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A National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle finalist, Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy is a remarkable view into North Korea, as seen through the lives of six ordinary citizens
 
Nothing to Envy follows the lives of six North Koreans over fifteen years—a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the unchallenged rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and the devastation of a far-ranging famine that killed one-fifth of the population.

Taking us into a landscape most of us have never before seen, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today—an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, in which radio and television dials are welded to the one government station, and where displays of affection are punished; a police state where informants are rewarded and where an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. 

Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors. Through meticulous and sensitive reporting, we see her six subjects—average North Korean citizens—fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we experience the moments when they realize that their government has betrayed them. 

Nothing to Envy is a groundbreaking addition to the literature of totalitarianism and an eye-opening look at a closed world that is of increasing global importance.


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Published: Random House Publishing Group an imprint of Random House Publishing Group on Dec 29, 2009
ISBN: 9780385529617
List price: $12.99
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Welcome to beautiful North Korea! Please stay on the designated path. When Demick started her research for this book, she tried interviewing people in North Korea but no one would speak with her (and for a very good reason). She cannily took another approach and tracked down dozens of defectors, mostly in South Korea and interviewed them extensively. She finally narrowed the group down to six individuals. She closely follows each of them as they tell their “stories”, growing up in a “closed society”, going through incredible hardships, the fears of everyday life and finally their difficult decision to flee their homeland, sometimes leaving their loved ones, including their children behind.This is a brilliant and masterful peek into a country, we know very little about, giving us a better understanding of these fascinating and durable survivors. Highly recommended.read more
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No matter how long I live I will never forget this book. The subject of North Korea and its government has long fascinated me and this is the first book I've read on the subject. From birth the citizens are brainwashed into thinking they are working for the betterment of "the fatherland" and that their leader thinks of nothing else but their well-being. Nothing could be further from the truth. The 22 million people living in North Korea are unaware of the existence of the Internet and are stuck in the 1950s. Defectors to China and South Korea are flabbergasted by the modern world. A very sad but very enlightening book.read more
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Personal stories of survival and sorry from one of the world's repressed state. Very informative and tragic at the same time.read more
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The story of how six North Koreans survived the post-Cold War famine and defected to the South. Although Demick knows a great deal about Korean history and culture and doesn't hesitate to provide historical and political background to North Korea's troubles, "Nothing to Envy" is mostly made up of truly gripping personal narratives. Demick provides family histories and biographies of each of her subjects, explains how these determined their social status in North Korean society, and then carefully traces how each of their lives were affected by the famine and widespread societal dysfunction that overtook the country during the nineties. As usual, it's the small details that really shock and sadden: the tales of transient orphans with nowhere left to go, the stories of people selling everything they own for a few ounces of grain, the last words of the starving. Demick also does a good job of anticipating her Western readers' most pressing questions and makes a special effort to answer them. She tries to gauge how much North Koreans know of the world beyond their borders, how much they support their government, and how much recent changes in technology and living standards have affected their lives. In the book's final third, Demick describes the different routes available to those who wish to defect from the DPRK and how her subjects have adjusted to life in the South. While some have suffered setbacks, their stories are, on the whole, rather inspiring. Some of these defectors have overcome lifetimes of deprivation in a cartoonishly oppressive society to lead normal, and perhaps happy, lives. While North Korea's still a problem without an easy answer, "Nothing to Envy" suggests that humans possess boundless supplies of resilience and resourcefulness and an equally boundless capacity for healing and recovery. By turns depressing, heart-wrenching, and downright surreal, "Nothing to Envy" is highly recommended.read more
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It’s the story of six people living through the great famine of the 90s in North Korea and their eventual escape to South Korea. Fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time in its description of people navigating this autocratic psychotic communist crossover of 1984 (complete with loudspeakers in private apartments for community announcements) and a rigid feudal system.The title comes from the song every North Korean child has to know- ‘we have nothing to envy in the world’. If you're familiar with the dystopian world from The Giver by Lowry and the oppressive environment of 1984, this is startlingly close to reality in North Korea.The best non-fiction book of the year for me.read more
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Speaking of timely books, Barbara Demick's "Nothing to Envy" is as grim as you might expect, particularly when you realize that the conditions in North Korea didn't become life-threatening until the Nineties with the end of the Cold War most everywhere else. While much of the book charts the lives of this young couple who had an intense, if chaste relationship (the woman was socially compromised), who both escaped, and then had the opportunity to meet again in the South, I found the single grimmest story to be that of the fate of the 6th "Army" (more like a light division) that was purged by Kim Jong-il because it was too successful in its economic endeavors; in so much as anyone can tell.As Demick mentions in her epilogue, the big question has to be how such a failed state and society hangs on; at least for now. That I don't rate this book a little higher is mostly due to having already read some of the newspaper pieces from which it is derived; particularly the most interesting stories relating to the process of adaptation the defectors have to go through in terms of trying to fit into their new society.read more
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Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy is a thoughtful and compelling journey through the real stories of six defectors from North Korea's totalitarian and improvised Stalinist regime. The book is made all the more powerful by Demick's ability to treat her material without excessive bias, likely a result of her "day job" as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times. While it is true that the small group of defectors that Demick profiles don't have a lot of good things to say about the country they left behind, there is nonetheless a distinctive strain of nostalgia for the close camaraderie and sense of shared sacrifice that seems to have bonded these individuals while they were still resident in the Hermit Kingdom. Nonetheless, the dramatic differences between the decrepit north and the entrepreneurial south form a big part of this narrative, and Demick does a great job of profiling the unsettling experience of leaving the one for the other, and coming to terms with the fact that the government and the society that control the land of your birth are built upon a deceitful house of cards. All-in-all, a fascinating book delivered by a skilled writer.read more
