Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Awarded the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, this book is a part-novelization of interviews with North Korean refugees in South Korea. The title is taken from a popular song taught to schoolchildren at an early age in North Korea: Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world. / Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party. / We are all brothers and sisters. / Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children do not need to be afraid. / Our father is here. / We have nothing to envy in this world.
Barbara Demick, correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, tells stories of six ordinary North Korean defectors from Chongjin, North Korea’s third largest city near the East Korea Bay іn the Sea оf Japan. The reason of this choice is to verify facts more easily by speaking to numerous people about one place which is far from the well-manicured sights that the North Korean government shows to foreign visitors.
The stories of a pro-regime housewife and her rebellious daughter, daughter of a kaolin miner, a university student, a street boy and a doctor give us valuable information about daily life in North Korea, social structure, systematic propaganda of the government, social control system, the famine of the 1990s (1994-1998), etc.
The author paints a vivid picture of a country with no electricity and almost no industry, where getting one meal a day is luxury, choosing work is not possible, workers no longer get paid, the hereditary caste system shadows the life of people, political prisoners held in work camps, all people know of the rest of the world is what the state tell them, people are taught to love the North Korean leaders.
The final chapters describe the defection of the main characters to South Korea and their difficulty adapting to their new life.
Nothing to Envy is a captivating and enlightening book. It brings to light the details that the Pyongyang regime tries hard to hide. Most readers will have the impression that North Korea is real life example of Orwell’s 1984 world.