Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Award-winning journalist Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years-a chaotic period that saw the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of his son Kim Jong-il, and a devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Demick brings to life what it means to be living under the most repressive totalitarian regime today-an Orwellian world that is by choice not connected to the Internet, where displays of affection are punished, informants are rewarded, and an offhand remark can send a person to the gulag for life. Demick takes us deep inside the country, beyond the reach of government censors, and through meticulous and sensitive reporting we see her subjects fall in love, raise families, nurture ambitions, and struggle for survival. One by one, we witness their profound, life-altering disillusionment with the government and their realization that, rather than providing them with lives of abundance, their country has betrayed them. (Backcover)
Year of Publication
Number of Pages
Spiegel & Grau
Average: 5 (3 votes)


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North Korea: A Modern Day 1984

Field of Interest/Specialty: High School English and History Education
Posted On: 12/10/2019

High School English/ History Teacher
Honors English 11, Honors English 12, and AP US History or AP European History (alternating years)
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick is an award winning novel about the lives of people in one of the most repressive totalitarian regimes during our lifetime. Demick does an excellent job writing in a narrative style that upper level students will find engaging and informative. She skillfully retells events surrounding the lives of six North Korean citizens as they become disillusioned with events in North Korea and decided to defect to South Korea. I feel that this would be a high interest book for upper level students because the of the content matter, as well as the extreme hardship and perseverance demonstrated by all six individuals in the book.
I think that this would be a great non-fiction companion piece to pair with readings of 1984, by George Orwell, or any other novel that deals with dictatorships, propaganda, and dystopian societies. North Korea is a true dystopia in the same fashion as the superstates and Big Brother in 1984. There is absolute control of all information to ensure absolute power. The correlations between both the fiction and nonfiction novel are eerily uncanny. The regimes of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are exactly the type of dictatorial regime that Orwell envisions when writing his cautionary tale.
This book would also be useful to help students understand the complexities of life in a totalitarian dictatorship. Demick puts a human face on a regime and people that are shrouded in secrecy and propaganda. This book will help students be able to visualize the lives of average North Koreans. Additionally, it will allow students to better comprehend why the citizens of North Korea do not rebel against their repressive regime.

Nothing to Envy: A Student's Perspective

Field of Interest/Specialty: Broadly East Asia
Posted On: 09/25/2019

Nothing to Envy by Seoul-based Los Angeles Times reporter Barbara Demick explores the realities of life in modern North Korea through the novelization of defector narratives. The book follows the story of the industrial town of Chongjin –– among the hardest hit by North Korea’s recurring and ravaging famines –– through splices extracted from interviews with refugees and Demick’s brief visits to the country throughout her years as a journalist. It is difficult to report on the travesties of the North Korean regime without, consciously or unconsciously, provoking pity. However, Nothing to Envy, while staying true to the devastation of a dynasty that would rather starve and suppress rather than support, is not only a story of sadness, but one of hope.
Demick finds unique ways to unite the diverse narratives of the defectors whose stories influenced her writing, almost to the point at which it seems that their stories are, in one way or another, connected. In doing so, she is able to portray a varied kaleidoscope of the human experience in North Korea, from the tale of a boy sent by his father to an orphanage in NK’s supreme north to that of a devout loyalist who scrutinizes her neighborhood on behalf of “the Party”. As a result, the novel is able to loop in many of the societal problems that face the regime: the underground food market, smuggling of goods across the NK-China border, and political unrest. However, because Demick takes a narrative approach, the book reads less like a nonfiction expose nor journalism piece, but as a story. Her writing takes a humanistic approach to an issue, and a country, that is so often looked at in a Western context through a lens of surrealism.
It is accepted as fact that North Korean perceptions of America are shrouded in propaganda and political agendas. However, we often overlook the ways in which our own viewpoints are influenced by the literature, news, and media we consume. Nothing to Envy approaches difficult issues in a way that both stays true to the realities of North Korean life while also embracing international relations as one always should, starting with people. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Nothing to Envy Review

Field of Interest/Specialty: Work Projects
Posted On: 06/19/2019

Oliver Jia, NCTA Student Worker
Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy is always at the top of my list when I recommend books about North Korea. Most works deal with the political or ideological elements of the Kim regime, but few are dedicated to the lives of ordinary North Koreans who are normal people like everyone else. Demick demystifies the secretive country by highlighting individual stories which feel real and completely relatable. Readers soon realize that North Koreans have the same hopes, dreams, and worries as those in any other country, but are trapped in a set of brutally difficult circumstances which are nearly impossible to escape from.
Demick’s breadth of reporting and dedication to detail are particularly impressive. Even for classes that don’t have a focus on North Korea or East Asia, it would be particularly useful in a journalism course. Some of the content is particularly dark and depressing, but nothing that I think would be too much for those around the 8th grade level to handle. The language is easy to understand, but well-written and a good example of how narrative can be used to tell a factual journalistic story. I think that educators will be able to find many uses for Nothing to Envy and it comes highly recommended for classroom use.