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Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

02 June 2013

I just finished reading Nothing to Envy, a compelling saga that weaves North Korean history together with accounts of the lives of a handful of individuals growing up in, first admiring but eventually leaving, what they came to regard as a repressive society.

North Korean culture is described as a sort of communistic monarchy: everything the citizens needed in life was to be regulated or supplied by the government, and further, everything was to be grown, built, or developed entirely within North Korea. To conduct business yourself? Illegal. To import goods from other countries? Illegal. But just so long as the government made available everything that you needed, why should you bother buying or selling independently?

The people greatly esteemed their nation’s leader Kim Il-sung and his claims to provide for all of their needs, though they had little choice. Government staff and citizen volunteers kept a close watch on the people, to ensure that they never said or did anything that opposed the official government-mandated way of life. There were even monitor guards to ensure that every home properly maintained a government-supplied portrait of Kim Il-sung, and that every citizen was wearing their Kim Il-sung lapel pin.

Televisions were rare, and physically modified by the government to pick up only North Korean broadcasts. School books rewrote history to paint the nation in a light more favorable than reality, and other nations in a light less favorable than reality. With all goods being produced strictly in-house, a wide variety of items that were commonplace elsewhere, including writing paper, pencils, books, and shoes, were scarce. Bibles were forbidden, as was Christianity: Kim Il-sung himself became a god-like figure to the people.

The government’s attempt to provide for the people worked reasonably well for several decades, until in the 1990s a growing famine reduced the government’s ability to provide food. Along with the food went most of the money, although people were still required to show up at their (now unpaid) jobs. Electricity became unreliable and inconsistently available. Sewage treatment broke down. Water became scarce. As the famine progressed, with people of all ages suffering from (and eventually dying from) severe malnutrition, North Koreans eventually came to ignore the government rules against producing their own food and conducting their own business, and slowly began to fend for themselves. The abject failure of communism led to people finding their way into their own free-market economy.

Life in North Korea improved, largely due to the homegrown free market economy and leaders grudgingly allowing foreign aid to replenish the almost non-existent food supply, but after several years of increase the government decided that things had to be brought back into order. They squelched the new free market in favor of returning to the strong socialistic lifestyle of years past, clamping down on individual business and reasserting the authority of the government to be the provider for its citizens.

The book explains this history through exemplary life stories of several people, including a teenage girl who grows up to become a schoolteacher, extolling the greatness of North Korea to her students until she doesn’t believe it herself anymore; a university student who gets his hands on American books and South Korean television broadcasts, persuading him against North Korean society; a medical doctor who grows weary of trying to save lives in a land where government regulations result in intense malnutrition affecting nearly the entire population; a mother who loses her husband and her son to the famine, and turns to illegal black market entrepreneurship selling cookies to make ends meet for herself and her daughters.

As these people lived through both the relative success of classical North Korean communism, and its absolute failure, they realized that their homeland wasn’t everything the government propaganda made it out to be. Bit by bit they came to believe that life in the surrounding nations of China and especially South Korea would be much more to their liking, and fought against social norms and government guards to relocate, often at great personal and/or financial expense.

A reader might assume that, upon fleeing North Korea, such defectors would be universally happy to be free, never to return. Many defectors, though, maintained confidence in the fundamental ideals of North Korean government, and hoped that the government would open up enough to allow them to return with impunity, to help rebuild their broken home.

Based on the popular news media, it’s easy for outsiders to depersonalize North Korea as a mysterious place totally unlike anything we may be familiar with. Reading this book provides an in-depth look at how people there actually live, showing very recognizable hopes, dreams, and desires.

Clinging to my library of pulverized trees, I read the paperback edition, but this book has very few photographs and would be plenty readable in electronic edition as well.