I recently realized that it's been a long time since I've read any nonfiction, despite having an abundance of nonfiction titles on my to-read list. I've been wanting to read Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea after seeing it featured on several bookstores' shelves and sporadically running across interesting articles and photo series depicting life in the insular North Korea. Demick tells the narrative of life as a North Korean through the eyes of six defectors, covering the county's history from its split with the rest of the peninsula to the present day.
One of the first things I realized from this book was that Demick's writing style was going to be very easy to understand. She opens with a history of the Korean War and how, essentially, North Korea is all our fault. It was Americans that chose the dividing line, causing ideologies to flock to each pole—communism in the North, capitalism in the South. Overall, Demick's quick overview gave me a better understanding of the Korean conflict than AP US History did back in high school.
The second thing I realized from this book was I never knew I could feel so hungry.
Much of the narrative covers the North Korean famine of the 1990s. She went into great anecdotal detail of how her subjects had to scavenge for food, creatively finding ways to fill their stomachs. And how sadly, most of them didn't even realize that this wasn't normal. They were part of such a cult of worship, utterly trusting in their government and beloved leaders, that it was never even a consideration to blame the government. Many pages are filled with the day-to-day struggles North Koreans had to endure as they fought to survive even as an incredibly repressive regime watched their every move.
What's so interesting is how long these rules of society remained, despite the desperation—rules against personal relationships, voiced opinions, and outlawed media; all things that are trivial when you're literally fighting for your life. It's as if the government expected people to just not notice the hunger and go one with their daily lives.
There was, of course, a breaking point for many, and this led citizens to begin escaping to neighboring China or South Korea. The stories of these journeys are perhaps the most interesting part of the novel, as you learn the risks, sacrifices, and hardships along the way. What's even more interesting, though, is that the number of defectors is still an incredibly small portion of the North Korean population. There's something that is keeping many citizens where they are, and it's fascinating—and frightening—to think about the strength of this mental influence.
I thought Demick's narrative style was a compelling, though terrifying, way to tell the story, because you are put in these particular shoes, following their footsteps. I was flabbergasted with the realization that I was alive during this. Not just alive because I was alive when the Berlin Wall fell. But alive as a conscious and aware individual that had the capacity to learn and understand such a situation. It seems so recent for such a terrible atrocity. This was an easy to follow, though sometimes difficult to read, solid piece of nonfiction that illuminates a mind-boggling reality.