Nothing to Envy

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Nothing to Envy
Nothing to Envy.jpg
Author Barbara Demick
Country United States
Language English
Subject North Korea
Publisher Spiegel & Grau
Publication date
December 29, 2009
Pages 336pp (hardback)
ISBN 0385523904
951.93

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a part-novelization (2009) of interviews with refugees from Chongjin, North Korea, written by Los Angeles Times journalist Barbara Demick.[1][2] In 2010, the book was awarded the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. It was also a nonfiction finalist for the National Book Award in 2010.

The title comes from the children's theme song of the 1970 North Korean film We Have Nothing to Envy in the World (Korean: Sesang-e burom opsora 세상에 부럼 없어라).[3][4]

Demick interviewed more than 100 defectors and chose to focus on Chongjin because it is likely to be more representative than the capital Pyongyang.[2][5] Demick briefly discusses the examination of one of the female characters into a position of Kippumjo.[2] The events covered include the famine of the 1990s, with the final chapters describing the route the main characters took to Seoul and then an epilogue describing the effects of the November 30th 2009 currency reform.[2]

Narrative presentation[edit]

Demick's writing represents a well-researched body of work about lives from such a secretive country, with enough personal details of daily life in North Korea[6] not commonly found. Facts are presented to portray an accurate image of the state and plight North Koreans have faced, but also mentions brighter moments such hardships can create. For example, the author highlights a character's fond memories of courtship, in some ways only made possible by the power-outs and lack of electricity so common in the nation. Demick also had experience working as a journalist, often reporting on North Korea specifically, and the book features follow-up pieces of the featured characters' stories.

Absurdity[edit]

Throughout the book, Demick describes the harsh experiences her subjects faced, much of it stemming from the "Arduous March", which involved massive, chronic starvation, as well as more recent episodes of wide-scale economic plight caused by the North Korean government's currency 2009 revaluation, explained as "a trick". (p. 287) One character in particular, who considered herself loyal to socialist ideals, managed to survive and feed her family by repeatedly "starting another business". (p. 148)

Facts about such contextual conditions are provided and presented in an informative and telling journalistic style. Keen insight is also provided into the personal experiences, attitudes and views about events, such as one most North Koreans remember, of what it was like for them as individuals on the day Kim Il Sung died (p. 91), and how compulsive and competitive massive weeping rallies became in the days that followed. Such depictions of a deteriorating society are contrasted and weighed against personal loyalties, with one character comparing his love with liberty and life, as expressed by a Hungarian poet. (p. 279)

"Absurd" is often used as the way to portray the catalysts for such calamities in Nothing to Envy: "Along with rice and corn, soybeans have been banned from the market with the absurd explanation that they might be taken into China and resold to the enemy in South Korea." (p. 287) "The North Korean government offered a variety of explanations, from the patently absurd to the barely plausible." (p. 69) The name of the city where the featured interviewed characters originate from, Chongjin, means "clear river crossing", a strictly prohibited act of treason for its residents pertaining to the border between North Korea and China, yet risked by the book's characters.[2]

Dogs and doctors[edit]

Dr. Kim is another featured character who, through much of the book, also considers herself an ardent loyalist to North Korean socialism. As a doctor, particularly a busy one in a nation that has many people suffering from the effects of chronic starvation, lack of modern or even basic medicine, corruption and bribery (p. 218), her skills are in demand and is relatively higher on the social class compared to other characters in Nothing to Envy. "Her hospital became so strapped that it remained unheated, bandages were fashioned from cut-up bedding, and beer bottles substituted for IV pouches."[7][8]

At one point, Dr. Kim experiences a stark revelation. Her experience is captured to depict both her personal, psychological perspective, as well as suddenly realizing such drastic difference in societies she is confronted with:

She still wanted to believe that her country was the best place in the world. The beliefs she had cherished for a lifetime would be vindicated. But now she couldn't deny what was staring her plainly in the face: dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.

~ p. 220

Characters[edit]

The six main characters/interviewees of the book[2] are:

  • Mrs. Song - a pro-regime housewife, head of the block's inminban[9]
  • Oak-Hee - Mrs. Song's rebellious, yet eventually enterprising, daughter
  • Mi-ran - daughter of a kaolin miner, a South Korean POW, so with bad songbun[10] disqualifying her from advancement
  • Jun-sang - a student with Zainichi Korean ancestry and Mi-Ran's boyfriend in North Korea
  • Kim Hyuck - a street-boy whose father commits him to an orphanage
  • Dr. Kim - a doctor with relatives in China

Representation in other media[edit]

An animated feature film based on the book and sharing the same title[11] will be directed by Andy Glynne.