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This book had a profound effect on me. Like many, I came to this book with little knowledge of North Korea, aside from what is on the news. And that's no accident, the country is highly secretive. This is what makes Demick's book so groundbreaking. By interviewing six defectors Demick is able to offer an unprecedented look into the lives ordinary people live in this communist dictatorship. The stories in this book present a country where millions suffer from miserable deprivation. People are starving, reduced to eating grass and tree bark. Most of the country no longer has electricity. Pervasive malnutrition has collectively stunted the country's growth. Meanwhile, the North Korean government offers a program of constant brainwashing, requiring constant supplication to the leadership. Detractors are sent to gulags, as are their relatives. The government practices a policy of "tainted blood," suggesting that any malcontent had tainted the blood of their family by three generations, meaning that grandparents and grandchildren are also undesirables needing eradication. Demick's care and persistence in collecting these stories is admirable. Even more so is the courage of these North Koreans to tell their stories. Their families have faced retribution for their decision to leave. It is truly astonishing the level of isolation and brainwashing that the government has managed to accomplish. This is important reading for everyone. Such shocking human rights abuses must be made public.read more
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Oh my. This is an affecting book precisely because it is about the mundane lives of six people, with mention of but without dwelling upon history or statistics (a section at the end recommends books and other sources of such information). The author is a journalist who was in South Korea for several years, with limited access to North Korea, so instead she interviewed people who had defected. You might think such people were exceptionally aware and political and enterprising, but some had been true believers, and defection seems more a response to loss, of family and social position, exacerbated by the exhaustion of famine and economic collapse. Far more compelling than statistics are descriptions of people foraging for bark and grass, salvaging grains of corn from sewage, grinding corn husks to make them barely digestible. The teacher watched her students starve. The doctor watched her patients starve. Parents fed their children first, but then the parents died first, and the orphaned children wandered the train station. How belief that there is "nothing to envy" in the outside world can be sustained under these conditions is nearly incomprehensible, but radios and TVs are crippled to receive only state programming, work includes daily ideological sessions and authority is tied to ideological adherence, travelers must carry documents granting official permission, and every neighborhood has assigned monitors who report suspicious activity. North Koreans have difficulty adjusting to South Korea in part because of an aversion to the casual chitchat that signals friendliness and maintains social connections. In North Korea, a slip that implies criticism is dangerous. A family who owned a TV, a rare luxury, kept the apartment door open so neighbors could drop in to watch. During an upbeat segment about a boot factory, the father commented that if it is producing so many boots, why can't he get any for his children. A neighbor must have reported him, the family never discovered who, because he was hauled in for interrogation, and only his reputation saved him from prison. Safer not to talk at all, and maybe not to think either. On an encouraging note, however, as the central distribution system of food, and electricity, ceased to function, entrepreneurial activity arose. People stopped tending the communal farms, but they began tending personal plots of vegetables to barter or sell, and to a limited extent the markets that appeared in and around abandoned industrial buildings were tolerated in order to prevent outright revolt. Of interest, and maybe obvious but I hadn't known, South Korea has a procedure for integrating defectors into society, which includes money and training in modern technology. This is possible because the numbers are not (yet) overwhelming, but concern exists, and South Korea has been studying examples such as Germany in preparation.(read 10 Mar 2011)read more
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Nothing to Envy as an absolutely riveting account of ordinary life in North Korea over the past decades, interspersed with general historical contextualization.Most of the material for the book comes from extensive interviews with six North Korean defectors, all originally from the same northern city of Chongjin, now living in Seoul. The people selected span a variety of ages and backgrounds, giving a fairly broad cross-section of society (to the extent that it exists in North Korea). Demick alternates between stories to present a more or less chronological narrative of their lives, giving broader context when appropriate. It's absolutely riveting. The small, human-scale details are really the exceptional part here. It's one thing to read about the horrific famine of the 1990s when millions starved -- it's another to actually read about what people ate, and about the disbelief with which North Koreans regarded the rumors that even farmers in China had rice to eat three times a day -- they hadn't seen rice in years! (One of the most poignant moments for me was when one of the defectors, just across the Chinese border, looked uncomprehendingly at a bowl of rice set outside -- she couldn't figure out why anyone would leave rice just sitting out. She figured it out when she heard the dog bark.) As the book moves on, and conditions get worse, even the people who were originally loyal true believers -- one of the women interviewed had been a local enforcer for the regime, and was genuinely aghast when she once accidentally left the house without her mandatory Kim Il-Sung pin -- begin to doubt what they've been told; when the situation was so bad that anyone who did what the regime said would end up starving to death, threats held little power and only people willing to act on their own in some way would survive. The spark of disbelief was sometimes extremely small; in one case that was mentioned, not one of the interviewees, a propoganda photo of an "oppressed" striking worker in South Korea did the trick; the man had a jacket with a zipper and a ballpoint pen, either of which would have been luxuries in the north.read more
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I've read a fair amount about North Korea over the years, including a few books, but I found this book to be superior in the way the author interwove different situations together. The six people whose lives were followed gave a greater understanding of their relationships to each other and the government than some other books available on the subject. Instead of focusing on just children or prisoners, the book presents the viewpoints of: •Mrs. Song - a pro-regime housewife, head of the block's inminban [a neighborhood watch-like group that reports to the government] •Oak-Hee - Mrs. Song's rebellious daughter •Mi-ran - an elementary school teacher; part of the "hostile class" and considered to have "tainted blood" due to her father's South Korean roots which disqualifies her from advancement in many ways •Jun-sang - a student with Zainichi Korean ancestry and Mi-Ran's boyfriend in North Korea •Kim Hyuck - a "wandering swallow" or street-boy whose father had committed him and his brother to an orphanage when he could no longer care for them •Dr. Kim - a female doctor If you are looking for a book about the history of Korea, this doesn't have a lot of that, but the coverage of the 1990's (including the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise of Kim Jong-il, and the famine) is well done.read more
