Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Book: Barbara Demick's "Nothing To Envy"

After hiking the Pacific Crest Trail with my last book, I decided to choose something less serious to read for my second book of the year.  To lighten things up I read Barbara Demick's "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea."

Demick, a journalist working out of South Korea, interviewed several North Korean defectors to build an image of life in the oppressed nation.  To narrow down the scope of the book she chose Chongjin, the third largest city in North Korea, as her focus and painted an image of the life in the city over the last twenty-something years.

The interviews tell of a slow deterioration under the leadership of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il.  How first work, then paychecks, and finally food disappears for the ordinary North Koreans.  You can hear the desperation in the voices of the people written about.  How they watch helplessly as their children, siblings, spouses, and parents die of disease, malnutrition and starvation.  We may never know the true number of victims of the economic collapse and the following famine but it probably topped a couple million people.

The people she includes in the book are varied.  Old, young, true believers in North Korean society, and doubters.  Many westerners think if it's so bad, why don't the people do something.  The book gives explanations - the strength of the secret police and gulag system at suppressing dissent and the utter non-existence of information from outside North Korea.  When all you hear is that you live in the best country in the world, that everyone else is suffering more than you, why would you try to get out?

The last third of the book follows the defectors as they cross into China for different reasons and find different paths, all dangerous, to get to South Korea.  Demick talks briefly about how the defectors are helped to assimilate into the society and how hard it is to go from a place where all your decisions are made for you to a place where all the decisions are yours to make - a frightening and parallelizing prospect for many of the defectors.

I like the way this book read.  Demick has an easy to read style that kept me reading.  You feel like you are seeing North Korea through the lives of these people.  You see the hope and the despair. We can only hope North Korea can one day find freedom and can rejoin with South Korea without destroying both countries.

Recommended.

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