North Korea has built a nigh-impenetrable facade. Those who manage to gain access tell the same tale, in which they are escorted around Pyongyang to churches, stores, restaurants, and landmarks populated with state-employed actors. If you were ever curious about what goes on behind these scenes, look no further than Barbara Demick‘s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.
In the 70-plus years that the Korean peninsula has been divided, westerners’ fascination with the Hermit Kingdom has not diminished. The title that once applied to all of Korea is today reserved for the territory’s northern half: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Surprisingly, it isn’t difficult to find information on North Korea. Every few months, the Kim regime defies orders regarding nuclear weapons, or rumors surface about the execution of state officials, and watchful western eyes turn to the peninsula. But the media has almost no access to the general North Korean populace, a dearth which has fueled the DPRK-defector-memoir boom.
Nothing to Envy is unlike any other North Korea-related title I have read. It isn’t written by an infiltrator, and author Demick is no defector. Rather, Nothing to Envy compiles Demick’s interviews with a handful of fascinating individuals, whose relationships to the Kim regime range from devoted to apathetic.
The book provides a detailed look at the everyday realities of life in the Hermit Kingdom, from black market trading to electricity-free dates. Demick’s decades-long narrative humanizes and gives agency to a nation of people that western media tends to present as docile bodies, and does so while it provides condemning coverage of the DPRK’s oppressive policies. Nothing to Envy lives up to its promise of presenting the “Ordinary Lives” in the Hermit Kingdom, with relish.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
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Image: Matt Paish/flickr