Cite this

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea Essay (Book Review)


The phrase ‘nothing to envy’ in the title of the book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea gives an immediate gist of the material that is about to be presented by its author Barbara Demick. The phrase suggests that nothing has been attractive about the life of Koreans for the last two decades. The setting of the book takes place in Seoul from 2001. The author who is an American journalist admits that he could not cover any story about North Korea while stepping on the North Korean soils since American journalists were simply not permitted there. Members of the public were not free. They often feared to discuss nothing about the administrative regime. Consequently, the tales presented in the book are based on the life experiences of people who defected to either China or South Korea. The purpose of this paper is to review Demick’s book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.

Social Setting of the Book

The book is set in a society that is completely engulfed with cloud of darkness to the extent that learning anything about it is impossible. The best extent to which one can directly collect information about the true life of the societies in North Korea is through satellite images perhaps because there is no means of blocking the satellites from taking the picture. Surprisingly, the Korean society is not underdeveloped. Demick is a witness to this assertion, as he claims Korea is actually a nation that has crawled out of the developed nations (Demick 7). Since the goal of the author is to reveal the darker side of North Korea, Demick specifically drew her interviewees from Chongjin, which is one of the largest towns in North Korea whose residents have encountered a myriad of challenges including the 1990s famine and the total closures from the rest of the world.

With the nature of the social setting of the book, it is apparent that the North Korean do not do anything at will. They are technically brainwashed by the authoritarian administration and hence the difference between North and South Korea and perhaps the divisions of North and South Korea. The divisions of Korea initiated after the Second World War when the US and Russia made a decision on what to do with Korea. The North assumed the Russian system of governance (communist) while the south assumed the US system of governance (democracy). Consequently, Korea remains divided even today with the south having the freedom of speech and movement. This case perhaps explains well why the defectors only give their true accounts of life in North Korea while on the soils of South Korea.

Summary of living conditions of North Korea between 1990 and 2000

The symbol of darkness by virtue of lack of electricity to light up even the main cities give vivid images of nature of North Korean life. Bearing in mind the presentation of the North Korean society this way, the title of the book is not coincidental. It is coined from the famous slogan adopted by Korean leaders “we have nothing to envy in the world” (Demick 83). This slogan was principally aimed at inspiring Korean people to remain independent. However, the description of the life of North Korea in the 1990s and 2000 by Demick reveals otherwise.

The North Korean life faded in 1990s when “the Soviet Union, which has propped up its cold communist with cheap fuel oil, collapsed” (Demick 7). From then, life in North Korea became unbearable for the citizens hence prompting them to start moving away from their homes heading towards South Korea and to their neighbors such as China. Unfortunately, closing the 2-mile long border between North Korea and South Korea is a sure indication that one would not return home. Closing it is the main challenge because of the movement controls existing in North Korea.

Any attempt to escape attracts hefty punishment such as imprisonment. Just as one cannot even today hop into a plane and travel to any place of his or her choice in North Korea, even in 1990 to 2000, as described by Demick, closing the 2-mile long no-man’s-land is an enormous challenge without a good reason. This case creates an impression that life in North Korea is like living in a place fenced with barbed wires, with ditches dug all around or surrounded by armed military. Any other stuff would ensure that one remains bound to the brainwashing system of administration never to know that life could be better elsewhere in other parts of the world.

Life in South Korea is completely a contrast of life in North Korea. There is an abundance of peace, electricity, food, and more importantly, the freedom of speech and travelling. In contrast, Demick claims that the collapse of North Korea led to the rusting of power stations and sending lights off thus making people scale “utility poles pilfer bits of copper wire to swap for food” (Demick 7). The old skeletal wire of the once operational power line grid acts as a vivid reminder of when North Korean people had more electricity and hence more to eat relative to their counterparts (South Korean) who now celebrate more food abundance. North Korea is simply a nation of hungry and immobile people!

Mini-biography of the six defectors profiled in Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

Mrs. Song

Mrs. Song is a pro-regime homemaker. She is a mother of four children who worked in a factory before it collapsed. She truly believed in Kim II-Sung as evidenced by Demick when she says that Mrs. Song “spouted the slogans of Kim II-Sung without any flicker of doubt” (Demick 30). Mrs. Song was born during the day when the Second World War ended, 15 August 1945 (Demick 31) in a family of six. She was brought up in Chongjin near a coerce station. Her father worked in this station as a professional mechanic. She lost her father when he still worked at the station when the Korean War broke.