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Ever since North Korean Communist dictator Kim Jong-il's death in December 2011, I realized I knew little about that country. I had visited South Korea twice in the late 1980's and enjoyed the energy and unbridled enthusiasm for capitalism that I saw, but North Korea remained a mystery.Barbara Demick, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, was assigned to Korea for several years, and found the North Korean enigma difficult to crack. Unable to get any North Koreans to talk to her, she changed tactics and located defectors from North Korea who had managed to escape to safety in South Korea. Her stories of the famine, the lack of work, electricity, transportation, clothing, basic health and opportunity, the lack of color and culture, the terror felt by ordinary citizens about anything and everything, the flourishing black market, the absolute lack of trust in anyone and the total control of "the party" over every phase of everyday life painted a very clear but bleak picture of the lives of North Koreans from the end of the Korean War to the present.She has chosen six different people to follow from their younger days in North Korea to their now settled lives in the south. Their stories of escape, capture, imprisonment, and final flight to safety through China was every bit as engrossing as the first part of the stories when we see how utterly awful life was for people with no hope. By detailing the process of repatriation to the south, through de-briefing, and a forced enculturation experience we are able to see how totally deprived the people of the north were. In the north, where most had never seen a telephone, they had no mail service, books, very little transportation, no writing paper, and basic hygiene articles were not easy to acquire. Even a top engineering school graduate had never used the Internet before he was able to escape to the south. Radio and TV (when electricity was available) was limited to a few pre-set and government approved channels.This is not a pretty or easy book to read. It is gut-wrenching, appalling, and frightening. It is also totally engrossing, and for me at least, very enlightening. I was so anxious to read it that I grabbed the audio book that was available at the library. I do intend though to get the print version, because there are illustrations that should enhance my mental picture of this 5 star report.read more
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A fascinating and horrifying account of daily life in North Korea, told through the stories of six North Korean defectors. Highly recommended.read more
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It's a book which tells a harrowing story but one from which I learnt such a lot about life in a Communist dictatorship and the resilience of these people who endured !read more
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what a miserable life to be North Korean. Really ought to cherish what we have today.read more
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Barbara Demick gives us a rare glimpse into the day to day life of the people of North Korea. Through the tales of six people who managed to escape the "Hermit Kingdom" we are exposed to horrors that are all but unimaginable. We read of the intial prosperity of the country during the 60's and 70's and the decline from there which ends in the famines of the 1990's. We read of a country where the people are so malnurished the average height to be accepted into the army was lowered(something like five feet). A country where if you were able to purchase a television set, you would need to register it with the government,who would then block all channels accept the approved state television networks, and could then show up at your home to inspect the television. As I read this book I had to stop and process the severity of the tales the author was telling us. People starving in such numbers you would literally stumble over dead people in the street. Arrests and deportations of 3 generations of a family for the most minor infractions. This is a must read for anyone interested in the Stalinist state, although it is at times hard to process due to the overwhelmingly depressing tales.read more
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Fascinating and horrific. Demmick writes in simple journalistic prose (somewhat reminiscent of John Howard) about several North Koreans who eventually defect from a totalitarian land of chronic malnutrition and paranoia.read more
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A very human and nuanced view into the lives of North Korean imigrants.read more
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Highly emotional, raw, and a book I shall not soon forget, Nothing to Envy is an extraordinary work of non-fiction which will engage the reader from the first page and not let go. Demick's journalistic and writing style is brilliant and I cannot wait to read her next work of non-fiction, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood.read more
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This is an outstanding look at the situation in North Korea from the mid-1990s. Demick follows the lives of five or six individuals from the onset of the famine through their escape to South Korea. Reading this book is like walking into the pages of Orwell's 1984. It's like reading a reality dystopian novel.read more
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This book is about life in modern day North Korea, written by people who lived there and defected. The stories they tell are eye opening and a must read for any history class. Nothing to Envy literally takes outsiders into the dark and uncertain world of North Korea, an opportunity of a lifetime, without the dangers that the authors lived through. It tells of the effect isolation from the outside world has on the mindset of the people, how not having any access to any news other than from the government created an acceptance of their way of life, as if there was nothing else. Only those who remembered life before the regime knew what they were living under, and they were seen as traitors. The imagery and emotion that leaps out of the pages draws the reader into the story allowing them to understand what it was like to find out everything you knew was a lie. A must read for teachers and students alike.read more
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If you're like me, you see the title of a book about North Korea that reads "Nothing to Envy" and you think, "I'll say. Their lives really are nothing to envy." After all, these are people who spent the years 1989-1994 in a state of starvation while at the same time idolizing their leader Kim Il-Sung, whose policies brought the situation about. But if that's what you think is meant by the title, you'd be wrong. The laugh would be on you because "Nothing to Envy" is taken from the title of an anthem that every North Korean kindergarten student leans by heart:"Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.Our house is within the embrace of the Worker's 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 the world." Lovely Korean songs like this, or possibly a little ditty entitled 'Shoot the Yankee Bastards,'were part of a kindergartner's school curriculum.Barbara Demick reveals the story of modern life in North Korea since the end of the Korean War by following the lives of several North Korean defectors. She gets into specifics that stun you into the realization that a country this backward is still in existence; a country where the people are actually gathering weeds and grass to eat because they have nothing else; where they must display a picture of Kim Il-Sung and his son, present ruler Kim Jong-Il on a wall in their home where nothing else is displayed except perhaps the state-provided cloth with which to wipe the frame; where children may not celebrate their own birthdays but, instead, must celebrate the birthdays of their illustrious leader and his son; and on and on. A people persecuted by the state, yet they continue to love their leaders. How to explain this?? They're not aware that anything better exists and that is just the way the state intends to keep it.Heartbreaking, fascinating, frustrating, maddening, you'll find yourself cheering for these persecuted people whose human spirit triumphs over overwhelming adversity. Very highly recommended.read more
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This is an outstanding book for someone wishing to have some insight into this isolated and introverted country. To interview those that defected from the same city was a masterstroke, allowing a picture to be built from the various stories that they had to tell. This is journalism at its finest, and should be commended in both its interest and its depth.read more
