If you look at satellite photographs of
the far east by night, you'll see a large
splotch curiously lacking in light.
Nothing to Envy
by Babara Demick
Reading Nothing to Envy one is struck again and again by the question just how can this be happening in the 21st century? How can a nation next door to one of the the most advanced on the planet be so backward? How can so many people, not just in Korea I suppose, allow this to go on? What possesses men like Kim Jong-il to continue mis-treating his own people? Surely he must realize that his name will go down in history alongside the most villainous, monstrous criminal dictators.
Because North Korea is such a closed, secretive society, Ms. Demick must rely on personal stories of those who have escaped it to paint her picture of life there. The kinds of statistics most authors would normally use to assess conditions in North Korea are simply unavailable. To her credit, Ms. Demick is up front about this from the start and honest about the limitations of relying solely on the eyewitness accounts of a relatively small group of people. Few manage to escape from North Korea and fewer still make it to South Korea where Ms. Demick was able to interview them. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable and anecdote should never be mistaken for evidence, but Ms. Demick does her best with the stories she has found to put together a fairly comprehensive portrait of life for average people in North Korea.
It's not a pretty picture. In fact, it's down right horrible. But it's also a compelling read and may be an important one. While it's easy to agree with former president Bush that North Korea deserves to be called evil, it's difficult to conceive of it ever being a serious threat to anyone. Not anymore. While the country was once doing fairly well, it fell on very hard times once communism began collapsing all over the world and the former communist powers stopped propping up the regime in North Korea. When Nothing to Envy was written the nation was in the midst of a famine, an economic crisis that left just about everyone unpaid if not unemployed, and a series of power failures that kept the lights off all over the nation for all but a few hours each month. Just how can that happen in the 21st century?
Satellite image of the Korean Peninsula
with the borders of North and South
Unless they manage to get to the border with China. During the severe famine that struck North Korea, some of those Ms. Demick writes about managed to make it to the riverside town at the border of North Korea and China. They could stand, starving in North Korea and look across the river at the rows of corn and other produce growing tall in China. One starving woman makes it across the river to the home of a farmer where she finds a dog bowl full of rice and meat near the gate of the house. The dog bowl is full of more food than she has had in some time. She immediately decides to abandon her life in North Korea forever.
While their stories are harrowing, because Ms. Demick's book is based on the lives of those who escaped, there are generally happy endings all around, bittersweet perhaps, but happy. Kim Jong-il can't last forever. One hopes for more happy endings for ordinary people in North Korea very soon.