Chongjin[edit]

The author chose to interview defectors from the city of Chongjin, because the national capital city of Pyongyang, where whatever little information that is available about North Korea typically emanates from, is a Potemkin village. The North Korean government divides the population into many classes, and only high class elites are permitted to live in Pyongyang.[2] Chongjin is North Korea's third largest city and an industrial center for what little the nation manufactures. Demick mentions Chongjin prisons in Nothing to Envy, including the political prison camp Kwan-li-so No. 26, Chongori reeducation camp Kyo-hwa-so No. 12, and the Nongpo Detention Center.[2]

Honors & awards[edit]

Reception[edit]

Nothing to Envy has been widely praised, including accolades from Mail on Sunday,[15] Herald, the Tribune, Sunday Times, Spectator, Irish Times, Jung Chang, Lindsey Hilsum (International Editor, Channel 4 News), Scotsman, Waterstone's Books Quarterly, Literary Review, New Statesman, Scotland on Sunday, Daily Telegraph, Guardian, The Times and Financial Times. The New Yorker and Paris Review have published excerpts of Nothing to Envy.[16][17]

Publication & sales[edit]

Nothing to Envy ranks at #3,396 on the Amazon Best Sellers Rank overall,[18] with an estimated minimum of 25 to 70 copies sold per day.[19]

Within the category of Books > History > Asia > Korea, it is #6.[20] In Books > Politics & Social Sciences > Anthropology > Cultural it is ranked #4.[21]

In Books > Politics & Social Sciences > Politics & Government > Specific Topics > Human Rights, it is #7, and #7 in Books > Education & Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing > Journalism & Nonfiction as well.[22]

Alternative Cover[edit]

European publisher Granta Books also published the book in 2010, featuring a different photo on the cover.

Granta Books publishing cover

The design was by Dan Mogford, and photographed by Eric Lafforgue. The ISBN of this publishing is 978-1-84708-141-4.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Nothing to Envy". Retrieved 21 November 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Demick, Barbara (2009). Nothing to Envy; Ordinary Lives in North Korea. Spiegel and Grau. ISBN 978-0-385-52390-5. 
  3. ^ Travels in Korea, Masatsugu Matsumoto, 1977, "Before leaving for the Republic two films — the documentary New Korea (Parts 1 and 2) and the feature film We Have Nothing to Envy in the World — had been put on the screen for the first time in only one cinema house for a short time."
  4. ^ Korea: tradition & transformation : a history of the Korean people, Andrew C. Nahm, 1996, "The lyrics of the children's song entitled "We Have Nothing to Envy in the World " reads as follows: Skies are blue..."
  5. ^ Rank, Michael (3 April 2010). "Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 21 November 2010. 
  6. ^ "In New Book, N. Korea Seen Through Defectors' Eyes: NPR". January 6, 2010. Retrieved 1 April 2014. 
  7. ^ Winslow, Art (10 January 2010). "Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick - Los Angeles Times". Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  8. ^ "A glimpse inside a North Korean Hospital: Shanghaiist". Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  9. ^ wikt:인민반장 : 북한 의 사회 문화. 세종연구소. 북한연구센터 - 2006 p514 "인민 반장 은 소속 주민들 의 추천 형식 을 거쳐 시 · 귄 구역 ) 인민 위원회 에 서 지명 하며 , 대부분 직장 에 나가지 않는 ..."
  10. ^ wikt:출신성분제도 : 임현진 북한 의 체제 전환 과 사회 정책 의 과제 2008 page 179 "치가 등장 했고 , 이에 따라 출신 성분 에 따른 사회적 불평등 은 줄어들고 있는 것으로 보인다."
  11. ^ NothingtoEnvy.net
  12. ^ "Winner Samuel Johnson Prize". Retrieved 1 April 2014. 
  13. ^ "Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea - 2010 National Book Award Nonfiction Finalist, The National Book Foundation". Retrieved 1 April 2014. 
  14. ^ David Varno (10 March 2011). "National Book Critics Circle: National Book Critics Circle Awards: Nonfiction Winner, 2010". Retrieved 1 April 2014. 
  15. ^ Peter Lewis (11 August 2010). "The country where birthdays are banned: Its people are brainwashed, dirt-poor and starving. Now a prize-winning book reveals for the first time the shocking inside story of North Korea". Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 1 April 2014. 
  16. ^ "The Good Cook". Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  17. ^ "Not Like I Don't Like You". Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  18. ^ "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea: Barbara Demick: 9780385523912: Amazon.com: Books". Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  19. ^ "Sales Ranking Chart". Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  20. ^ "Amazon Best Sellers: Best Korean History". Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  21. ^ "Amazon Best Sellers: Best Cultural Anthropology". Retrieved 31 March 2014. 
  22. ^ "Amazon Best Sellers: Best Journalism Writing Reference". Retrieved 31 March 2014.