Monday, December 11, 2017

Book Recommendation: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

I recently read Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, a 2009 book by Barbara Demick. It focuses on six defectors and is a harrowing account of daily life in North Korea, especially during the devastating famine of the 1990s. The book is well-written and reads like a novel. The author states that she modeled the book Hiroshima by John Hersey, who was a professor of hers at Yale. 
This book is not a political analysis of the current problems the world has with North Korea. It is, however, a devastating portrait of life under a totalitarian regime. The author does not offer much hope that this regime will end soon. Reading Demick's book is a reminder that totalitarianism is not something that only occurred in the past. It is also a stark reminder of the power of propaganda, especially when information is controlled.
The control of information by the North Korean government and its chaperoned visits for journalists makes reporting on North Korea extraordinarily difficult. The author therefore chose to interview defectors. This prompts the criticism that defectors have biases which skews their accounts of life in North Korea. However, Demick seems to have chosen well the six defectors whose stories she recounts. One woman in particular was a true believer in the North Korea regime and only changes her mind during the famine and then, even more so,  after being tricked by her daughter into defecting to South Korea. 
The recounting of the famine of the 1990s is particularly disturbing and detailed. Most readers will probably not have been aware of the extent of the devastation and deaths it caused.
As for unifying the Korean peninsula, there would be difficulties. The two Koreas have grown apart, and the costs to South Korea would be enormous. The economic disparities between the two Koreas is much greater than the differences between West and East Germany prior to unification. Also, the hardships of living in North Korea has caused there to be noticeable differences in the physical appearance of those living in the North and the South.
In an afterword written in 2015, Demick writes: “North Korea watchers debate whether conditions inside the country are getting better or worse, or even changing at all. What is not in doubt is that the government still goes to great lengths to deceive foreign visitors.” It is perhaps time for Demick or some other journalist to write a new book about North Korea.

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