Review: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North KoreaNothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Nothing to Envy" is the most depressing book in the world.

Following the lives of six ex-pat North Koreans who, through luck and perseverance, managed to get out through China and to South Korea (where they are automatically citizens), "Nothing to Envy" chronicles the rise and fall of the last Soviet Communist State who has managed, somehow, to hang on when dictators world over are falling. At first, Kim Il-Jong’s make-believe Communist Paradise, established in 1958 and propped up by the Russians, looked like a Korean Miracle. Built on top of left behind Japanese trains, electrical lines, factories, and roads, the Communist experiment looked, from the outside, to actually work: the per capita of those in North Korea was higher than South Korea as South Korea went through its post-Korean War growing pangs. Sure everyone in North Korea was pigeon-holed based on the allegiances of their grandparents and their opportunities in life granted or removed based on some superficial caste almost as harsh as found in India, but the people were fed, everyone had health care, people had jobs and school, and the trains ran on time.

Then three things happened: the Soviet Union fell, Kim Il-Jong died, and Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms in China caused China’s economy to rapidly expand. North Korea never was anything more than a puppet state; it never made or sold anything itself. The moment the money dried up and North Korea’s allies became more interested in money than a Communist experiment, North Korea began to starve. Everyone starved. Hundreds of thousands died. And the government never relented to feed its people, all for ideology.

The six very personal stories chronicles the period of intense starvation and the re-discovery of capitalist markets in North Korea from 1991 to the present day. All of the people featured in the book, some young and some old enough to remember the Korean War, are all survivors, tough enough to survive the famines, cross the border into China, and sneak all the way to South Korea. "Nothing to Envy" chronicles extreme poverty under crushing 1984 conditions where, even while starving, a stray word against the government meant a trip to the Gulag. Televisions are fixed to only one TV station, radios only get the North Korean State station (but easy to hack), cellphones banned, no computers, and the people are sealed in a hermetic bubble. It doesn’t matter, though: electricity is so rare people steal the copper out of the power lines to sell for black market rice. The electricity hasn’t been on in twenty years. Cities crumble, trains die on the tracks, and the factories sit idle. There aren’t any cars. North Korea is a wasteland.

After reading this book, it’s unclear how reunification would work. North Korea is a poverty-stricken nation stuck in the 1960s and reunification would mean retraining some 23 million people in how to exist in the 21st century. Estimates are between $800 billion and $1.3 trillion to rebuild North Korea to a livable, workable standard. It’s not the de-brainwashing as much as the sheer rebuilding.

"Nothing to Envy" is a very sad book about a very sad place run by a madman who would rather his country be ideologically pure than his people eat. It’s unlikely North Korea will survive another change of hands considering how China is leaking in over the northern border and running North Korea’s black markets — the only source of food they have. But when it does happen, it will be a real mess. North Korea is a humanitarian disaster.

Recommended for anyone interested in what life is like in North Korea.

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