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Nothing to Envy is a heartbreaking work in which Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick recounts the results of her interviews with numerous North Koreans who escaped their hellish homeland. The recollections of their wretched lives under the dictatorships of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il take us behind the astonishingly impermeable barrier that separates North Korea from the rest of the world. It is particularly sad to read stories of young people whose brightest dream is to wangle a low-level state job that gives them the ability to barely survive – and by survive I mean have just enough basic food to avoid starvation. One of these characters is a schoolteacher whose class of children dwindles day by day, not from truancy, but from death. Nothing to Envy is a powerful indictment of a collectivist, centrally-planned vision of society. Anyone who is still convinced Marxism can be revived and reapplied will see here the most perfect expression of the essential leftist utopia. This book bears terrible testimony of a society that elevates equality above truth, above good, and especially above freedom.read more
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A very depressing read, but one that at least leaves a little help for all those suffering in the Hermit Kingdom.read more
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'We have nothing to envy in the world' go the lyrics to a song taught by Mi-Ran (she plays the accordion which is as we learn something that all teachers in North Korea are required to do because they are lightweight, cheap and music is a good tool for indoctrination) to a class of five and six year old children whom starvation has made look three or four whose attendance rates have ominously dropped down from 50 to 15.'If you look at a satellite photo of the Far East at night, you'll see a splotch curiously lacking light' this Barbara Demick informs us is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In this darkness Mi-Ran and Jun-Sang can avoid the eyes of nosy neighbours by walking down the pitch-black streets unseen. Mi-Ran is from the lowest caste in North Korean society (beulsun - literally tainted blood) , her father was a soldier from the South taken prisoner by the North during the Korean War and with no hope of repatriation his family are forever condemned to the bottom rung. Jun-Sang is of an impeccable background and his good marks in chemistry mean that he has a future at one of the military universities in Pyongyang, the showtown capital of North Korea and a union with a beulsun would ruin his prospects.Demick follows the lives of six protagonists from the same town, Chongjin and through them we experience vignettes of life in a country that has become a virtual black hole of information. We hear of infrastructure shutting down as people are no longer paid for their work and where a much more productive us of time is foraging for food, first rations from the government, the dogs and cats in the neighbourhood, then rats and mice and finally whatever plants and roots that can be boiled to make edible. The scale of privitation is sometimes overwhelming but the book offers light at the end of the tunnel as the six escape to tell their stories.Although not every escape story is a success and China is all to willing to hand escapees back over to the Pyongyang regime where labour-camps and worse await their return.North Korea is often in the news for its sabre-rattling nuclear experimentation. What this book so brilliantly does is to pierce the veil of secrecy they have erected and give insight into the lives of everyday people and one has to wonder how this can exist still. Very compelling.read more
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Wow, do I feel fortunate being born among the American middle class. North Korea is living in another crazy universe. Amazing.read more
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This deeply affecting book follows the lives of six people who lived in the same town North Korea through the famine of the 1990s, and ended up defecting to South Korea in the 2000s. It told about their lives, struggles, and how they ended up losing faith in the regime and escaping. -a young woman and her boyfriend, who defected separately without telling each other because it was too dangerous to even discuss that neither of them believed in the regime. The story of these star-crossed lovers was so heartbreaking it could have been fictional, but it wasn't. -a hardworking mom who loved the Dear Leader and believed strongly in everything the Party told her until most of her family starved to death. -this woman's daughter, who never quite believed in the regime and sold herself as a bride to a Chinese farmer to escape. -a homeless orphan who did time in a prison camp for smuggling things to China to survive. -a young female pediatrician, disillusioned because she had no way to treat all the starving children who came to the clinic. This book was so fascinating because it provides a rare glimpse into this place so cut off from the rest of the world. It’s frightening to realize that this place exists in this day and age, and there are still millions of people living there, starving to death. They are required to have portraits of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung in their home and dust them every day. Their TV dials are welded in place to only show the party channel. It’s like East Germany, the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, or modern-day Belarus or Iran. It’s like living in 1984, but it’s real. This book was a really great way to learn about the past and present of this sad, scary place.read more
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Shocking, well written, I could not put this down.read more
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Nothing to Envy is an eye-opening, jaw-dropping look at the people of North Korea. Indoctrinated from birth to believe that they live in the greatest country in the world with the greatest, most benevolent leader, the truth is that North Koreans live under totalitarian control in one of the poorest, most technologically backward countries in the world. In this book you will meet six people who, for one reason or another decide to leave North Korea: A school teacher who watches her kindergartners die of starvation; A student whose intellectual curiosity leads him to listen illegally to South Korean radio; A doctor who can't treat her patients for lack of basic necessities like bandages and medicine; An abused wife who must sacrifice her children and her traditional mother who has already lost half her family to starvation; and a homeless teenage boy who's willing to try anything to make money. I was alternately amazed and outraged by the conditions of life in North Korea - the infrastructure is crumbling, the people are starving, there's no electricity or gasoline. The average 17 year old North Korean boy is 5 inches shorter than his counterpart in South Korea due to malnutrition. Worse still are the human rights atrocities committed. Author Barbara Demick explains that the North Koreans have nearly as many words for prison as the Inuit do for snow. You can be sent to prison for making a joke about Kim Jong-Il's height, traveling without a permit, taking a day off work or for buying food on the black market People are encouraged to snitch on their neighbors and punished if they don't. All communication outside of the country is forbidden. In addition to being well researched, this book puts a human face on the tragedy that is occurring in North Korea. I highly recommend it.read more
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Welcome to beautiful North Korea! Please stay on the designated path. When Demick started her research for this book, she tried interviewing people in North Korea but no one would speak with her (and for a very good reason). She cannily took another approach and tracked down dozens of defectors, mostly in South Korea and interviewed them extensively. She finally narrowed the group down to six individuals. She closely follows each of them as they tell their “stories”, growing up in a “closed society”, going through incredible hardships, the fears of everyday life and finally their difficult decision to flee their homeland, sometimes leaving their loved ones, including their children behind.This is a brilliant and masterful peek into a country, we know very little about, giving us a better understanding of these fascinating and durable survivors. Highly recommended.