The death of Mrs. Song’s father makes her develop a feeling of being the daughter of a “martyr of the fatherland liberation war” (Demick 31). This case perhaps well explains her true dedication to serve and proclaim the psyche of anti Americanism. She was sufficiently, poor to “qualify as one of the members of the downtrodden under the class that Kim II- Sung claimed to represent” (Demick 32). Consequently, she was keen never to marry anybody who did not subscribe to the same school of thought. Luckily, Chang-bo was introduced to her.

Chang-bo was specifically fit to be Mrs. Song’s future husband since, apart from being a graduate of the Kim II-Sung University, he was to become a career journalist since journalists were regarded as heroes, as they acted as mouthpieces of the prevailing regime. Mrs. Song’s life was simple: life of total devotion to the ruling regime. Irrespective of the odds, the regime was the true force of change and protection of the dignity of the North Koreans that was threatened by the Americans in her eyes.


Oak-Hee is the Mrs. Song’s rebellious daughter. She turns out to be the enterprising daughter in Mrs. Song’s family. Unlike her mother, she does not subscribe to the martyr school of thought. Indeed, “she could not tolerate the small stupidities that made life so grueling” (Demick 36). She believed that it was pointless to do anything beneficial in any way. In the eyes of Mrs. Song, Oak-Hee was individualistic in the sense that she refused to participate in collective family matches to sing and proclaim good things about the administrative regime into which her mother was so deeply ingrained.

From an occupation perspective, upon finishing her high school, Oak-Hee was lucky to secure a job at a “propaganda construction company” (Demick 37) via her father’s connections. Her job was prestigious since it never entangled the lifting of heavy objects. All she did was to write reports concerning the work teams at the company. In the effort to ensure that Oak-Hee’s life was secure, her parents sought to look for a good suitor who also subscribed to the same school of thought as they did.

In one of his business trips, her father met an engaging young man by the name Choi Yong-su who, according to Demick, came from a well up family situated in the north of Chongjin. He worked as a civilian worker for the army of Korean people (38). With this caliber, he thought that the man was indeed promising as he requested him to pay them a visit. Yong-Su and Oak-Hee were united in marriage in1988 following the norms of North Korean traditional styles. However, her marriage faced difficulties as she constantly ran back to her home. While pregnant, she lost her job.


Mi-ran is a thirty-one-year old woman who had defected from North Korea six years ago. She was born in 1973 in a family of four (all girls). Before defecting to South Korea, Mi-ran lived in North Korea in 2004 in the city of Suwon, which is located about 20 miles in the south of Seoul. Mi-ran is married to a South Korean who worked as a “civilian military employee” (Demick 10). She was three months pregnant at the time the author met her for an interview. Prior to the defection, Mi-ran’s occupation was in the teaching field where she worked as a kindergarten tutor in Suwon (a mining town and the home of the Korean electronics companies). At the time of the interview, she was pursuing an education graduate degree (Demick 11).

Mi-ran admits having had a fellow North Korean boyfriend whom she had met in her teen years. She is quick to pin point that, at 26, she did not even know how babies were conceived. Any intimacy relationship between two people of the opposite sex was simply prohibited. Although Mi-ran admits having trusted his North Korean boyfriend, she says that several secrets prevailed that she could not let loose. One of them was how disgusting she felt about the propaganda that she passed to her pupils. The most secretive one was her intentions to defect to South Korea.

In case she told someone about the intentions, who could tell another person, the repercussion was immeasurable. The rest of her family could be sent into “labor camp in the mountains” (Demick 11). Economically, the Mi-ran’s family life was not easy. Her father was a poor mineworker. This issue did not surprise Mi-ran since she admits that everyone else was also poor. She believed that life was not better anywhere else in the world. In case of some places such as South Korea where rumors claimed had an abundance of food, people were simply puppets of Americans, which stood out as an issue that Kim Il-Sung incredibly objected..


