Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives of North Koreans are Sad Indeed

I’m reading a book that gives me nightmares, yet it’s so compelling a story I have to keep reading. It’s an account of life in North Korea based on interviews with refugees who have defected to South Korea. It’s called Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Koreaby Barbara Demick.

Few Americans can even grasp the concept of a country that had such dire famine between 1995-2000 that people dropped dead at the railroad station, and people had to forage the woods and fields for grass, bark and insects to eat. There was simply no food, and for the most part, no electricity. A sad footnote is that nearly all of the country’s copper wire has already been stolen by starving peasants so even if they could generate power, the wires aren’t there any more.

Demick follows North Koreans of varying ages–one doctor, Dr. Kim, shrinks in height and weight due to lack of food, and when she finally gets to China she’s only 4′ 9″ and looks like a child–at 50. Every day her fellow doctors practice back alley abortions to earn a few won to buy food–their salaries are no longer being paid by the government, so they don’t worry about showing up for work. Dr Kim sees children slumped down at their desks, they have no food and are so weak they can’t go play at recess.

After 2000, the wave of North Koreans trying to escape across the Tumen river to China was a flood, and the North Korean guards were as desperate as the escapees, so they accepted bribes and even helped people cross at Musan, a gritty mining town in the far north. It only took several months of living in China to show a marked difference in how people looked. One refugee was startled when she saw a bowl of white rice with meat set out for a dog–she hadn’t eaten rice for two years and couldn’t believe they were feeding it to a dog.

Throughout the book these tipping points convince more and more North Koreans to flee–one man decided to go after seeing a photograph of South Korean protesters. He noticed that the ‘oppressed’ worker wore a jacket with a zipper and had a ballpoint pen in his pocket, both of which were luxuries at the time for poor regular North Koreans.

A sailor was on a boat that accidentally picked up a South Korean radio show, about two young women fighting over a parking spot. He couldn’t grasp the concept of a place with so many cars there was no room to park them. He had never known anyone who had their own private car–and certainly not young women. He defected a few years later.

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About Max Hartshorne

I am the editor of the travel website. And I am the owner of the GoNOMAD Cafe, a traveler's cafe in South Deerfield MA. I travel to a foreign country every month. I write articles and post daily blogs about the people I meet and the places I see.   When I get itchy, I fly away, but there's enough time to be here and run my beloved web businesses too. Follow me at
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