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No matter how long I live I will never forget this book. The subject of North Korea and its government has long fascinated me and this is the first book I've read on the subject. From birth the citizens are brainwashed into thinking they are working for the betterment of "the fatherland" and that their leader thinks of nothing else but their well-being. Nothing could be further from the truth. The 22 million people living in North Korea are unaware of the existence of the Internet and are stuck in the 1950s. Defectors to China and South Korea are flabbergasted by the modern world. A very sad but very enlightening book.
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Personal stories of survival and sorry from one of the world's repressed state. Very informative and tragic at the same time.
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The story of how six North Koreans survived the post-Cold War famine and defected to the South. Although Demick knows a great deal about Korean history and culture and doesn't hesitate to provide historical and political background to North Korea's troubles, "Nothing to Envy" is mostly made up of truly gripping personal narratives. Demick provides family histories and biographies of each of her subjects, explains how these determined their social status in North Korean society, and then carefully traces how each of their lives were affected by the famine and widespread societal dysfunction that overtook the country during the nineties. As usual, it's the small details that really shock and sadden: the tales of transient orphans with nowhere left to go, the stories of people selling everything they own for a few ounces of grain, the last words of the starving. Demick also does a good job of anticipating her Western readers' most pressing questions and makes a special effort to answer them. She tries to gauge how much North Koreans know of the world beyond their borders, how much they support their government, and how much recent changes in technology and living standards have affected their lives. In the book's final third, Demick describes the different routes available to those who wish to defect from the DPRK and how her subjects have adjusted to life in the South. While some have suffered setbacks, their stories are, on the whole, rather inspiring. Some of these defectors have overcome lifetimes of deprivation in a cartoonishly oppressive society to lead normal, and perhaps happy, lives. While North Korea's still a problem without an easy answer, "Nothing to Envy" suggests that humans possess boundless supplies of resilience and resourcefulness and an equally boundless capacity for healing and recovery. By turns depressing, heart-wrenching, and downright surreal, "Nothing to Envy" is highly recommended.
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It’s the story of six people living through the great famine of the 90s in North Korea and their eventual escape to South Korea. Fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time in its description of people navigating this autocratic psychotic communist crossover of 1984 (complete with loudspeakers in private apartments for community announcements) and a rigid feudal system.The title comes from the song every North Korean child has to know- ‘we have nothing to envy in the world’. If you're familiar with the dystopian world from The Giver by Lowry and the oppressive environment of 1984, this is startlingly close to reality in North Korea.The best non-fiction book of the year for me.
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Speaking of timely books, Barbara Demick's "Nothing to Envy" is as grim as you might expect, particularly when you realize that the conditions in North Korea didn't become life-threatening until the Nineties with the end of the Cold War most everywhere else. While much of the book charts the lives of this young couple who had an intense, if chaste relationship (the woman was socially compromised), who both escaped, and then had the opportunity to meet again in the South, I found the single grimmest story to be that of the fate of the 6th "Army" (more like a light division) that was purged by Kim Jong-il because it was too successful in its economic endeavors; in so much as anyone can tell.As Demick mentions in her epilogue, the big question has to be how such a failed state and society hangs on; at least for now. That I don't rate this book a little higher is mostly due to having already read some of the newspaper pieces from which it is derived; particularly the most interesting stories relating to the process of adaptation the defectors have to go through in terms of trying to fit into their new society.
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Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy is a thoughtful and compelling journey through the real stories of six defectors from North Korea's totalitarian and improvised Stalinist regime. The book is made all the more powerful by Demick's ability to treat her material without excessive bias, likely a result of her "day job" as a journalist for the Los Angeles Times. While it is true that the small group of defectors that Demick profiles don't have a lot of good things to say about the country they left behind, there is nonetheless a distinctive strain of nostalgia for the close camaraderie and sense of shared sacrifice that seems to have bonded these individuals while they were still resident in the Hermit Kingdom. Nonetheless, the dramatic differences between the decrepit north and the entrepreneurial south form a big part of this narrative, and Demick does a great job of profiling the unsettling experience of leaving the one for the other, and coming to terms with the fact that the government and the society that control the land of your birth are built upon a deceitful house of cards. All-in-all, a fascinating book delivered by a skilled writer.
