Nothing To Envy: Fascinating book about North Korea

Nothing To EnvyLiving in China you can’t help but be exposed to whispers of the “old days” pre-reform. Whether it be the portraits of Mao in taxis and Tiananmen, the massive USSR-inspired government buildings, the general apathy most people over 40 have towards their job (well, actually, that might be universal).

The guidebooks give crash courses in it, many many novels have been written about it. When people repeat the catch-phrase, “China Rises”, communist marching and star-studded banners wave through the mind.

But China’s changed, it’s no longer the place it was in the 50s-70s. Not even close. It’s barely the place it was last week. North Korea, on the other hand, is virtually the same as it was when it was founded. Still a hereditary communist power (sweet irony) with a government clinging to the old ways with white-knuckles and a big gun. Still brashly refusing to go any way but its own, no matter how many people have to starve.

The West may lay criticisms on China and the lack of freedoms here, some of which are definitely not unqualified, but when you compare it to its tiny northeastern neighbour, you can’t help be see the stark contrast of how far this big beautiful country has come. If China’s the showcase for a country pulling itself out of a bad decision made 60 years ago, and a terrible system before that, the DPRK is the polar opposite.

Getting a clear picture of North Korea is a challenge though. It’s isolation and self-imposed segregation make it an island in a otherwise globalized world. I’m fortunate to have had a peak at North Korea living in China’s north east, and visiting the border with the DPRK. But I hope one day I’ll be able to actually go there and see it all for myself (even if it’s just the sanitized foreigner version in Pyongyang).

With that said, you can imagine the interest I had in a new project that came my way not long ago — designing the Web site for a new book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. The book is written by Barbara Demick, who some may know as the Beijing bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. - designed by The Humanaught

I’ll let the design speak for itself, but here’s a bit more on the book:

In NOTHING TO ENVY, Demick follows the lives of six people: a couple of teenaged lovers courting in secret, an idealistic woman doctor, a homeless boy, a model factory worker who loves Kim Il Sung more than her own family and her rebellious daughter.

Demick spent six years painstakakingly reconstructing life in a city off-limits to outsiders through interviews with defectors, smuggled photographs and videos. The book spans the chaotic years that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, the devastating effects of a famine that killed an estimated twenty percent of the population, and an increase in illegal defections.

While many books focus on the North Korean nuclear threat, NOTHING TO ENVY is one of the few that dwells on what everyday life is like for ordinary citizens. With remarkable detail, Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime in the world today. She gives a portrait as vivid as walking oneself through the darkened streets of North Korea.

I just finished reading it and cannot recommend it enough to anyone with even just a passing interest in North Korea. If you’ve ever read Wild Swans (and I suggest you do), you’ll find some similarities, as both books tell their stories through the eyes of real people who lived through harrowing ordeals. Both explore what it is to live in a country where your thoughts are moulded into believing the omnipotence of a man and a system that are long-past failure.

For China-watchers, the book also shows the obstacle-strewn Chinese road that many DPRK defectors travel through to get out of a country that treats them like trash but wont let them go.

Truly a fascinating book.

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  1. Pingback: Nothing to Envy – book review « Soju and Sake – by Kathreb

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