Cover image of "Nothing to Envy," a book about daily life in north korea

If anyone ever tries to tell you that politics doesn’t matter, I suggest you raise the case of North Korea. Now, I don’t mean the big abstracts like “Communism” and “dictatorship” and “rogue state.” I’m referring to the little things, the daily life in North Korea individual people who are caught up in the unique political environment called “North Korea.” Here are a few glimpses snatched from Barbara Demick’s brilliant study of the subject:

  • The elementary schoolteacher whose class shrank from 50 to 15 in the depth of the famine in 1997-99 because the children had first lost the energy to walk to school—and then simply died.
  • The doctor who was instructed by her superior at a hospital not to squander scarce penicillin on a man dying of a bacterial infection because he was a “class criminal.”
  • The five-foot-tall man who was accepted into the North Korean Army because its height requirement had been lowered in the early 1990s due to the stunting of the younger generation.
  • The young couple, desperately in love for more than a decade, who both had plans to defect to South Korea but were so schooled in distrust that neither could confide in the other—with the result that they met again only years later in the South.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (2009) 336 pages ★★★★★ 

North Korean image of soldiers goose-stepping, an image counter to the realities of daily life in north korea
Goose-stepping soldiers and missile launches show up in Western media, giving a militant impression of the country. But this book depicts another reality, that lived by ordinary people. Image: NK News

The travails of daily life in north korea

Nothing to Envy—the title is taken from a North Korean children’s song extolling the virtues of the Fatherland—is based on Barbara Demick’s work as a reporter over eight years for the Los Angeles Times. Demick made nine trips to North Korea from 2001 to 2008 and interviewed approximately 100 North Korean defectors, most of them now living in South Korea or China. Nothing to Envy revolves around the stories of six individuals from the northeastern city of Chongjin, formerly a heavy industrial center where all the factories and all the businesses closed in succession as the country’s economic crisis steadily deepened over the years.

The stories told in Nothing to Envy cast a bright light on the tragedy of North Korea. They make for compelling reading. And they make it abundantly clear why politics matters.

About the author

Photo of Barbara Demick, author of this book about daily life in North Korea
Barbara Demick. Image: New York Review of Books

American journalist Barbara Demick gained her knowledge of daily life in North Korea when she established the Los Angeles Times‘ first bureau chief in the country in 2001. Nothing to Envy was the second of her three books and garnered numerous awards. She had previously won the George Polk Award for international reporting from Eastern Europe. Demick holds a bachelor’s degree in economic history from Yale.

For further reading

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