Review: Nothing to Envy — Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick
December 30, 2009: I’ve been looking forward to this one. It arrived in the mail yesterday afternoon, and I’ll be nibbling away at this a few pages at a time during my commutes, posting short updates as I hit interesting passages (this way, I don’t labor under the guilt of having written nothing about it for weeks if work or family obligations prevent me from finishing it).
Having flipped through a few pages, I see a work that sits on the divide between fiction and non-fiction, and which advances steadily in the latter direction. There are some chapters that are largely non-fiction for background, while others are fictionalized accounts of the lives of North Korean refugees, presumably people Demick met and interviewed during her years living in Seoul while reporting for the Los Angeles Times. In that capacity, Ms. Demick was one of those rare reporters who made a serious effort to write about North Korea from the perspective of its people and to chronicle the tragedies they endured, or couldn’t. For this reason, I’ve felt a particular obligation to defend her from allegations by conservative bloggers (based on their misreading of this article) that she had minimized the very suffering she’s done so much good work to inform us about.
Safe to say, I yield to no one in my condemnation of the North Korean regime (I advocate its violent overthrow, after all). And while I share many elements of the hard-line perspective of some of Demick’s critics, I’d note that more than a few of them lost all interest this subject when George W. Bush sold out the North Korean people for a diplomatic house of cards called “Agreed Framework II.”
The criticism is partially understandable in one sense. For years, there was far too little coverage of North Korea as a human rights story, and a willful blindness by many reporters to the diplomatic implications of North Korea’s obsession with secrecy and complete disregard for human life. Most of the reporting on North Korea still tends to focus on the quixotic pursuit of diplomatic windmills by men whose gifts of linguistic manipulation suggest that they ought to have known better. This sets some readers on edge and causes them to seek out — and sometimes find — biases, even when they aren’t there. I agree with the sweeping generalization that most reporters skew left, but there certainly are better objects for such criticism than Demick. It is also true that the arrival of better reporters — and the absence of any realistic prospect for a negotiated disarmament of North Korea — means that on balance, the worst reporters are losing interest in this story and the coverage is getting better.
Many thanks to Ms. Demick and Random House for sending a review copy. Click the image if you want to buy your own.
Update: Here’s a very interesting review by Scott Martelle, who has actually finished the book.
January 7, 2010: I am now about one-third of the way through “Nothing to Envy,” having only a few minutes a day to read it, but I and can safely pronounce it essential reading for anyone who wants to understand North Korea. It is one of the most gripping, inspiring, insightful things I’ve read in decades, and a very difficult book to put down.
Let me correct one misstatement I made above: the only fiction in “Nothing to Envy” is in the pseudonyms of the real people it describes. Demick’s subjects all lived in and around Chongjin beginning in the years immediately before the Great Famine. She tells their stories in a prose as raw and unadorned as their own spartan lives, interweaving it in places with Demick’s own narration of the contemporary history for background. Otherwise, Demick makes herself an unobtrusive presence in the book and becomes a vehicle for her subjects to tell their own stories.
I did not understand, until I began to read this book, the extent to which I had needed “Nothing to Envy” to give context, believability, and life to the supernatural things we’ve all read about North Korea, or to the works of the best scholars who’ve studied it. Jasper Becker’s “Rogue Regime,” one of the very best books about North Korea, was certainly a necessary correction to the distortions of Bruce Cumings, but it had the disadvantage of focusing on North Korea’s most bizarre, other-worldly aspects. Your conscious mind and the other facts you knew might persuade you that it was at least mostly true on a rational level, but it could not possibly seem real.” The Great North Korean Famine” explained how the regime’s reckless and ruthless decisions killed 2.5 million North Koreans — a disproportionate number of them in Chongjin — but I did not really understand how those victims died until I read “Nothing to Envy.” Noland and Haggard’s “Famine in North Korea” explained the mechanics of how North Korea’s planned economy faded away and markets replaced it; “Nothing to Envy” showed me what the Public Distribution System and the markets really looked like as one supplanted the other. Andrei Lankov’s “North of the DMZ” answered questions about dozens of my curiosities and taught me many facts I did not even suspect could be true; “Nothing to Envy” makes those oddities seem understandable and believable. Brian Myers explains the pathology of the state’s propaganda — I understand that Myers is about to publish his own book — but “Nothing to Envy” will give you a nuanced understanding of the faith, doubts, and reservations that secretly divide husbands from wives, mothers from daughters. The closest comparison may be Bradley Martin’s exhaustive, scholarly “Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader,” and while Martin’s thick volume is filled with valuable points of data that focus more on higher-level defectors, “Nothing to Envy” is a vivid portrait of life in three dimensions of the people in the real North Korea, far from the potemkin utopia of Pyongyang.
It is that third dimension that makes “Nothing to Envy” must-reading, and what will give life, context, and understanding to everything else you’ve learned about North Korea. The greatest contribution of “Nothing to Envy” is that it will allow you to believe the unbelievable truth.
9 January 2010e: Well, I couldn’t put it down last night, and ended up reading until 2 a.m. I ended up finishing the book this morning, unable to stand not knowing what happened to the people whose stories Demick told, especially the two characters whose love story was at the center of the book. Some of you will weep, and others will come closer to weeping than you’ll want to admit later. But even completely unsentimental readers will see most of what they know about North Korea sewn together by the time this book ends, and most likely, they’ll have learned much more. I probably put at least a dozen bookmarks in my copy of “Nothing to Envy,” noting passages I’ll want to index so that I can refer to them later as source material about such topics as the advent of songbun system, the absolute blackness of North Korea at night, the diversion of food aid, and the different ways people reacted to Kim Il Sung’s death (some wept with sincere grief, some faked it, and one said, “Now we’re really fucked.”).
For this, but especially for the human context Demick gives to the story of the North Korean people before, during, and since the “Arduous March,” Demick has written the single best book about North Korea I’ve read yet. That’s not to take anything away from the other excellent books out there, but this one makes sense of all the rest of them. If you don’t read a single book about North Korea, read this one. I’d gladly recommend Noland’s, Lankov’s, and Martin’s books to the readers of this site, but “Nothing to Envy” is the book I bought my mother.
Update 2, 9 Jan 2010: More reviews here and here, in the L.A. Times. The latter review contains some spoilers, so I’d steer clear of it for now, but it’s favorable. Curtis also points to a CBC podcast with Demick discussing her book (http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/dispatches_20100107_25412.mp3).