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This book had a profound effect on me. Like many, I came to this book with little knowledge of North Korea, aside from what is on the news. And that's no accident, the country is highly secretive. This is what makes Demick's book so groundbreaking. By interviewing six defectors Demick is able to offer an unprecedented look into the lives ordinary people live in this communist dictatorship. The stories in this book present a country where millions suffer from miserable deprivation. People are starving, reduced to eating grass and tree bark. Most of the country no longer has electricity. Pervasive malnutrition has collectively stunted the country's growth. Meanwhile, the North Korean government offers a program of constant brainwashing, requiring constant supplication to the leadership. Detractors are sent to gulags, as are their relatives. The government practices a policy of "tainted blood," suggesting that any malcontent had tainted the blood of their family by three generations, meaning that grandparents and grandchildren are also undesirables needing eradication. Demick's care and persistence in collecting these stories is admirable. Even more so is the courage of these North Koreans to tell their stories. Their families have faced retribution for their decision to leave. It is truly astonishing the level of isolation and brainwashing that the government has managed to accomplish. This is important reading for everyone. Such shocking human rights abuses must be made public.
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Oh my. This is an affecting book precisely because it is about the mundane lives of six people, with mention of but without dwelling upon history or statistics (a section at the end recommends books and other sources of such information). The author is a journalist who was in South Korea for several years, with limited access to North Korea, so instead she interviewed people who had defected. You might think such people were exceptionally aware and political and enterprising, but some had been true believers, and defection seems more a response to loss, of family and social position, exacerbated by the exhaustion of famine and economic collapse. Far more compelling than statistics are descriptions of people foraging for bark and grass, salvaging grains of corn from sewage, grinding corn husks to make them barely digestible. The teacher watched her students starve. The doctor watched her patients starve. Parents fed their children first, but then the parents died first, and the orphaned children wandered the train station. How belief that there is "nothing to envy" in the outside world can be sustained under these conditions is nearly incomprehensible, but radios and TVs are crippled to receive only state programming, work includes daily ideological sessions and authority is tied to ideological adherence, travelers must carry documents granting official permission, and every neighborhood has assigned monitors who report suspicious activity. North Koreans have difficulty adjusting to South Korea in part because of an aversion to the casual chitchat that signals friendliness and maintains social connections. In North Korea, a slip that implies criticism is dangerous. A family who owned a TV, a rare luxury, kept the apartment door open so neighbors could drop in to watch. During an upbeat segment about a boot factory, the father commented that if it is producing so many boots, why can't he get any for his children. A neighbor must have reported him, the family never discovered who, because he was hauled in for interrogation, and only his reputation saved him from prison. Safer not to talk at all, and maybe not to think either. On an encouraging note, however, as the central distribution system of food, and electricity, ceased to function, entrepreneurial activity arose. People stopped tending the communal farms, but they began tending personal plots of vegetables to barter or sell, and to a limited extent the markets that appeared in and around abandoned industrial buildings were tolerated in order to prevent outright revolt. Of interest, and maybe obvious but I hadn't known, South Korea has a procedure for integrating defectors into society, which includes money and training in modern technology. This is possible because the numbers are not (yet) overwhelming, but concern exists, and South Korea has been studying examples such as Germany in preparation.(read 10 Mar 2011)
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Nothing to Envy as an absolutely riveting account of ordinary life in North Korea over the past decades, interspersed with general historical contextualization.Most of the material for the book comes from extensive interviews with six North Korean defectors, all originally from the same northern city of Chongjin, now living in Seoul. The people selected span a variety of ages and backgrounds, giving a fairly broad cross-section of society (to the extent that it exists in North Korea). Demick alternates between stories to present a more or less chronological narrative of their lives, giving broader context when appropriate. It's absolutely riveting. The small, human-scale details are really the exceptional part here. It's one thing to read about the horrific famine of the 1990s when millions starved -- it's another to actually read about what people ate, and about the disbelief with which North Koreans regarded the rumors that even farmers in China had rice to eat three times a day -- they hadn't seen rice in years! (One of the most poignant moments for me was when one of the defectors, just across the Chinese border, looked uncomprehendingly at a bowl of rice set outside -- she couldn't figure out why anyone would leave rice just sitting out. She figured it out when she heard the dog bark.) As the book moves on, and conditions get worse, even the people who were originally loyal true believers -- one of the women interviewed had been a local enforcer for the regime, and was genuinely aghast when she once accidentally left the house without her mandatory Kim Il-Sung pin -- begin to doubt what they've been told; when the situation was so bad that anyone who did what the regime said would end up starving to death, threats held little power and only people willing to act on their own in some way would survive. The spark of disbelief was sometimes extremely small; in one case that was mentioned, not one of the interviewees, a propoganda photo of an "oppressed" striking worker in South Korea did the trick; the man had a jacket with a zipper and a ballpoint pen, either of which would have been luxuries in the north.
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I've read a fair amount about North Korea over the years, including a few books, but I found this book to be superior in the way the author interwove different situations together. The six people whose lives were followed gave a greater understanding of their relationships to each other and the government than some other books available on the subject. Instead of focusing on just children or prisoners, the book presents the viewpoints of: •Mrs. Song - a pro-regime housewife, head of the block's inminban [a neighborhood watch-like group that reports to the government] •Oak-Hee - Mrs. Song's rebellious daughter •Mi-ran - an elementary school teacher; part of the "hostile class" and considered to have "tainted blood" due to her father's South Korean roots which disqualifies her from advancement in many ways •Jun-sang - a student with Zainichi Korean ancestry and Mi-Ran's boyfriend in North Korea •Kim Hyuck - a "wandering swallow" or street-boy whose father had committed him and his brother to an orphanage when he could no longer care for them •Dr. Kim - a female doctor If you are looking for a book about the history of Korea, this doesn't have a lot of that, but the coverage of the 1990's (including the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise of Kim Jong-il, and the famine) is well done.