Jun-sang is Mi-ran’s Korean boyfriend. Similar to Mi-ran’s father and almost every other family man in the village where Jun-sang was born, his father worked in the mines. His parents were born in Japan in a “part of a population of ethnic Koreans that numbered about 2 million at the end of World War II” (Demick 26). While at Pyongyang, Jun-Sang lived a less challenging life since the movement prioritized feeding the people he believed could become future scientists. The dream of the government was that North Korea could be lifted from poverty through the efforts of such scientists. He was then lucky to have three meals in a day. He also enjoyed living in a heated dorm with the lights being switched off late in the night in comparison with other places to give them an opportunity to study.

Although Jun-sang had signed a bloody consensus that, together with other university students, he would volunteer for war, at 21, he was already skeptical about the various forms of government including Korea. Despite the fact that he questioned whether everyone felt true love for Kim II-Sung, he still believed that communalism was the best mechanism for allocation of resources in comparison to capitalism, a phenomenon that characterized South Korea.

Kim Hyuck

Kim Hyuck is a street-boy who was committed to an orphanage by his farther. He also gives an account of having stolen pears in an orchard. Kim II-Sung died when Kim Hyuck was only 12 years old and a first year pupil at “Chongjin’s Malum Middle School, the equivalent of the seventh grade” (Demick 68). School was not one of the places he liked, the reason being that there was hardly adequate food for him to bring with to school for lunch. While at school, he spent most of his time glaring outside from the window with thoughts running in his mind that, should he have been outside, he could have looked for something to eat. The best moments in his life were perhaps when a time came to visit the statue for Kim II-Sung because free rice cakes were given out, and that he would go back home full stomach.

Dr. Kim

As suggested by his name, Dr. Kim is a general practitioner at a small district hospital. The hospital where he worked was strategically located since it received an incredible share of patients who got injured in the commotions of people who gathered to pay respect to Kim II- Sung’s statue as the hospital was located only a “fifteen-minute walk away” (Demick 73) from Pohnag square. One of the fascinating experiences of Dr. Kim in her occupation was that lights were hardly on during the day, as a diversion of all power was vital to ensure that Kim II-Sung’s statue remained illuminated daylong. However, amid these challenges, as a young medical professional, at the age of 28, she strongly subscribed to his medical oath and hardly skipped duty apart from the few minutes when she went to pay respect to the statue.

Her life had been thrilling. She became a member of young pioneers at the age of seven. She graduated to become a member of young socialists’ league at the age of thirteen. She entered Chongjin University medical school while at a tender age of 16. She later completed the 7-year program and “started her apprenticeship at provision people’s hospital no.2” (Demick 74). Her love life was troubled culminating into a divorce a short time after marriage.


With the continual of authoritarian administration, the future of North Korea seems incredibly grim. Kim Jong-il is fully aware that North Korea continues to encounter a myriad of challenges including food shortages. Currently, suctions have been imposed on North Korea for its continued efforts to pursue the nuclear weaponry program. This argument attracts segregation from trade engagements with the rest of the world as an issue that disadvantages Korean residents. Conclusively, the authoritarian administrative regime that continues to preach the significance of isolation of North Korea from the impacts of Americanization of the world does more harm than the administration perceives. This revelation makes the future of North Korea have no hope unless democracy is installed in the collapsing state.

Works Cited

Demick, Barbara. Nothing to Envy; Ordinary Lives in North Korea. New York, NY: Spiegel and Grau, 2009. Print.

This book review on Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea was written and submitted by your fellow student.
This paper has been submitted by user Dirty Crane who studied at Colorado School of Mines, USA, with average GPA 3.32 out of 4.0.
You are free to use it for research and reference purposes in order to write your own paper; however, you must cite it accordingly.

Need a custom Book Review sample written from scratch by
professional specifically for you?

Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar
Writer online avatar

301 certified writers online

Cite This paper

Select a referencing style:


Crane, D. (2020, May 21). Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea [Blog post]. Retrieved from

Work Cited

Crane, Dirty. "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea." IvyPanda, 21 May 2020,

1. Dirty Crane. "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea." IvyPanda (blog), May 21, 2020.


Crane, Dirty. "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea." IvyPanda (blog), May 21, 2020.


Crane, Dirty. 2020. "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea." IvyPanda (blog), May 21, 2020.


Crane, D. (2020) 'Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea'. IvyPanda, 21 May.

Related papers