What They Would Have You Think...
What They Would Have You Think...

If I asked you what do you know about North Korea, what could you answer?

  • Do you know their governmental system?
  • How about their economic policy?
  • What about their leader?
  • Do you know about their nuclear weapons program?

Perhaps you know some of these things, if not all, but what do you really know about North Korea?  Do you know that throughout the 1990s there was a mass famine, an estimated 3.5 million people died, even though their jobs didn’t pay, they were required by law to go to work. Do you know that gulags are operated in North Korea, essentially concentration camps, where an estimated 10,000 people died per year; you could end up in their for simply defying the name of the eternal leader.

There’s a reason why all the statistics I quoted are estimated, because there are no official statistics. North Korea has a propaganda machine, everything is done in the name of the great leader, there’s no Internet access (not for the population anyway), no telephones to the outside world and no foreign radio or television programs. Obviously this ignores the capital, but that’s hardly a fair representation of the rest of the country. That would be like basing your opinion of every Imperial male on what you read in LIVIC, your expectations would be ludicrously high! I remember it being described to me as a Stalinist time warp, that’s exactly what it is, stuck 50 years behind the entire world.

Nothing To Envy really opens your eyes to the harsh reality of North Korea; it takes the accounts of six individuals and follows their story through North Korea and eventually to their defection to South Korea. It was only when they were in South Korea they could speak openly about the regime, inside North Korea it could lead to death. Also journalists are shown a staged North Korea in the city of Pyongyang, so it is never a true reflection of the regime, but everyone who has visited can clearly see past this.

When I started reading this book I wasn’t sure what to expect, there was the introduction explaining the Korean war, most of which I was aware of but soon after that the picture painted of North Korea was one that I could not fathom. The six defectors whose stories we follow are from mixed backgrounds and have different experiences in the regime, but they are all on some sort of parallel. Major events that take place in North Korea all link these six people, they have different experiences but Demick does well to stich them together. Where one account is doing well from black market trade, another is just being able to scrape by selling cookies at a train station. It’s interesting to see the effects of these events on the different people, and it does well to paint an all round picture of North Korea, rather than one story from a certain class of North Korean.

I couldn’t help myself but read this book, it’s so gruesome in the way it details the regime in North Korea, but you want to read more because you want to know whether they eventually made it out, and where their lives took them and their families. Without giving too much away, some of the stories interlink really well and even crossover, it could easily be a script for a movie, but it’s all real. Demick and the stories pick on some interesting experiences, including love, which in North Korea has it’s own flavour. It’s a taboo subject in the country, but the atmosphere and the lack of electricity made it a perfect time to sneak out after dark to meet a loved one, a magic that would be lost in a west. I don’t know why I’m talking to you about romance; the only love you know is MATLAB!

Nothing To Envy
Nothing To Envy

I would recommend this book to everyone, it’s a real eye opener to the grim reality of North Korea, but there’s an essence of hope that runs throughout the book, meaning you are forever reading on. I found myself up until 04:00 in the morning reading the book, it was that good; not even my coursework keeps me up that late.  Demick does well to mix the themes of love, tragedy, hope and even some prosperity in a book that left me reeling for more. I await a follow up of this book, an updated sequence of events in North Korea and even how the lives of the defectors have continued.