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Ever since North Korean Communist dictator Kim Jong-il's death in December 2011, I realized I knew little about that country. I had visited South Korea twice in the late 1980's and enjoyed the energy and unbridled enthusiasm for capitalism that I saw, but North Korea remained a mystery.Barbara Demick, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, was assigned to Korea for several years, and found the North Korean enigma difficult to crack. Unable to get any North Koreans to talk to her, she changed tactics and located defectors from North Korea who had managed to escape to safety in South Korea. Her stories of the famine, the lack of work, electricity, transportation, clothing, basic health and opportunity, the lack of color and culture, the terror felt by ordinary citizens about anything and everything, the flourishing black market, the absolute lack of trust in anyone and the total control of "the party" over every phase of everyday life painted a very clear but bleak picture of the lives of North Koreans from the end of the Korean War to the present.She has chosen six different people to follow from their younger days in North Korea to their now settled lives in the south. Their stories of escape, capture, imprisonment, and final flight to safety through China was every bit as engrossing as the first part of the stories when we see how utterly awful life was for people with no hope. By detailing the process of repatriation to the south, through de-briefing, and a forced enculturation experience we are able to see how totally deprived the people of the north were. In the north, where most had never seen a telephone, they had no mail service, books, very little transportation, no writing paper, and basic hygiene articles were not easy to acquire. Even a top engineering school graduate had never used the Internet before he was able to escape to the south. Radio and TV (when electricity was available) was limited to a few pre-set and government approved channels.This is not a pretty or easy book to read. It is gut-wrenching, appalling, and frightening. It is also totally engrossing, and for me at least, very enlightening. I was so anxious to read it that I grabbed the audio book that was available at the library. I do intend though to get the print version, because there are illustrations that should enhance my mental picture of this 5 star report.
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A fascinating and horrifying account of daily life in North Korea, told through the stories of six North Korean defectors. Highly recommended.
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It's a book which tells a harrowing story but one from which I learnt such a lot about life in a Communist dictatorship and the resilience of these people who endured !
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what a miserable life to be North Korean. Really ought to cherish what we have today.
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Barbara Demick gives us a rare glimpse into the day to day life of the people of North Korea. Through the tales of six people who managed to escape the "Hermit Kingdom" we are exposed to horrors that are all but unimaginable. We read of the intial prosperity of the country during the 60's and 70's and the decline from there which ends in the famines of the 1990's. We read of a country where the people are so malnurished the average height to be accepted into the army was lowered(something like five feet). A country where if you were able to purchase a television set, you would need to register it with the government,who would then block all channels accept the approved state television networks, and could then show up at your home to inspect the television. As I read this book I had to stop and process the severity of the tales the author was telling us. People starving in such numbers you would literally stumble over dead people in the street. Arrests and deportations of 3 generations of a family for the most minor infractions. This is a must read for anyone interested in the Stalinist state, although it is at times hard to process due to the overwhelmingly depressing tales.
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Fascinating and horrific. Demmick writes in simple journalistic prose (somewhat reminiscent of John Howard) about several North Koreans who eventually defect from a totalitarian land of chronic malnutrition and paranoia.
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A very human and nuanced view into the lives of North Korean imigrants.
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Highly emotional, raw, and a book I shall not soon forget, Nothing to Envy is an extraordinary work of non-fiction which will engage the reader from the first page and not let go. Demick's journalistic and writing style is brilliant and I cannot wait to read her next work of non-fiction, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood.
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This is an outstanding look at the situation in North Korea from the mid-1990s. Demick follows the lives of five or six individuals from the onset of the famine through their escape to South Korea. Reading this book is like walking into the pages of Orwell's 1984. It's like reading a reality dystopian novel.
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This book is about life in modern day North Korea, written by people who lived there and defected. The stories they tell are eye opening and a must read for any history class. Nothing to Envy literally takes outsiders into the dark and uncertain world of North Korea, an opportunity of a lifetime, without the dangers that the authors lived through. It tells of the effect isolation from the outside world has on the mindset of the people, how not having any access to any news other than from the government created an acceptance of their way of life, as if there was nothing else. Only those who remembered life before the regime knew what they were living under, and they were seen as traitors. The imagery and emotion that leaps out of the pages draws the reader into the story allowing them to understand what it was like to find out everything you knew was a lie. A must read for teachers and students alike.
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If you're like me, you see the title of a book about North Korea that reads "Nothing to Envy" and you think, "I'll say. Their lives really are nothing to envy." After all, these are people who spent the years 1989-1994 in a state of starvation while at the same time idolizing their leader Kim Il-Sung, whose policies brought the situation about. But if that's what you think is meant by the title, you'd be wrong. The laugh would be on you because "Nothing to Envy" is taken from the title of an anthem that every North Korean kindergarten student leans by heart:"Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.Our house is within the embrace of the Worker's 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 the world." Lovely Korean songs like this, or possibly a little ditty entitled 'Shoot the Yankee Bastards,'were part of a kindergartner's school curriculum.Barbara Demick reveals the story of modern life in North Korea since the end of the Korean War by following the lives of several North Korean defectors. She gets into specifics that stun you into the realization that a country this backward is still in existence; a country where the people are actually gathering weeds and grass to eat because they have nothing else; where they must display a picture of Kim Il-Sung and his son, present ruler Kim Jong-Il on a wall in their home where nothing else is displayed except perhaps the state-provided cloth with which to wipe the frame; where children may not celebrate their own birthdays but, instead, must celebrate the birthdays of their illustrious leader and his son; and on and on. A people persecuted by the state, yet they continue to love their leaders. How to explain this?? They're not aware that anything better exists and that is just the way the state intends to keep it.Heartbreaking, fascinating, frustrating, maddening, you'll find yourself cheering for these persecuted people whose human spirit triumphs over overwhelming adversity. Very highly recommended.
