary, I found Nothing to Envy a very readable, interesting, sad and illuminating book.  I’ll leave you with this last quote:

Dr. Kim staggered up the riverbank. Her legs were numb, encased in frozen trousers. She made her way through the woods until the first light of dawn illuminated the outskirts of a small village. She didn’t want to sit down and rest—she feared succumbing to hypothermia—but she knew she didn’t have the strength to go much farther. She would have to take a chance on the kindness of the local residents. Dr. Kim looked down a dirt road that led to farmhouses. Most of them had walls around them with metal gates. She tried one; it turned out to be unlocked. She pushed it open and peered inside. On the ground she saw a small metal bowl with food. She looked closer—it was rice, white rice, mixed with scraps of meat. Dr. Kim couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen a bowl of pure white rice. What was a bowl of rice doing there, just sitting out on the ground? She figured it out just before she heard the dog’s bark. Up until that moment, a part of her had hoped that China would be just as poor as North Korea. She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world. The beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime would be vindicated. But now she couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.

2 Responses to “Book Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea”

  1. secretlivesofscientists said

    looks like a really good book. I’m going to get it for Alex, so shhh don’t tell!

  2. Patrick said

    My wife was recently on a thread where some snot-nosed little punk, er, um, amateur political debater made the statement, “Why not give socialism a try? Things can’t get any worse.” I gave her that last paragraph you posted to use in reply.

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