Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick is the type of book that was hard to put down, hard to read, and amazingly well written. Demick, who spent five years living in Seoul, South Korea as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times was able to observe from a close vantage point the plight of many North Koreans who were undergoing extreme hardships.
During the mid 1990s, when millions of North Koreans were starving to death and eking out their existence as best they could, I was happily oblivious in the midwest. I was sharing bits of this book with my husband, expressing my disbelief and wondering how I had missed this devastating time.
Demick's book makes the lives of the six North Koreans she follows for fifteen years seem very personal - it is through the stories of their lives that you realize these people have hopes and dreams which are not realized simply because they were born in the wrong country. Each person Demick includes is interesting, resourceful, and has been able to move on with their lives, starting over in South Korea. Many were very hard workers and believed in North Korea's government. Dr. Kim, a woman who stayed in North Korea and practiced medicine, leaves only after she realizes that she is never going to achieve a higher status and has been questioned by the North Korean government (despite extreme loyalty to the country). As she steps foot on Chinese soil, she stops at the first home in a small village and notices a bowl on the ground outside full of white rice. She cannot believe this - in China the dogs eat better than the people in North Korea. Slowly her eyes are opened to the lies that the North Korean government has been feeding its people. Each person has found a similar defining moment, when they discovered the type of living conditions elsewhere compared to what they have endured.
This book reads more like a novel, although sadly, it is true. I wonder what life in North Korea is like now for those who have stayed. The Communist regime is still in control, still dictating the details of every citizen's life.
I would also love to talk with my friend, Sarah, about this book. From 1996-98 she and her husband lived in Seoul, South Korea, where he was stationed as a military pharmacist. I remember a few brief conversations we had about where she lived, but I never remember any discussion about how North Koreans were dying for lack of food. I am so curious to hear what she remembers about this, what she thought was happening in this country.
Demick's book was nominated for 2010's National Book Award. While some non-fiction books may seem dry or hard to get into, this book was absolutely and immediately interesting and thought-provoking. This is a must read for anyone interested in other cultures and social issues.