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This is an outstanding book for someone wishing to have some insight into this isolated and introverted country. To interview those that defected from the same city was a masterstroke, allowing a picture to be built from the various stories that they had to tell. This is journalism at its finest, and should be commended in both its interest and its depth.
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Nothing to Envy is a heartbreaking work in which Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick recounts the results of her interviews with numerous North Koreans who escaped their hellish homeland. The recollections of their wretched lives under the dictatorships of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il take us behind the astonishingly impermeable barrier that separates North Korea from the rest of the world. It is particularly sad to read stories of young people whose brightest dream is to wangle a low-level state job that gives them the ability to barely survive – and by survive I mean have just enough basic food to avoid starvation. One of these characters is a schoolteacher whose class of children dwindles day by day, not from truancy, but from death. Nothing to Envy is a powerful indictment of a collectivist, centrally-planned vision of society. Anyone who is still convinced Marxism can be revived and reapplied will see here the most perfect expression of the essential leftist utopia. This book bears terrible testimony of a society that elevates equality above truth, above good, and especially above freedom.
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A very depressing read, but one that at least leaves a little help for all those suffering in the Hermit Kingdom.
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'We have nothing to envy in the world' go the lyrics to a song taught by Mi-Ran (she plays the accordion which is as we learn something that all teachers in North Korea are required to do because they are lightweight, cheap and music is a good tool for indoctrination) to a class of five and six year old children whom starvation has made look three or four whose attendance rates have ominously dropped down from 50 to 15.'If you look at a satellite photo of the Far East at night, you'll see a splotch curiously lacking light' this Barbara Demick informs us is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. In this darkness Mi-Ran and Jun-Sang can avoid the eyes of nosy neighbours by walking down the pitch-black streets unseen. Mi-Ran is from the lowest caste in North Korean society (beulsun - literally tainted blood) , her father was a soldier from the South taken prisoner by the North during the Korean War and with no hope of repatriation his family are forever condemned to the bottom rung. Jun-Sang is of an impeccable background and his good marks in chemistry mean that he has a future at one of the military universities in Pyongyang, the showtown capital of North Korea and a union with a beulsun would ruin his prospects.Demick follows the lives of six protagonists from the same town, Chongjin and through them we experience vignettes of life in a country that has become a virtual black hole of information. We hear of infrastructure shutting down as people are no longer paid for their work and where a much more productive us of time is foraging for food, first rations from the government, the dogs and cats in the neighbourhood, then rats and mice and finally whatever plants and roots that can be boiled to make edible. The scale of privitation is sometimes overwhelming but the book offers light at the end of the tunnel as the six escape to tell their stories.Although not every escape story is a success and China is all to willing to hand escapees back over to the Pyongyang regime where labour-camps and worse await their return.North Korea is often in the news for its sabre-rattling nuclear experimentation. What this book so brilliantly does is to pierce the veil of secrecy they have erected and give insight into the lives of everyday people and one has to wonder how this can exist still. Very compelling.
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Wow, do I feel fortunate being born among the American middle class. North Korea is living in another crazy universe. Amazing.
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This deeply affecting book follows the lives of six people who lived in the same town North Korea through the famine of the 1990s, and ended up defecting to South Korea in the 2000s. It told about their lives, struggles, and how they ended up losing faith in the regime and escaping. -a young woman and her boyfriend, who defected separately without telling each other because it was too dangerous to even discuss that neither of them believed in the regime. The story of these star-crossed lovers was so heartbreaking it could have been fictional, but it wasn't. -a hardworking mom who loved the Dear Leader and believed strongly in everything the Party told her until most of her family starved to death. -this woman's daughter, who never quite believed in the regime and sold herself as a bride to a Chinese farmer to escape. -a homeless orphan who did time in a prison camp for smuggling things to China to survive. -a young female pediatrician, disillusioned because she had no way to treat all the starving children who came to the clinic. This book was so fascinating because it provides a rare glimpse into this place so cut off from the rest of the world. It’s frightening to realize that this place exists in this day and age, and there are still millions of people living there, starving to death. They are required to have portraits of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung in their home and dust them every day. Their TV dials are welded in place to only show the party channel. It’s like East Germany, the Dominican Republic under Trujillo, or modern-day Belarus or Iran. It’s like living in 1984, but it’s real. This book was a really great way to learn about the past and present of this sad, scary place.
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Shocking, well written, I could not put this down.
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Nothing to Envy is an eye-opening, jaw-dropping look at the people of North Korea. Indoctrinated from birth to believe that they live in the greatest country in the world with the greatest, most benevolent leader, the truth is that North Koreans live under totalitarian control in one of the poorest, most technologically backward countries in the world. In this book you will meet six people who, for one reason or another decide to leave North Korea: A school teacher who watches her kindergartners die of starvation; A student whose intellectual curiosity leads him to listen illegally to South Korean radio; A doctor who can't treat her patients for lack of basic necessities like bandages and medicine; An abused wife who must sacrifice her children and her traditional mother who has already lost half her family to starvation; and a homeless teenage boy who's willing to try anything to make money. I was alternately amazed and outraged by the conditions of life in North Korea - the infrastructure is crumbling, the people are starving, there's no electricity or gasoline. The average 17 year old North Korean boy is 5 inches shorter than his counterpart in South Korea due to malnutrition. Worse still are the human rights atrocities committed. Author Barbara Demick explains that the North Koreans have nearly as many words for prison as the Inuit do for snow. You can be sent to prison for making a joke about Kim Jong-Il's height, traveling without a permit, taking a day off work or for buying food on the black market People are encouraged to snitch on their neighbors and punished if they don't. All communication outside of the country is forbidden. In addition to being well researched, this book puts a human face on the tragedy that is occurring in North Korea. I highly recommend it.
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