Thailand University Teacher Extraordinaire

The trials and tribulations of a young English teacher

Books Reviewed – Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

on Wed,Mar,2011

Since reading Orwell’s 1984, I’ve been fascinated with North Korea. The idea that a modern day totalitarian society could continue to exist in the 21st century is strange and outlandish, and I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what life there could actually be like.  As soon as I spotted this gem on the shelf of my local bookstore during my two week sojourn in England, I knew I had to read it.

The content of the book is based on many conversations the author had with a number of North Korean defectors. The lives of six former residents of Chongjin are written about in detail, and each account brings a different insight into an oppressive and difficult way of life.  An almost Victoria style teenage romance is described early on in the book, followed by several accounts of the devastating famine that occurred in the 90s. Reading about how almost all the trees in a forest had been stripped of their bark for food was sobering. It’s likely that the true scale of the famine will never be known.

There is no question that North Korea is vastly different from the South. The first page of the first chapter shows the gulf in quality of life that exists. It shows a satellite photo of both countries at night. The vast majority of South Korea is covered by white dots, which represent light. North Korea in comparison is completely black apart from a tiny area of white in the location of the capital Pyongyang. However, it wasn’t always this way. It quickly becomes clear that North Korea was forced to take a huge step backwards in the 90s. Much of the country once had electricity on a daily basis, but isolation from the international community left the country’s infrastructure in tatters. As Kim Jong Il and the generals continue their push towards nuclear power and potentially weapons, it’s clear that the crippling sanctions imposed by the West have had little effect on those at the top and have instead destroyed the lives of millions of  innocent people.

My feelings about this book are largely positive, but there are a few niggly problems. The biggest negative is that the writing style isn’t always the best. At times, it feels like Demick is a bored journalist being paid by the word rather than by the hour. To be fair, Demick actually is a reporter, but I can’t help but feel that parts of this book needed another draft or at least a little more attention from the editor. Despite being around only 300 pages long, getting to the end felt like a real slog. That however may have been because I read the whole book within 3 days. Highly recommended reading.

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