The hardships of living in a once modern country that no longer has enough reliable electricity to cool its citizen’s home refrigerators or run the now defunct factories where they used to work are more than I could have imagined and heart-rending, but there is at least one advantage. When the sun sets the country goes completely dark, it’s a blank spot on nighttime satellite photos and the starry sky must be amazing to see, which provides cover to young teenage lovers who otherwise would be prevented from meeting by their scared conservative families, their class conscious society, and their frighteningly punitive government.
North Korea is one of the most culturally isolated nations on the planet, which makes this poignant and descriptive book about the personal lives and families of six former residents of Chonhjin, a city in a northern outpost of the country far from what any foreigner would see, a testament to Barbara Demick’s patience, perseverance, and humanity. While working as a journalist in South Korea Demick was able to meet and spend considerable time with of many former residents of that region–her reasoning was that she would be able to verify facts more easily if she talked to people who were all connected to one place–and she’s created a surprisingly complete and moving picture of their lives.
Part of what makes the book so interesting is how varied the six people Demick profiles are. Some lived on the fringes of North Korean society even before the famine and infrastructure breakdown, others were formerly loyal party members only gradually disillusioned by the dysfunction and corruption of their government, and two were teenage lovers who could only meet in darkness.
The North Korean government does not come off well in this book, but neither do the Allied powers who made such a mess of Korea after WWII and then followed it up with the devastating Korean War. Dystopian fiction pales next to the gripping real stories told in Nothing to Envy, but since the people Demick talked with were resourceful during their almost unimaginable difficulties and have all escaped to make new lives in South Korea the book isn’t flatly bleak.