Barbara Demick ‘Nothing to Envy’ Book Review

Article by Laura Kay. Edited by Zara Barua. Additional Research by Robyn Hall

This issue’s theme of ‘belief’ is all too fitting for anybody attempting to take a closer look at the inner workings of North Korea. Not only because of the intense and unwavering belief in the system which keeps North Korea so insular but also because of our own particular beliefs that we tend to project onto North Korea. Prior to reading this book my knowledge of North Korea was very modest, limited mainly to its portrayal in the popular media, in films and to brief references made during my study of the Korean War. Fundamentally, my knowledge has always come from the point of view of the west looking in but never from those who have known it themselves.

Kim Il-Sung

Nothing to Envy opens with the striking satellite image of Korea by night, North Korea appearing as a lone black hole amongst the bright lights of the countries around it. The idea of it as somewhat of a physical and geographical anomaly is a wholly appropriate backdrop for the breadth of disturbing, fascinating, inspiring but ultimately, entirely alien life stories, that Demick explores in this book. These accounts come from 10 years worth of interviews with North Korean defectors who are now living in South Korea and give an extraordinary insight into the impenetrable and unfamiliar world of North Korea. It becomes apparent that, to North Koreans, Kim Il Sung, the country’s ‘eternal president’ was not just a great leader but also a religious and god-like figure. This was even the case for some defectors, many of whom still carry a great deal of guilt. His death didn’t just bring sadness to the country but also immense shock, many found it impossible to comprehend that he was able to die. This, more than years of famine, poverty and mass death, resonated with North Koreans. And to some, it was this event which shattered the illusion of Juche, the ideology of self reliance which North Korea lives by. It no longer felt possible that the country could continue to survive alone without help from the international community. However, even more striking was the fact that people no longer believed that they were living in better circumstances than the rest of the world; a stalwart of North Korean propaganda being that they were better off than everyone else, even in a state of famine and economic catastrophe.

Current ruler of North Korea, Kim Jong-Il, with Vladimir Putin

Recounted in an accessible and digestible style following stories from housewives to students, orphans to doctors, Demick’s book reads like a gripping novel. Your attachment to the characters is all the greater because despite how far-fetched and implausible their stories may be, you know they are real and somehow they survived. Demick succeeds in compiling and re-telling these stories in such a way that whilst conveying the trials and tribulations her subjects suffered, she refrains from passing judgement and instead presents the stories as just that, stories. It is up to us as the reader to take whatever we can from them. This book could not be more highly recommended and the fact that it was this year’s winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non Fiction is testament to this brilliant work. Demick’s book gives a glimpse into this always fascinating, sometimes terrible world, and as the author herself touches upon, for the foreseeable future stories such as these are likely to be the only glimpse we will get.


Kim Il-Sung led North Korea from its founding in 1948 until his death. He ruled the nation with autocratic power and established a strong cult of personality. Following his death in 1994 he was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-Il.

North Korea’s people have often been called the world’s most brutalised people by leading Human Rights organisations.

It has been claimed that North Korea still uses prison camps that hold over 150,000 people and use torture, starvation, rape and medical experiments as punishments.

Barbara Demick is an American author and journalist and is currently Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. She reports mainly on human rights in North Korea and interviewed large numbers of refugees. She primarily focussed on economic and social changes inside North Korea.

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