Book review: Nothing to envy

“When outsiders stare into the void that is today’s North Korea, they think of remote villages of Africa or Southeast Asia where the civilizing hand of electricity has not yet reached.

But North Korea is not an undeveloped country; it is a country that has fallen out of the developed world.”

“Nothing to Envy” by Los Angeles Times former Korea correspondent Barbara Demick takes a sneak peek into one of the most elusive nations in the world, through the eyes of six defectors and their ordinary lives.

For me, it was the nitty-gritty and mundane details about their everyday lives that made this book a real gem that many could closely relate to, making it even more heart wrenching.

Mrs. Song, a housewife, recalled her husband Chang-bo days before he passed away, where he talked incessantly about food that is now luxury items beyond their reach.

“Come, darling. Let’s go to a good restaurant and order a nice bottle of wine,” Chang-bo said in a hallucinatory manner to his wife on his deathbed after starving for three days.

Food remains as an important marker in the story. The deterioration of the quality and quantity of food accompanies the downward spiral of a nation that grew at an unprecedented rate right after the Korean War.

This book thus busts the common perception about North Korea that most of us, including myself, hold that she is a nation permanently stuck in a state of crisis.As much as I was appalled by the degree people remain indoctrinated even at the turn of the 21st century, it was the stoic attitude of her people that caught me by surprised.

Mi-ran, a kindergarten teacher, acquired the ‘survival skill’ of turning a blind eye from the harsh realities of her students dying from starvation.

“One death is a tragedy, a thousand is a statistic,” Demick explained. “To get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring,”

Peppered with powerful juxtapositions on the ironies in life, the book leaves a bitter aftertaste and a lasting impression.

In the case of Dr. Kim, after crossing from North Korea to China in 1999, she was stunned to see a big bowl of white rice and meat set out for a dog, when she had been deprived of the precious grain for many years.

Part of her that previously wanted to believe her motherland was the best place in the world was vindicated by that sight.

“She couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.”

Up to the very last page, the contents are thorough and well researched into this modern day Orwellian world.

This makes Nothing to envy a remarkable book rich in historical, cultural and political references and it has certainly made its way into my highly recommended non-fiction list.

Below is a video by Reuters photographer Bobby Yip took during his media trip to North Korea. For more pictures and the full text story, click here.

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