How jarring is Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick? When I finished it, I set it down and turned over in my oversized chair to doze for a bit on this cold, gray, snowy day. I jolted myself awake just before a snowplow dropped in front of my house…because I’d been dreaming about North Korea.
Truly, I’d had no idea of the horrors citizens of North Korea live with every day of their lives. I’d heard the news reports calling North Korea the perpetrators of the worst human rights violations in the world, and I knew there were problems with food shortages, but otherwise, I knew very little about the country itself, and that was what moved me to pick up this deeply unsettling book.
North Korea is more 1984 than 1984 itself. Ms. Demick’s writing paints a picture of a dystopian society where neighbor is encouraged (and sometimes paid by the government) to spy on neighbor, family on family. “By the accounts of defectors, there is at least one informer for every fifty people- more even than East Germany’s notorious Stasi..” she writes, a chilling look into a society where everyone must be glancing over their shoulders and no one lets even the slightest hint of doubt show.
Consequences for individualism and free speech are severe. A joke against the leader, overheard by the wrong person, led to one man being imprisoned for life. Writing the wrong thing in her own diary earned another woman a similar life sentence. Selling rice was an automatic prison sentence; selling DVDs led to several people’s executions. Even earning money for performing any service was at one point considered a crime. But even more brutal than these sentences were the descriptions of starvation.
Even in the best of times, North Korea is only able to produce about 60% of what it needs to survive, and after fuel shortages forced the factories to shut down, even the twice-a-day-for-an-hour-each bouts of electricity and water ended. Workers stopped being paid (although some were still expected to show up at their jobs), no one had any money, and the rations of food handed out by the government- the only source of food other than not-quite-legal gardens and definitely-illegal-black-market-food- trickled to a halt. The population began starving to death. At best estimates, between 600,000-2 million people died due to lack of food, and up to half of all children who survived show signs of stunted growth due to the extreme malnutrition they suffered. Citizens began eating grass and weeds, picking pieces of undigested corn out of animal feces they found on the road, and in 1997, the government began executing people who stole food or who stole materials they could sell in order to purchase food. The hospitals, which lacked heat or food, admitted ill people, but eventually patients stopped coming. Why bother, when the doctors could do nothing for them?
Ms. Demick tells the story of North Korean brutality through the stories of several people who eventually ended up defecting, which isn’t as common as I would have thought- but now that I have a clearer picture of just how merciless the regime truly is, I understand both why escaping would be so daunting, and why so many might not want to escape. The propaganda is endless, woven into every aspect of life in the country, right down to children’s math problems about killing American and Japanese soldiers. Knowing that your neighbors are listening in on your every word, even thinking the wrong thought probably feels terrifying.
This is a deeply heartbreaking book, but I don’t regret reading it at all, and if anything, I regret that I hadn’t read it sooner. If you know little about the country other than the alarming nuclear threats that pop up in the news from time to time, I highly recommend Nothing to Envy. This is a book that will stick with me.